The Tyburn River
The Tyburn was one of London’s smaller rivers, nothing like the size of the Fleet or the Westbourne rivers I visited in the city. But I had long looked forward to seeing it, more than any other part of London’s underground. Integrated into this river’s history are two of London’s most important landmarks: Westminster Abbey, which was a nucleus of London a thousand years ago, and Buckingham Palace, a cultural center of London in the modern era.
Until early in the second millennium A.D., the Tyburn split into two wide, marshy streams just before flowing into the Thames, and the area between them was called Thorney Island. Westminster Abbey was founded in 1065 A.D. on this island. And today, with its course drastically changed and channeled underground by the developing city, the Tyburn River flows deep underneath the grounds Buckingham Palace.
I was fascinated by the idea of being in a forgotten tunnel underneath such a well-known landmark as Buckingham Palace. I’d be under the noses of the celebrated guards, and they’d never know it. The thousands of tourists that flock every day to see the home of Britain’s royal family would never see what I was going to see, even though it’s only a few dozen meters from the home of the Queen. And this unique experience, shared by so few others, is no small or meager thing. In fact, considered in purely structural and engineering terms, I’m sure that it could rival the Palace itself– the Tyburn’s tunnel stretches for kilometers, with parts as large as ten meters across, and is composed of something like two million hand-laid bricks. But it’s hidden in two ways: physically invisible from the surface, and also unnoticed in the same way that our heartbeats or breathing often go unnoticed. We see the surface layers, whether looking at bodies or at cities, and we often forget the structure behind the surface, just as we often forget the history that underlies the present. But in the Tyburn, as happens with so many historical sites in cities, physically venturing underground and the imaginative process of looking back into history became inextricably linked for me. In both ways, this river would help me in my quest to see new layers of London.
In London’s early days, the Tyburn River flowed from two small sources in Hampstead (north London). The first was the “Shepherd’s Well” along what is now Fitzjohn’s Avenue, and the second was on the grounds of Belsize Manor. Belsize Manor is gone, but its old location is hinted at by a half-dozen streets in South Hampstead with Belsize in the name (Belsize Road, Belsize Court, etc).
From these sources, the Tyburn flowed in a generally south-easterly direction; first along the eastern side of Hyde Park, then through the area where Buckingham Palace now stands, and then onward to the site of Westminster Abbey. There it split into two marshy channels, which formed a soggy moat around the slightly higher land of Thorney Island on which the Abbey would grow.
Because it was so close, the Tyburn was one of the first streams to be diverted to provide drinking water for London. By 1236, the clean water of the upstream Tyburn was already being carried in a conduit to the city. A half-dozen different schemes for bringing its water to the city would be tried in the next few centuries, including one in which three and a half miles of leather pipes were used to transport the water.
The diversion of the water for other uses, combined with the Tyburn’s small size and the closeness of its sources to the growing city, quickly turned it fetid. With diversions upstream, the flow decreased and the now-small stream became a default sewer for those who lived along it. By 1611 London had made itself independent of local water sources by building an aqueduct to Hertfordshire, but the Tyburn– at least its southern half– had probably ended its usefulness as drinking water centuries before that.
The river’s course was also drastically changed by the city. Instead of running toward the site of Westminster Abbey, it was channeled further south and ran into the Thames near the site of the Vauxhall Bridge. What’s fascinating to me is that, in fact, it’s impossible to say for sure when the change took place. The amount of London’s growth that predates any complete plan or written record of the city shows clearly how organic a city’s growth is over time. The historian Nicholas Barton places the change in the Tyburn’s course sometime between 951 and 1663. But exactly when, or why, it was changed, or if it was a natural process that happened over the centuries, remains murky.
Today, the Tyburn is a sewer flowing through a brick tunnel. Officially titled the King’s Scholar’s Pond Sewer, it’s about three meters in diameter when it passes underneath Buckingham Palace. Walking through it we saw many side channels– some go only a short distance to manhole shafts, some connect to side-street sewer lines. There are also consistent tap-ins (individual sewer pipe outlets) from buildings built above the tunnel. Which one of these outlets or side channels ran from Buckingham Palace, I can’t say. But it is likely that at some point we were wading through the Queen’s shit—a more personal side of royalty than most tourists get to see.
South of Buckingham Palace, we took a look at the surface to orient ourselves. It was now about 3am, and we felt safe in carefully raising a sidewalk manhole to peer out. But a moment after DS stuck his head out, he pulled it back and closed the cover; we were just outside Victoria Station, another of London’s landmarks and probably a bad place to be seen coming out of a manhole.
In its final section south of Victoria Station, the river follows the winding course of Tachbrook Street. The street is named for a brook that was, essentially, the drastically diverted remnants of the original Tyburn River in the area closest to the Thames; when the tunnel was built it followed this same general path. The original outlet for the tunnel was near Vauxhall Bridge, but a series of floodgates cut off this final connection to the river except in extreme floods. (Wastewater in the tunnel is diverted into a series of interceptor sewers, which carry it east to treatment plants.)
The many centuries of human involvement in the course of the Tyburn had shrunk it to no more than a small stream long before it was covered, and I expected to see nothing more than the continued small round tunnel. But instead, the passage opened up into a series of much larger galleries. Intricate brickwork curved up into magnificent arches, and lines of heavy stones high in the walls showed where part of it had been originally constructed as an open canal. Ancient, slime-encrusted interceptors carried away the small channel of sewage that ran down the center of these huge spaces. This had clearly not been just a work of pure functionality, as so much urban infrastructure is today; it was in its way a monument to the city and an expression of its glory.
The floodgates that shut off the southern end of the river—each widely separated from the other– were modern and made of bright steel, incongruous against the dark brick. The first we had passed was mechanized, and we went through it only after Z scouted the tunnel beyond it for the rest of us. (Not knowing if it might close behind us and trap us, I had been too timid to go further until he determined there was a manhole further ahead we could use as an emergency exit.) The second was a closed steel flap weighing tons, and we made it through with brute force and careful squeezing—though crawling through the narrow gap we made brought us face-to-face with the sewage.
But the third, closest to the river, was firmly and perhaps permanently shut. We couldn’t follow the river to its end. But we had already followed it through a good thousand years of London’s past, and I was quite happy as we made our way back to the silent pre-dawn streets above ground.
Please Note: The Credit for the research and archeological work in uncovering these rivers and their history belongs entirely to others, not me, in particular the extremely dedicated folks at www.sub-urban.com.
The people represented through these websites have my deepest thanks for exploring these rivers and their history and for guiding me around: www.sleepycity.net; www.sub-urban.com; www.silentuk.com; and Loops.
For further reading: The Lost Rivers of London, by Nicholas Barton.