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Adam Dant’s Map Of Walbrook

January 26, 2014
by the gentle author

Click on Adam Dant’s map to enlarge it and study the detail

Inspired by a visit to see the recent discoveries that Museum of London Archaeology Service excavated from the City of London’s largest building site at the location of the Roman port, cartographer extraordinaire Adam Dant has drawn this map of Walbrook illustrating people and events from two thousand years of history in this ancient corner of the capital. And, as a bonus, I have appended my account of a journey in search of the river Walbrook.

Adam Dant stands at the pump in Shoreditch Churchyard which marks the source of the Walbrook, before setting out with his map of the Roman City of Londonium to trace the route of the lost river

Beneath the Bank of England

Ever since the Rev Turp pointed out to me the spot outside Shoreditch Church where the river Walbrook had its wellspring, I have been curious to discover what happened to this lost river which once flowed from here through the City to the Thames. This photograph of the Walbrook, which was taken by Steve Duncan, the urban explorer, deep beneath the Bank of England in 2007, gives the answer. The river has been endlessly covered over and piped off, until today it is entirely co-opted into the system of sewers and drains.

Yet in spite of this, the water keeps flowing. Irrespective of our best efforts to contain and redirect water courses, the movement of water underground always eludes control. A fascinating detail of this photo, which shows the sewer deep below the City, built in the eighteen forties, is that today the water table in the City has risen to the level where water is actually pouring from the surrounding earth into the tunnel between the bricks.With astonishing courage, Steve Duncan enters these secret tunnels through manhole covers and undertakes covert explorations, bringing back photos of the unseen world that he finds down there, as trophies. I was captivated by this nightmarish subterranean image, which reminded me that the primordial force of nature that this river manifests still demands respect.

Lacking Steve’s daredevil nature and experience in potholing, I decided to keep my exploration above ground, following the path of the river and seeing what sights there are to be discovered upon the former banks of this erstwhile tributary of the Thames. The Walbrook has attracted its share of followers over the years, from anti-capitalist protestors who attempted to liberate the river by opening hydrants along its route, to milder gestures adopted by conceptual artists, sacrificing coins to the river through storm drains and releasing fleets of paper boats into the sewers.

The historian John Stow is the primary source of information about the Walbrook, writing in his “Survey of London” in 1598 – though even in his time it was already a lost river, “The running water so called by William Conquerour in his saide Charter, which entereth the citie,&c. (before there was any ditch) betweene Bishopsgate and the late made Posterne called Mooregate, entred the wall, and was truely of the wall called Walbrooke… it ranne through the citie with divers windings from the North towards the South into the river of Thames… This water course having diverse Bridges, was afterwards vaulted over with bricke, and paved levell with the Streetes and Lanes where through it passed, and since that also houses have beene builded thereon, so that the course of Walbroke is now hidden under ground, and therby hardly knowne.”

Arriving at St Leonard’s Shoreditch, as the first drops of water from the ominous lowering clouds overhead began to fall, the Rev Turp’s description of the poisoning of the Walbrook (when seepage from the seventy-six thousand human remains in the churchyard found its way into the watercourse) came to mind. The Walbrook, which entered through the wall beside the church of All Hallows on the Wall, was the only watercourse to flow through the City and was both an important source of freshwater as well as a conduit to remove sewage, two entirely irreconcilable functions.

There is no evidence of the route of the brook outwith the wall and so I walked straight down Curtain Rd, entering the City at London Wall, with the church of All Hallows on the Wall to my left. I turned right on London Wall, where the brook was once channeled along the wall itself. At Copthall Avenue, I turned left where the watercourse flowed South down through Token House Yard, under St Margaret’s Church and the Bank of England. As I left Copthall Avenue to walk through the maze of narrow lanes, including Telegraph Alley and Whalebone Alley, the changing scale indicated I was entering the ancient city. Then I enjoyed a breathtaking moment as I passed through the dark low passage into Token House Yard, discovering a long tall street with cliffs of grey buildings on either side, that ended in the towering edifice of the Bank of England.

From here, I walked down Princes St to emerge at the front of the Bank facing the Mansion House, basking for a moment in the drama of this crossroads, before walking onwards down Poultry past Grocer’s Hall and then turning left to arrive at the Temple of Mithras. Just an outline in stone today, the former temple which was discovered in 1954 on the bank of the Walbrook, eighteen feet below modern ground level – a miraculous survival of two millennia, standing at the head of the navigable river where barges were berthed in Roman times .

At the time of these excavations, a square token of lead with the name Martia Martina carved backwards on it was found, once thrown into the Walbrook – in Celtic culture this was believed to bring bad luck to the subject. Also, in the eighteen sixties, Augustus Pitt Rivers uncovered a large number of human skulls in the river bed, which could be either those of a Roman legion who surrendered to the Britons or the remnants of Boudica’s rebellion. Both these finds may reflect a spiritual significance for the watercourse.

Next stop for me was Christopher Wren’s church of St Stephen Walbrook on the far bank of the Walbrook. My favourite of his City churches, this is always a place to savour a moment of contemplation, beneath the changing light of the dome that appears to float, high up above the roof. The name of this street, Walbrook, within the ward of Walbrook confirms beyond doubt that you are in the vicinity of the lost river, and from here it is a short walk down Cloak Lane by way of College Hill to Walbrook Wharf on the riverfront below Cannon St Station, where the Walbrook meets the river Thames. In the end, whatever route they came by, this is where the raindrops that fell outside Shoreditch Church arrived eventually.

I am entranced by the romance of the lost river Walbrook – even if it may have been a stinking culvert rather than the willow-lined brook of my imagination – because when you are surrounded by the flashy overbearing towers of the City, there remains a certain frail consolation in the knowledge that ancient rivers still flow underground beneath your feet.

Shoreditch Church once stood upon the bank of the Walbrook

All Hallows on the Wall where the Walbrook entered the City of London

The passage from Whalebone Alley to Token House Yard

Approaching the Bank of England

The Roman temple of Mithras upon on the bank of the Walbrook

St Stephen Walbrook

Christopher Wren’s church of St Stephen Walbrook with altar by Henry Moore

The dome of St Stephen Walbrook

The City of London’s largest building site upon the location of the Roman port

Walbrook Wharf where the Walbrook enters the Thames

13 Responses leave one →
  1. January 26, 2014

    Great article, but so sad to see how little London – and many Londoners – care about their history. Valerie

  2. January 26, 2014

    Oh, I think that’s a little unfair, Valerie. The Gentle Author brings London to the attention of many Londoners, as well as those of us who live further away. And look how many of the people about whom the author writes care deeply about their own community, and the wider city beyond.

  3. Achim permalink
    January 26, 2014

    Adam Dant’s Maps are really a special and unique kind of observation and historical description!

    Love & Peace to you all
    ACHIM

  4. Deborah Fyrth permalink
    January 26, 2014

    I’m utterly fascinated by the lost rivers of London. Another great piece from The Gentle Author.

  5. James permalink
    January 26, 2014

    Most etymologists think the word Walbrook predates the Norman Conquest. It combined two elements; Wal which they think has the same root as Wealh as in Wales and CornWALL and means “Britons”; and Brook which is a word derived from Welsh “bryn” meaning a stream. Tradition has it that when the Anglo-Saxon kings of Essex took Londinium they found Britons living in the old Roman city with this stream running through it. The city became Lundenburg and the new Saxon district was Lundenwych (now renamed Aldwich).

  6. Max permalink
    January 26, 2014

    Great story…we love the Wallbrook

    Wetherspoons Underground Sykogeosophy Club

  7. January 26, 2014

    I have walked the Wallbrook too. Yes, I Can walk on water?

  8. January 26, 2014

    Very evocative.

    Those who liked this might find ‘The Fields Beneath: the History of one London Village’ by Gillian Tindall interesting. Her history of Kentish Town has a chapter on buried rivers.

  9. John permalink
    January 27, 2014

    Ol ‘ Father Thames replies,

    London builds towers of silver on slave gold and white bone, vertically.
    The Lost rivers of silver and red will rise to break their banks, horizontally-
    And these Banks, that have such problems with cash flow and liquidity,
    Will have flotations of turd, skull and guilt throughout eternity.

    Rivers of London arise!
    Wallbrook, Effra, Beverley Brook….
    You have nothing to lose but your drains!

    I am flowing sweetly and never kiss tributaries cynically
    Or have risen on my high north sea horse environmentally,
    Time, tide, suicides, all that shit, I’ve taken indiscriminately:
    but need now to open my veins. Skulls can’t weep for me.

    Londoners of the Rivers arise!
    They think you are a stream, a footfall, a look…
    That you’ve already lost your brains!

    I’m here ever as you-courses clay’s rich sediments, us, and London rains.

    …..hope you enjoyed this, a simple message, carried away!

    John

  10. January 27, 2014

    One of my favourite rivers and I also do a walk called ‘Walbrook where art thou?’ . Other good sources of information are ‘The Lost Rivers of London’ by Nicholas Barton and ‘Walking on Water’ by Stephen Myers. Stephen is an hydrologist and also does a fabulous ‘who dunnit’ about the disappearance of the Walbrook as a talk to raise funds for Water Aid. These two gentlemen are working together to produce a combined book including, not only the history, but also the geographical and geological implications – dry reading – definitely NOT.

  11. Jill permalink
    January 27, 2014

    I used to work in a building at the corner of Walbrook and Cannon Street. In 1954 I watched from our office building the uncovering of the Temple of Mithras.

  12. Edmund permalink
    September 23, 2014

    Although James is correct that Walbrook predates the Conquest, the name probably comes from wala/weala (genitive plural of walh) and broc (=brook). The word walh doesn’t mean Briton but ‘foreigner’ and Germanic people applied it to various other groups (eg. the Walloons) as well as non Anglo-Saxons in Britain. The City of London was abandoned after the Romans left and Lundenwic(h) grew up around the Covent Garden/Aldwych area. Alfred ordered the re-occupation and fortification of the original city to defend against Viking attacks but there were no Britons living there! There is absolutely no archaeological record, just Dark Earth, and they would have been deep inside hostile Anglo-Saxon territory. Peter Ackroyd may imply this in his book London but you will not find any archaeologists who agree.

  13. Karl. permalink
    December 5, 2014

    Jill ,I don’t know if you’ve heard about the oral history project that MOLA are currently doing on the original excavations of the temple of Mithras but you might like to check it out here http://www.mola.org.uk/blog/remembering-london%E2%80%99s-greatest-archaeological-discovery
    I’m sure they would love to hear from you.

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