I started this blog over five years ago with an account of a visit I paid to the lost River Fleet. London’s subterranean waterways have remained an obsession. I don’t know why.
Here is a picture of the gate which guards one of the mouths of another river, the Tyburn, under Westminster. It’s very difficult to get in there now – it flows beneath Buckingham Palace so I suppose they are very concerned about terrorists getting access to the Queen’s loo.
Seeing it yesterday reminded me of the sewermen I met when I visited the Fleet. A couple of them were quite old then and must have retired now I am sure. They had spent all their working life roaming the vast underground labyrinths of London and had a knowledge of the system which had been passed down verbally for over a hundred years by those who preceded them. This knowledge could not be written down and will be lost when they are gone – the privatised Thames Water company have stopped recruiting the necessary apprentices for the usual cost and profit reasons.
It must have been a strange and difficult job – and one with a kind of lineage back to the ‘mudlarks’ and ‘toshers’ described by Stow in his ‘Survey of London’. These were the hereditary ‘guilds’ of professional scavengers who trawled the Thames foreshore and the city sewers for valuable items (including dead bodies which could be sold to surgeons for dissection).
I asked the oldest sewerman what was the spookiest thing he had found underground – expecting some horror story of vicious rats or mangled bones. He told me that he seen many strange things but the one that haunted him still was the memory of the time he turned a corner into some subterranean chamber far below the Strand and discovered a perfect Victorian cast iron double bed-stead standing there in the darkness. This otherwise innocuous domestic object was made so strange by the fact that there was no hole anywhere big enough for it to have fallen in.
In other words, somebody had taken it in gradually in pieces and for heaven-alone-knows-what-reason re-erected it there on purpose.