I managed to catch the Secret Rivers exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands on its very last day. The exhibition looks at the history of several of London’s hidden rivers, many of which have been covered over, re-routed or used for other purposes.
First to be examined was the Walbrook, which flowed through the heart of the City of London. This river was often used for ritual (the Temple of Mithras, which I’ve previously visited, was nearby), and the items found in it bear witness to its role at the centre of life in Roman times.
Secondly, the most famous lost river, the Fleet, was explored. This river was located outside of the City, and as such originally played a role at the heart of rural life, before an increasingly dense population helped to pollute the river (during the fourteenth century, people used to build houses with toilets extending out over the river, so that waste would drop directly into it – one of the items recovered from the river was a three-seat medieval toilet). Eventually it was covered and used as a sewer, though you can still swim in the Fleet up at Hampstead, where the outdoor pools are filled with water from this river.
From here, the exhibition explored the contrasting ways in which rivers were used. The Neckinger in Bermondsey, for instance, was heavily polluted and had several mills along its banks, while the Westbourne in west London was used to create the ponds in Hyde Park. The Tyburn, now covered over, has been the subject of a campaign to restore it and use it for fishing, while the Wandle has been uncovered at several points, making it a haven for wildlife. There is also the Lea, still used for recreational activities and transformed towards central London by the construction of the Olympic Park.
Finally, the exhibition looked at the works of art that have been inspired by the hidden rivers. Of particular interest to me were the various books, which I plan to seek out in the future.