1 Water, water everywhere...

Water is a vital feature of most human settlements. London, built on the banks of the River Thames, is no exception.

But the Thames is not the only water source in London. This walk explores how water has shaped this part of the capital, from natural springs to a once mighty river now reduced to a few drops.

We will discover how London’s geography has been shaped by water and how it is still inscribed in the landscape today. This is also a water walk with a difference: we won’t see much water until the end of the route but it will be all around us.

We begin here on the corner of St John Street and Chadwell Street as there are already two strong clues to how water has shaped the landscape. From here notice that St John Street runs distinctly downhill. Deep under our feet, this is where the junction of the Thames terrace gravels meets the overlaying London clay. The reason why there are so many water-related features in this area is precisely because of this underlying geology.

Gravel is permeable which means that water can pass through it. Clay meanwhile is impermeable which means that it holds water. Where the Thames gravel meets the London clay a line of springs erupted. These became valuable sources of drinking water and sacred sites. Though they’re no longer visible and long since built over, these natural wells are still preserved in some of the street names including Chadwell Street and nearby Goswell Street.

We won’t be getting our feet wet on this walk but as these street names show we will be looking for clues in the urban landscape that point to London’s watery past. From these clues we will discover how water has influenced the use and layout of the city.

Chadwell Street © Caroline Millar

Turn left into Arlington Way and follow it to The Shakespeare’s Head pub. Turn right into Myddelton Passage. With a brick wall on your left, go to the end of Myddelton Passage where you will see two black gates on the left hand side. Enter the second gate to read the information boards on the New River. Then enter the first gate and follow the path down to the fountain for the next stop.

2 The New River

This fountain is a nice reminder of this area’s links with water. Before 1600 London’s water supply came from the Thames as well as local streams, wells and springs. It was distributed around the capital on foot by water sellers.

In the late Middle Ages London’s population grew, which caused both a greater demand and a drop in the water table as more and more people used local wells and springs. Especially here at the edges of London, people had to travel even further to get their daily supply.

To solve this problem a purpose-built waterway was constructed. Named the New River, it was a canal designed to bring fresh water to the capital from springs in Hertfordshire. Labourers were paid four pence a day to dig out a water channel, line its banks with clay and raise the riverside embankments.

To maintain the flow the route followed the contours of the Lee Valley. The New River ran for almost 40 miles and ended here in a reservoir at New River Head. Originally the water was gravity-fed to the City using hollowed out elm tree trunks. These extended as far west as Marylebone, as far east as Brick Lane and as far south as the Thames. You can see an example of one inside Islington Museum, which we will pass a little later.

Over time the pipes became leaky and gravity alone was not sufficient to carry the water far enough. First a windmill then later a steam engine were built to provide enough power to propel the water along the pipes and across London. Look for a yellow brick building with a turret on top. This was the engine and pump house that replaced the original windmill that stood nearby. Notice it was on a slightly elevated position to capture more wind.

On the way to the next stop, look for a plaque in Myddleton Passage on the block of flats. It shows the logo of the New River Company complete with its Latin motto ‘et plui super unam civitatem’ (‘and I rained upon one city’).

The New River still provides about 8 percent of London’s daily water. It feeds into the Thames Water Ring Main 40 feet below ground. The TWRM is one of the world’s most advanced water distribution systems. This concrete-lined tunnel is eight feet in diameter - big enough to drive a car through. It runs in a 50-mile circle under the capital providing Londoners with a supply of drinking water equivalent to 700 Olympic sized swimming pools every day.

New River Head © Rory Walsh

Leave the garden and retrace your steps back along Myddleton Passage. At the end turn right. Cross the road using the pedestrian island and enter Spa Green Gardens through the black iron gate. Follow the path as it bends right then left to stop outside Wells House.

3 From spas to socialism

The name of this building and surrounding estate are more clues to this area’s watery past. As we found out earlier, due to the underlying geology there were several natural springs in this part of London.

In 1683 Thomas Sadler found a well in his garden, near where Wells House stands today. Sadler’s well became a fashionable spa, a place where London’s wealthy came to ‘take the waters’. Today the site is commemorated in the name of the famous dance theatre across the road - Sadlers Wells.

Though urbanised now, this whole area was once a leafy retreat, a place of lime tree arbours and grassy walkways where the gentry could drink the curative waters, stroll and socialise. It was known as ‘Islington Spa’ or ‘New Tunbridge Wells’ after the town in Kent whose water was reputed to have healing properties.

Spas were thriving businesses in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In its heyday 1,600 people a day enjoyed the Islington Spa, paying to drink mineral water which claimed to cure ‘hysterics, vapours, dropsies, scurvy, want of digestion and gout’ amongst other ailments. The spring which fed the Islington Spa flowed until the 1860s but eventually the area was laid out for housing and the water source was built over.

The Spa Green housing estate too is worth a closer look. This was one of the first estates built after the Second World War when there was an urgent need for new social housing. Commissioned by the progressive Finsbury Council it was designed by Berthold Lubetkin, a socialist architect who thought that working class people should have high quality homes.

You can see that the bold colours, curving lines and asymmetric designs are unlike the utilitarian grey concrete tower blocks of many other public housing estates from the same era. Architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner (whilst still not so admiring as other critics) described the flats as having ‘a good deal of visual kick’.

Though designed as social housing, many of the flats were sold off and today roughly a third are owned by ‘Lubetkin enthusiasts’ such as architects, designers and academics.


Spa Green estate © Rory Walsh

Continue through the estate. On the right you will pass Hugh Myddelton Primary School (named after the entrepreneur who established the New River). Walk along Lloyd’s Row then cross over St John Street to stop by the stone cattle trough outside The Blacksmith and Toffee Maker pub.

4 This little piggy went to market

This cattle trough, now an ornamental flower bed, tells another story of this area’s rich history. Half a mile down the road is Smithfield meat market and this road, St John Street, was the main north-south thoroughfare for driving the cattle from pastures north of the city to meet their fate.

A livestock market in this part of London can be traced back as far the tenth century when this was an area of open countryside. The market took place in what was essentially a field. But as the population of the city grew, the market expanded.

By the nineteenth century 220,000 cattle and 1,500,000 sheep every year were being ‘violently forced into an area of five acres...through its narrowest and most crowded thoroughfares’. Charles Dickens evoked the squalid, violent atmosphere of the market in his book Oliver Twist published in 1838:

It was market morning. The ground was covered nearly ankle deep with filth and mire; and a thick steam perpetually rising from the reeking bodies of the cattle, and mingling with the fog, which seemed to rest upon the chimney tops, hung heavily above [...]

Countrymen, butchers, drovers, hawkers, boys, thieves, idlers, and vagabonds of every low grade, were mingled together in a dense mass: the whistling of drovers, the barking of dogs, the bellowing and plunging of beasts, the bleating of sheep, and the grunting and squealing of pigs; the cries of hawkers, the shouts, oaths, and quarrelling on all sides, the ringing of bells, and the roar of voices that issued from every public house; the crowding, pushing, driving, beating, whooping and yelling; the hideous and discordant din that resounded from every corner of the market; and the unwashed, unshaven, squalid, and dirty figures constantly running to and fro, and bursting in and out of the throng, rendered it a stunning and bewildering scene which quite confused the senses.

Not long after Oliver Twist was published a campaign began to remove the livestock market and relocate it outside of the city. Not only was the market cruel and unsavoury but was a major threat to public health.

Along with animal excrement, their butchered blood and carcasses were often dumped into the River Fleet. The Fleet had by then become a large open sewer where householders living along its banks dumped their waste.

As we continue on the walk see if you can spot other drinking troughs along the route. Look out too for further clues in the local street names that point to this area’s past - including Cowcross Street further along, where a bridge over the Fleet allowed livestock to cross the river.

Wynyatt Street water trough © Caroline Millar

With the trough behind you, turn left and continue along St John Street. You will pass Finsbury Library and Islington Museum across the road. If you have time and the Museum is open, do pop in to see an elm water pipe used on the New River.

From the museum, continue down St John Street and cross Skinner Street. At the next pedestrian crossing, near The Well pub, ensure you are on the left side of St John Street. Continue a short distance to a three storey redbrick building with a wide gateway into a courtyard. Go into the courtyard and stop in front of the building with a clock on top.

5 From ale to apartments

Stop in front of the clock tower and look closely at the ornamental carvings either side of the doorway. Those on the left depict hop flowers while on the right are sheaves of barley - two of the main ingredients for beer making. Also notice the heavy wooden gates you walked through and the entrance wide enough for a horse and cart. These are all clues that this was once a brewery.

This is the site of the Cannon Brewery which dates back to the early 1670s. The process of making beer and spirits uses a high volume of water so since earliest times breweries like Cannon were sited near natural springs and wells. In fact there was a cluster of breweries and distilleries in this area of Clerkenwell including Gordon’s, Booth’s and Nicholson’s which all distilled gin.

The brewery buildings have long since been converted into high end apartments and offices while St John Street today is busy with modern traffic. In the nineteenth century brewers’ drays delivered barrels of beer to all the local pubs and hostelries and these streets would have rung to the clipping of horses’ hooves and iron wheels on the primitive granite road. Look carefully as you leave the courtyard and you will see that little ruts have been carved into those granite stones from the thousands of drays that drove their barrels in and out of here over the years.

Cannon Brewery  © Caroline Millar

Turn left out of Brewer’s Yard and continue along St John Street. At the traffic lights, turn right across the street and go into Clerkenwell Road. After about 50 metres you will come to St John’s Square. Turn right and enter the Museum of the Order of St John. Go through into the courtyard and take a seat.

6 Medieval monastery

The wide thoroughfare of Clerkenwell Road that we have just walked along would be unrecognisable to eighteenth century Londoners. This was once a poor, overcrowded part of London, a warren of criss-crossing streets, courts, alleyways and decrepit houses rife with crime and disease.

In the nineteenth century these were razed to the ground as part of ‘street improvements’ and at least 5,000 people were evicted from their homes. The historic St John’s Square was cut in half by Clerkenwell Road and the character of the area changed forever.

Today, the crypt of St John’s Priory and nearby St John’s Gate are all that survive of a grand medieval monastery built on this site in 1144. The ten-acre priory was surrounded by fertile meadows of vineyards and gardens and bounded by the River Fleet along its western edge. Today’s St John’s Square was the priory’s inner precinct. 

Monasteries and priories surrounded much of the old city of London until they were dissolved by Henry VIII in the sixteenth century. The buildings have almost entirely disappeared but their names still persist in roads such as Blackfriars near Fleet Street and Austin Friars in the City.

Like the brewery that we saw earlier, religious houses were also big users of water. Records show that the priory owned at least one mill on the River Fleet, powered by two waterwheels. Records also show that the monks owned a wharf at Fleet Lane, near the current Ludgate Circus, where goods unloaded included corn, wine and firewood.

Now leave the courtyard and turn left. Carefully cross over Clerkenwell Road and continue into the other side of St John’s Square. Stop by the large stone archway.

This is St John’s Gate which, along with the crypt, is the only surviving relic of the medieval priory. It was originally built in 1504 as an entrance to the priory’s inner precinct but the stone arch we can see today was heavily restored in the nineteenth century and rebuilt in the Tudor style.

This gateway has a long and colourful history. It was the home of both painter William Hogarth (famous for his 1751 satirical print ‘Gin Lane’) and the workplace of writer Samuel Johnson (most famous for compiling one of the first English dictionaries).

It was also the office of The Gentleman’s Magazine. This was the first ‘general interest’ magazine (in the modern sense) to be published and ran for 200 years. Its founder, Edward Cave, also plays a part in the story of London’s water. In 1740 he was behind a scheme to have part of the Fleet River dammed and used the water to drive the cotton spinning machine in his new mill.

St John cross, St John's Priory
© Rory Walsh

With Clerkenwell Road behind you, turn right in front of the archway. Pass The Bear pub on your right and continue into an alleyway. You will emerge through an archway into Britton Street beside The Jerusalem Tavern pub. Turn left and you will see a four-storey building with six grey stone arches on the opposite side of the road. This was Nicholson’s gin distillery - look up to the third floor to see five friezes depicting the process of gin production.

Retrace your steps past the Jerusalem Tavern and continue to the junction with Clerkenwell Road. Turn left, passing Fleet House at numbers 59-61. At the junction of Farringdon Lane and Turnmill Street turn right and cross the road into Farringdon Lane. Stop outside Well Court, building number 14-16 on the right hand side.

7 A lost river and a holy well

As you walked along Clerkenwell Road did you notice the land gently dipping down to meet the low lying urban chasm of Farringdon Lane? The Underground and mainline railway from Kings Cross and Farringdon stations now occupy this void but it was once something more spectacular. This was the valley of the River Fleet, one of London’s most important rivers.

The Fleet is now entirely lost from view. It’s almost impossible to imagine now but until around 160 years ago the Fleet was an open river rising in Hampstead Heath and flowing for four miles before emptying into the Thames at Blackfriars. Boats plied its waters moving heavy cargoes through London, including the stone to build the original St Paul’s Cathedral. An anchor was found as far north as Kentish Town Road, suggesting that boats were able to navigate far inland.

This section of the Fleet was known as Turnmill Brook (from where Turnmill Street gets its name), a reference to the number of water powered mills that lined the banks of the river in the eighteenth century. In 1741 a house on Turnmill Street was advertised to let with access to “a good stream and current that will turn a mill to grind hair powder or liquorish”!

All this heavy industry took its toll and the Fleet became increasingly used as a sewer. Butchers at nearby Smithfield used it as a dumping ground for offcuts of meat and blood. Waste from the tanneries, human excrement and even the bodies of cats and dogs found their way into the river.

     In 1710 journalist and author Jonathan Swift summed it up:
     Sweepings from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts and blood
     Drown’d puppies, stinking sprats, all drench’d in mud
     Dead cats and turnip tops, come tumbling down the flood.

And so the Fleet River became the Fleet Ditch, a putrid and dangerous waterway. Section by section it was covered over. Its upper reaches were concealed by suburban building while the lower reaches here were diverted into an underground sewer and the Fleet was lost from sight.

Now peer through the windows of Well Court and look for a pump above a brick-lined hole deep in the bottom of the building. This is the Clerks’ Well, the water source which gives this area its name – Clerkenwell.

First noted as far back as 1183, the well was an important source of drinking water for medieval Londoners. Notice how low the well is - much lower than street level today. This shows you the change in ground level since the medieval period.

Though lost for many years, the well was rediscovered again in 1924 and has now been preserved. There were once many more wells, springs and rivers in this part of London which are now long gone, including of course the Fleet.

But though it’s out of sight, the river hasn’t disappeared altogether as we will find out at the next stop.

Clerks' Well plaque © Caroline Millar

Continue along Farringdon Lane, bearing left across Ray Bridge. Cross over Farringdon Road using the pedestrian crossing to the right. Then turn right into Ray Street and stop outside The Coach and Horses pub.

8 The lowest of the low

On your way down Ray Street, notice again how you move from high to low ground as you re-enter the valley of the River Fleet. Before being renamed Ray Street, this area was known as Hockley-in-the-Hole. Hockley means ‘muddy field’ in Saxon and is another clue to the lost river which used to flow through this neighbourhood.

Notice too some of the botanical sounding street names nearby – Herbal Hill, Saffron Hill, Hatton Gardens and Vine Hill. These names are reminders that this area was once the gardens of Ely Palace, the medieval home of the Bishop of Ely built on the banks of the River Fleet.

By the beginning of the eighteenth century Hockley-in-the-Hole had become one of the most infamous areas of London. The dark, narrow, twisting streets were full of dilapidated houses. Poverty and crime were endemic. It was the haunt of thieves, highwaymen and gamblers. Next to The Coach and Horses pub was a garden where men fought with swords or wrestled for money. Bear and bull baiting, dog and cock fighting were rife.

If this doesn’t sound like the Ray Street you can see today that’s because this area was subject to similar slum clearances and street improvements as Clerkenwell. Hockley-in-the-Hole was razed to the ground with the road widened, raised, drained and renamed Ray Street.

On these modern, remodelled streets it’s really hard to imagine what the river must have been like, but there is a spot where you can at least still hear it. With your back to the pub, you will see a metal grid in the middle of the street.

Please be very careful here as cars and vans still use the road. If you put your ear down to the grating, the sound of rushing water you should hear is the Fleet. Peer into the dark and you may be able to see it as a fast running stream deep below.

It is remarkable to think that in this dense urban part of London there is a rushing river just beneath our feet.

The Fleet River underfoot © Caroline Millar

Cross the road from the pub and go up Back Hill. At the junction with Clerkenwell Road turn left and continue for about 50 metres. Use the next pedestrian crossing to cross over into the narrow road opposite called Saffron Hill. Go along Safffron Hill and stop at the junction with Greville Street.

9 Den of thieves

Today this narrow street of high-sided buildings is home to publishers, printers, media companies and graphic designers - a world away from its origins as the saffron growing fields of Ely Palace.

By the nineteenth century this street was already unrecognisable from its aromatic past. Saffron Hill ran along the edge of what was then an open sewer – the Fleet Ditch.

This area became a notorious slum, a tangle of labyrinthine streets, alleys and courtyards. Saffron Hill was where Charles Dickens chose to locate Fagin’s den in Oliver Twist:

In its filthy shops are exposed for sale huge bunches of second-hand silk handkerchiefs, of all sizes and patterns; for here reside the traders who purchase them from pickpockets. Hundreds of these handkerchiefs hang dangling from pegs outside the windows or flaunting from the door-posts; and the shelves, within, are piled with them [...]”

It is a commercial colony of itself: the emporium of petty larceny: visited at early morning, and setting-in of dusk, by silent merchants, who traffic in dark back-parlours, and who go as strangely as they come. Here, the clothesman, the shoe-vamper, and the rag-merchant, display their goods, as sign-boards to the petty thief; here, stores of old iron and bones, and heaps of mildewy fragments of woollen-stuff and linen, rust and rot in the grimy cellars.”

So why did Dickens set the scenes of Fagin and his pick pockets here? Saffron Hill was known as a ‘liberty’ - a part of town where the police had no jurisdiction. On one side of it is the City of London, on the other side the parish of Holborn, but none of the parish watches in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries could enter Saffron Hill.

Our walk along Saffron Hill continues to trace the ‘lost’ underground Fleet River. At this junction with Greville Street is another grid in the road where you can see and hear the rushing river.

On the way to the next stop you will reach a set of steps at the very end of Saffron Hill. Notice the big difference in height between the low-lying area you are in and the street above. This is another indication of the depth of the Fleet Valley and the size of the river. We will find out more about this at the next stop.

Saffron Hill steps © Rory Walsh

Continue along the slope to the end of Saffron Hill. At the top of the steps turn left then right along Farringdon Street towards Holborn Viaduct (the red bridge). Just before the bridge enter the white building on your right with three arched doorways. Walk up the steps (passing a large scale image showing the construction of the Metropolitan Railway through the Fleet Valley) to emerge onto Holborn Bridge. Carefully cross over the road to the other side of the bridge. Stand in the middle and look down at the road below.

10 A river ran through it

The top of Holborn Viaduct is a good place to get a sense of just how big the Fleet River once was. The wide thoroughfare you are looking down on is the river valley where the Fleet flowed downhill to meet the Thames.

It’s difficult to imagine now but this bridge you are standing on was once at street level. The Holborn Viaduct, which replaced an older medieval bridge, is 1,400 feet deep and 80 feet across. You can picture just how deep the river valley was at this point.

In its heyday, the Fleet inlet was the busiest port in London. Broad wharves lined its banks for loading and unloading goods, including corn, hay, firewood, Welsh cheese, oysters and herrings. It must have been quite a sight to see boats sailing here!

Here the Fleet River was known as ‘Holebourne’ meaning ‘the stream in the hollow’ and gave the area of Holborn its name. The origins of the name ‘Fleet’ are said to be from Anglo-Saxon and mean a tidal inlet capable of floating a boat.

Most rivers don’t flow in a straight line but you will notice that Farringdon Street is long, straight and unbending. After the Great Fire of London in 1666 this section of the Fleet was straightened and canalised and became known as the New Canal.

As we heard earlier the New Canal became an unsanitary ditch and was gradually covered over. From 1737 a market was held on the culverted river. This soon became an obstacle to the increasing traffic levels in the area and so Farringdon Road was created on the site.

As you continue to the next stop at Ludgate Circus, notice some of the street names on the left hand side. Turnagain Lane marks the point where barges were turned around to sail back out to the Thames. Old Seacoal Lane and Newcastle Close are reminders that coal was brought by ships from the Northeast of England and unloaded at wharves here along the banks of the Fleet.

Before leaving the bridge notice the statue of Hugh Myddelton above the Fable Pub. You might remember him as the entrepreneur who built the New River, which we found out about near the start of the walk.

Farringdon Street from Holborn Viaduct © Rory Walsh

Turn left and take the set of steps back down to Farringdon Street that are underneath the statue of Thomas Gresham. At the bottom of the steps turn left and continue to Ludgate Circus.

11 City on a hill

The busy junction of Ludgate Circus is where Farringdon Street crosses over Fleet Street. As you stand at this crossroads, notice that you are in an elevated position and of the four streets which meet here, three of them dip downhill.

Ludgate Circus is the site of an ancient crossing point, where a ford once carried Fleet Street across the Fleet River. Later the ford was replaced by a bridge and over time this became a busy thoroughfare and road junction.

When Ludgate Circus was built in the late-nineteenth century to connect the city of Westminster with the city of London, the granite for its construction was brought all the way from Haytor on Dartmoor.

Notice how the street to your left, Ludgate Hill, rises up steeply towards St Paul’s Cathedral. This is the hill where the Romans first established the city. The Fleet ran along its western edge, the River Wallbrook through the middle and the Thames to the south. That left the north side exposed so the Romans built a three-mile long wall to protect it.

Some fragments of the Roman wall still survive but it mostly still exists in street names, including Bishopsgate, Aldgate, Newgate and here - Ludgate.

Roman London AD190 © David Hale / MAPCO 2006-2013

To reach the next stop you will need to be on the left hand side of Fleet Street. With St Paul’s Cathedral on your left cross over Ludgate Circus then turn right and cross over at the next set of traffic lights. Continue into Fleet Street then take the first left past The Punch Tavern pub, Bride’s Lane. Turn right up a small set of steps into St Bride’s Avenue then go left to enter the churchyard.

12 Read all about it

Stop in the peaceful churchyard of St Bride’s to escape the hustle and bustle of Fleet Street. 

If you wander round this area you will see the name St Bride’s crops up everywhere. Once again, as with the Clerks’ Well and the Spa Green Estate, a well was discovered here and the water was reputed to have healing qualities. A plane tree at the back of the churchyard is said to stand on the site of the well.

The Bride’s Well gave its name to many of the features and buildings in this area including the sixteenth century Bridewell Palace which was built for Henry VIII. Further down on the right is a small side street called Watergate. This gate was originally the river entrance to the palace through which boats could sail in and out.

Until the 1980s nearby Fleet Street was the centre of British newspaper production. Though most newspapers have since moved to Canary Wharf we still use the term ‘Fleet Street’ as a stand-in for the newspaper industry.

St Bride’s Church is the spiritual home of the industry and was regularly frequented by journalists and printers. One thing that the printers used in abundance was water and the Fleet River provided them with plenty of it.

St Bride signpost © Rory Walsh

Go back down the steps to Bride Lane. Turn right then left past the St Bride’s Foundation to reach New Bridge Street. Turn right, cross the road then take the next turn into Apothecary Street. Take the steps over the railway line then turn right at the bottom to pass the Apothecaries Hall. Turn left into Playhouse Yard and go straight ahead into Ireland Yard. After a few yards you will see some black gates and steps up into a churchyard garden on the left. Stop at the top of the steps.

13 Monochrome monks

The pile of rubble at the top of the steps is all that remains of Blackfriars Priory, another large monastic complex now mostly memorialised in the name of Blackfriars Station and Embankment. Built in 1221 Blackfriars is perhaps the most famous of London’s vanished abbeys.

In fact Blackfriars was one of two monasteries situated on the banks of the River Fleet. Not surprisingly it got its name from the black cloaks worn by the Dominican monks. Whitefriars, which occupied a site on the opposite bank, was a Carmelite priory where the monks wore white cloaks over their robes.

While this uneven wall is all that remains of Blackfriars monastery, it’s only in street names (and a surviving crypt) that we remember Whitefriars. During its heyday in the late-fourteenth century, the Whitefriars monastic complex sprawled from Fleet Street to the Thames. A church, cloisters, garden and cemetery were housed in its grounds.

Like St John’s Priory in Clerkenwell, both Blackfriars and Whitefriars made great use of their watery locations. The monks used the Fleet River to provide water for drinking, washing, watering crops and powering mills to produce energy. The Fleet was also a vital transport route that allowed the monks to bring in goods and export their produce.

On your way to the last stop at Blackfriars Bridge, stop outside The Blackfriar pub on the corner of Queen Victoria Street and New Bridge Street. Take time to look at the mosaic over the door, which depicts the monastery and its black-cloaked monks fishing in the Fleet.

Remains of Blackfriars priory © Rory Walsh

Continue to the end of Ireland Yard and turn right down St Andrews Hill to meet Queen Victoria Street. Turn right and continue up to The Blackfriar pub. When you are ready, cross Queen Victoria Street with the pub behind you and head towards Blackfriars station. Pass the station on your left and continue onto Blackfriars Bridge. Go down the steps to the riverside path and stop directly below the bridge. Look for a metal ladder leading down into the water. At low tide you may be able to see a steel manhole cover to the right.

14 The last drop

This spot below Blackfriars Bridge is where the Fleet empties into the Thames. At low tide you may be able to see the manhole cover in the embankment wall. After heavy rain you might even see a few drops of water dripping out of it.

Fittingly for a water walk without water, it’s perhaps a disappointing end for what was once one of London’s main arteries - a source of drinking water, power, transport and pleasure reduced to a few drops.

We began our walk on the Thames terrace gravels of Islington and Clerkenwell where we found out how London’s geology has shaped the lie of the land. We noticed the influence of water on street inclines and in local names.

We found evidence of the New River, a canal built in the 1600s to bring fresh water to London as its population rapidly expanded, and saw the site of several springs and wells which brought prosperity and renewed health to London’s people.

We saw the route cattle were driven to market and found out how Smithfield meat market and other local industries turned the Fleet River into a filthy ditch. We found three of London’s most important monastic centres, along with breweries, distilleries and the newspaper industry all located along the banks of the River Fleet and relying on its water for their existence.

We have seen streets transformed from slums, found holy wells and finished our walk at one of the most famous rivers in the world.

Walking round a city like London with its many street-level distractions it’s easy to forget what is just beneath your feet. This walk gives you an opportunity to think about the unseen forces that have shaped our landscape and to achieve the magical feat of walking on water...

Under Blackfriars Bridge, Wikimedia Commons (CCL)

To return to Angel and Islington you can take the Underground from Blackfriars station. Take the District or Circle Line eastbound then change at Monument for the Northern Line via Bank. Alternatively take the Circle Line eastbound to King’s Cross and change for the Northern Line.

Walking on water

Map of Fleet Market (1746), Wikimedia Commons (CCL)

London Water walk

A water-themed walk from Islington to the Thames

Water is a vital feature of most settlements. London, built on the banks of the River Thames, is no exception.

Water still shapes London today. But this is a waterside stroll with a difference...

Discover how unseen water has shaped the capital, from lost natural springs to a mighty river now reduced to a few drops. Visit former breweries, holy wells and dangerous dens of vice and criminality brought to life by Charles Dickens. 

Experience familiar streets and neighbourhoods with fresh eyes as you walk on water without getting your feet wet. 

Follow the walk by clicking on the map pins
or downloading the guides below

London Water walk credits

Thanks to - 

Professor David Green for suggesting this walk 

Caroline Millar for creating the text, providing photos and editing the audio

Jenny Lunn and Rory Walsh for providing photos

Tom Bolton for suggestions to the text

Carrie von Lieshout for information on The New River

Ted Hatch for lending an invaluable book and for his interest and enthusiasm

British History Online, London Metropolitan Archives, The London Survey, Victorian London, Look and Learn Picture Gallery and David Hale / Mapco for kind permission to include images from their collections

The Thames Water Ring Main is one of the world’s most advanced water distribution systems. It runs in a 50-mile circle under the capital providing Londoners with a supply of drinking water equivalent to 700 Olympic sized swimming pools every day.