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In Search Of The Walbrook

May 21, 2021
by the gentle author

Ever since I learnt that the disused pump outside Shoreditch Church marks the spot 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 haunting photograph of the Walbrook, which was taken by Steve Duncan deep beneath the Bank of England, 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 enviable 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 such a daredevil nature or any 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 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 Bloomberg building which now contains the Temple of Mithras, discovered in 1954 on the bank of the Walbrook, eighteen feet below modern ground level. It is 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.

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 stood on the bank of the Walbrook

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

The dome of St Stephen Walbrook

You may also like to take a look at

Adam Dant’s Map of Budge Row

13 Responses leave one →
  1. May 21, 2021

    I love the temple to Mithras. And I think of those ancients, praying for sunshine in a land of grey skies and rain.

  2. Herry Lawford permalink
    May 21, 2021

    Fascinating, thank you.

  3. David Gooding permalink
    May 21, 2021

    Thank you for including some images of Christopher Wren’s church of St. Stephen Walbrook in your illuminating article.

    I will definitely add this architectural masterpiece to my list of ‘must visit’ places.

  4. Jill Wilson permalink
    May 21, 2021

    Agree with your last point about taking comfort from the knowledge that the river is still there, running underneath all the flashy, overbearing towers of the City.

    Wouldn’t it be great if the towers really are only a flash in the pan, and that the City returns to a smaller scale, better designed future more in tune with nature?

  5. Eve McBride permalink
    May 21, 2021

    The old Foundation School on Whitechapel Road was later named Walbrook College until the site was redeveloped as the Davenant Centre. I never gave any thought as to the origin of the name, so thank you for this most interesting article.

  6. Kelly Holman permalink
    May 21, 2021

    Thank you for this fascinating meander along the lost river. It was such a pleasure to read and enjoy this morning.

  7. May 21, 2021

    This route is familiar, having tried to ‘find’ the river myself last time I was in London. There was a Roman mosaic, found beneath the church, mounted on the entrance wall of St. Stephens Walbrook. It is in the shadows on the right as you go in, so accessible even when the church is closed. Most surprising.

    Mudlarking (with permit in hand now, of course) via Cousins Lane near the area where the Romans landed and the Walbrook met the Thames seems like a good spot to look for Roman glass and pottery, etc.

    Great photos. Don’t blame you for staying at street level!

  8. May 21, 2021

    Thank you for taking us along on another fascinating excursion — both “above” and “beneath”.
    Once a film buff, always a film buff — and the photo by Steve Duncan reminded me of the many harrowing, below-ground, through-the-tunnel chases I have seen in movies. Just like Duncan returning with his photographic trophies, film makers have paid tribute to these mysterious waterways with memorable results. Think: Orson Welles splashing and gasping his way in “The Third Man”.
    Here I sit, comfy and dry, having my morning coffee and your post has taken me into the slimy
    depths below one of the world’s most remarkable cities.
    Thank you, GA, and Steve Duncan. Stay safe. And dry!

  9. Jennifer Newbold permalink
    May 21, 2021

    You teach me something almost every day, G.A. Unlike its more famous counterpart, the Fleet, I had never heard of the Walbrook River. I greatly enjoyed walking its course with you. I agree wholeheartedly; there is something powerful and humbling about the fact that we can cover over the rivers and subsume them to our will, but those rivers will endure after we are gone… both as generations, but perhaps indeed when our species is gone from this earth.

  10. May 21, 2021

    (I apologize if I have already sent you this comment. )What about those tokens– is that a Celtic thing, — just expand please,

  11. May 21, 2021

    Fascinating. Many thanks.

  12. May 21, 2021

    Beautiful photos and interesting backstory. Also I just read in the BBC that the Bethnal Green Mulberry is now legally safe from harm. Congratulations on such a worthy campaign. Thank you.

  13. Bill Cahill permalink
    May 21, 2021

    Perhaps you have read, or perhaps you have not, read “The Water Room” by Christopher Fowler, published in 2005. It is a murder mystery tied up in the lore of London’s underground rivers. Amusing, I thought. You might like it.

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