Vignettes of Old Marylebone: No. 8 – River of No Return.

Fleet River, London, England

The spell of running water exercises a peculiar fascination on the mind only equalled by that of perfume. The idea of subterranean lakes and streams only compounds the magic and conjures up the exotic fantasies of Gaston Leroux, H. Rider Haggard and Coleridge. Think of the souls of the dead being ferried across the Styx upon payment of an obol; the barque of the extinguished sun sailing through the night. Or, more merrily, drifting in mad King Ludwig’s cockleshell though gaslit pink and blue opaline crystal caverns “measureless to man” and as magical as Selfridge’s Lower Sales Floors or the shelves at Les Senteurs. Who would think that at least one of London 13’s lost and buried – but still rushing – rivers flows below the bustling busy streets of Portman Village?

No wonder London is so humid in summer; it is built over endless marshes. Westminster Abbey once stood on an island; the Thames has lost at least half its width since the Roman city was sacked by Boudicca’s hordes. The City was divided by the Fleet River rushing down from Farringdon until less than 300 years ago – that’s just three long lifetimes. The Tyburn was once better known as the name of a tributary of the Thames than as a synonym for the grim gallows at Marble Arch.

Once green and glorious and gushing down from Hampstead, the Tyburn was one of the bountiful sources of safe drinking water that made early London such a prime spot for settlement. But as the city enlarged and corrupted, the Tyburn like its sister rivers became stinking sewers of offal, by and by built over: sinking out of sight, smell and common knowledge. Londoners quenched their thirst with beer and spent their short lives half drunk in consequence. However, down there the rivers still flow, occasionally heard gurgling or glimpsed contained in drains in underground stations. The Tyburn pours down beneath Regents Park, Marylebone Lane, through Mayfair, Green Park and under Buckingham Palace and the Abbey to the Embankment at Whitehall. Wonderful to think of! Seymour Place now exotic with rare perfumes drifting through the door of Les Senteurs must once have stood in water meadows fragrant with wild flowers. The scent is only a spray away.

Image: The Fleet River under London from undercity.org