Rivers of London, 2014
Photogravure etching on paper 73.5 x 65 cm Edition of 50
The Rivers of London are mostly hidden from sight below our streets, but they still flow with water today. Emanating from an unfathomable labyrinth of underground tributaries, they spring from many places and course their way down to the Thames and the Greater London Flood Basin. The geography of these fluvial waters has formed the basis of our great city.
In 43AD, the Romans choose the location for their Londinium on a spot of the northern shoreline of the Thames – narrow enough to be bridged and serviced by the tides. Here, they would link this new capital with the rest of their sprawling empire. The mouths of the Fleet and the Walbrook offered a sound location on which to build a fortification surrounded by marshy fenland.
The Romans were of course not the first peoples to have inhabited the area.
Evidence of human life in Briton goes back way before even the Celts, however, London’s oldest timber structure was unearthed in 2009 adjacent to Belmash Prison. Radiocarbon dating has shown the structure to be nearly 6,000 years old.
Its network of rivers, brooks and streams has gifted Londoners with drinking water, food, trade routes, travel highways and exchanges of many kinds for thousands of years. Today, they do the job of carrying away our waste and sewage. These life giving veins of our once bucolic landscape are now almost all used as storm relief sewers – part of Joseph Bazelgette’s glorious monument to the communalism of shit and urine, built from 318 million hand laid bricks. The rivers are now part of the dark and lonely underworld, plunging them into our imaginations and our folklores.
The Rivers of London, 2014, traces their meandering routes. It shows the Fleet tributaries springing from the Hampstead ponds in the Vale of Health, down through Camden and into the Thames at Blackfriars. Better-known streams like the Walbrook, the Tyburn and the Effra are all shown alongside lesser-known courses, such as the Quaggy and the Slade. The Silk Stream also appears on the North West boarder above the Welsh Harp in Brent.
The map picks up on the etymologies of certain place names that have emerged alongside these waters from which they get their name – Wandsworth on the Wandle, Haca’s Island, Peckham along the River Peck. Other names describe the landscape shaped by the rivers – Sands End, Kew (key shaped land) and the Deep Ford over the River Ravensbourne. Others point to their trades and usages – Bayswater, Chelsea and Limehouse; and others by the springs – Camberwell, Stockwell and Shadwell. Many streets are named after the rivers adjacent to them and some get a mention here such as Fleet Street, Falcon Grove and Coldharbour Lane.
This work celebrates the existence and the shapes of these rivers to evoke earlier times when they formed more of a presence on the landscape – before their degradation. Some of the most distinctive episodes in their histories are mentioned – the River Fleet in Clerkenwell was known as ‘The River of Wells’; Execution Dock in Wapping – used for the hanging of criminals of the sea; and the location of London’s worst ever slum – ‘Jacobs Island’ where the Neckinger, a river with its own gruesome meaning name fingered its slimy way down to the Thames and the rest of the World.