On recent Sunday mornings, I walked much of the route that the Fleet River – now a subterranean waterway – once followed. The Fleet was a major waterway in Roman and Anglo-Saxon Britain, with wells and springs dotting its banks: Skinner’s Well; Fogg’s Well; Tod’s Well; Rad Well; and Clerks’ Well of course, or Clerkenwell, frequented, according to the sixteenth century antiquarian John Stow, ‘by scholars and youths of the city in summer evenings, when they walk forth to take the air.’ By the time Stow compiled his meticulous but elegiac Survey of London (1598), the river was in a terrible way, a dumping ground for all kinds of waste and a source of shame at a moment when London was learning how to celebrate itself to the world. Ben Jonson’s ‘On the Famous Voyage’, written a decade or so later, imagines two half-drunk city boys journeying up the polluted Fleet Ditch from Bridewell to Holborn, perhaps in search of a brothel. In terms of critical standing, Jonson’s ‘Voyage’ is now almost as subterranean as the presentday river. The literary scholar Richard Helgerson called Jonson’s poem one of ‘the filthiest, the most deliberately and insistently disgusting poems in the language’ – an assessment which would, one suspects, have warmed Jonson’s heart. It certainly is insistently scatological: ‘How dare/Your daintie nostrills … /Tempt such a passage? when each privies seate/Is fill’d with buttock? And the walls doe sweate/ Urine.’

Algernon Swinburne thought this all inherently un-English: ‘how far poetry may be permitted to go in the line of sensual pleasure or sexual emotion may be debatable between the disciples of Ariosto and the disciples of Milton,’ he declared, ‘but all English readers, I trust, will agree with me that coprology should be left to the Frenchman.’ Jonson’s poem – ‘the plunge of a Parisian diver into the cesspool’, in Swinburne’s words – is only partly a response to the actual Fleet. It is also a tussle with traditions of river writing which Jonson wanted both to acknowledge and surpass – his own literary ambitions flowing faster than the Tiber. Jonson was rewriting classical representations of rivers in the Iliad and the Odyssey: ‘All, that they boast of Styx, of Acheron,’ writes Jonson, ‘Cocytus, Phlegethon, our [Fleet] have prov’d in one’. And he was also responding, more locally, to a largely decorous tradition of Renaissance river poetry. In ‘Poly-Olbion’ (1612), a (rarely read) 15,000-line verse surveying the ‘Delicacies, Chorographicall Description, and Historie’ of England and Wales, Michael Drayton lent voices to rivers to tell stories of the past; and in Edmund Spenser’s ‘Prothalamion’ (1596), the narrator, stung by failed hopes of artistic patronage, ‘Walk’d forth to ease my pain/Along the shore of silver-streaming Thames’. The river catalyses Spenser’s poem, providing both a place and a time for writing: ‘Sweet Thames run softly,’ his refrain returns, ‘till I end my song’. But if river poetry celebrated circulation – and a sense of a regulated, breathing, balanced London – Jonson’s Fleet was stagnant, stuck, clogged with the ‘haire of meazled hogs,/The heads, houghs, entrailes, and the hides of dogs.’

Today, one can see the origins of the Fleet in Hampstead’s early eighteenth century ponds, created by damming the Fleet’s two headwaters at the Vale of Health and Kenwood. The ponds were originally constructed to supply drinking water to downstream St. Pancras, but now are sites for bathing and model boating. From here the Fleet’s two streams travel underground, through Dartmouth Park, and under Kentish Town. Considerable nineteenth century ink was spilt over Kentish Town’s possible etymology from ‘Ken Ditch Town’, that is ‘a village on the Kenwood river’. The two branches join under Quinn’s: a bright yellow and blue Camden pub, itself, on a good night, no friend of ‘daintie nostrills’. From Camden, the Fleet heads towards Kings Cross: it flows beneath Regent’s Canal to St. Pancras – where, until it was arched over in 1766, it was known as Pancras Wash – and then to the aforementioned Clerkenwell.

In the past the river here was more than twenty metres wide as other small tributaries joined up, but its presence now is only implicit. Tucked behind the ‘Gwynne Place’ bus-stop on Kings Cross Road there is a plaque marking Fleetderived ‘Bagnigge Wells’. Here, if you had been alive and fashionable in eighteenth century London, you might have taken the waters and the tea: ‘both the chalybeate and purging waters,’ wrote the proprietor, Mr. Davis, in the Daily Advertisement for July 1775, ‘are in the greatest perfection ever known, and may be drank at 3d. each person, or delivered at the pump-room at 8d. per gallon, where ladies and gentlemen may depend upon having the best tea, coffee, hot loaves, &c.’ Opposite the Wells stood Bagnigge House, former summer residence of Nell Gwynne and today the site of a Travelodge (where – the website notes – ‘You can make a decent cup of tea by sticking the tea-bag in the mug, so why incur the cost of a teapot?’) The Fleet then runs on to Farringdon Road, cutting its way beneath organic food halls and gastropubs and exhausted newsagents and lap dancing clubs, under Farringdon Street and Bridge Street, before eventually reaching the Thames, beneath Blackfriars Bridge.

The Fleet is a subterranean river but it’s still possible to hear its journey. There is a grate in the road outside the Coach and Horses pub on Ray Street, Farringdon, and anyone willing to lie in the road with an ear to the ground can catch the remarkably loud sound of the Fleet’s rushing water: ‘when the noise doth beat’, wrote Jonson (presumably not lying in the road), ‘Upon your eares, of discords so un-sweet.’ The other chance for Fleet-glimpsing is at the river’s exit, beneath Blackfriars Bridge. The spot is unmarked, but if you arrive at low-tide, walk to the right and lean out as far as possible, you can just about see the hole where the Fleet hits the Thames. It’s hidden away – everyone walks by – but you can catch sight of the waters that started off in Hampstead tumbling out into the Thames.

Attempts to cleanse and restore the Fleet have been fitful and ineffective. The most sustained came in 1502, during the reign of Henry VII, and was sufficient (according to Stow) ‘so that boats with fish and fuel were rowed to Fleete bridge … which was a great commodity to all the inhabitants.’ An Elizabethan effort in 1589 raised money but – as with Mayor Ken’s Millennial Thames fireworks – (so Stow tells us) ‘the effect failed.’ Christopher Wren’s 1680s plans for the Fleet-as- Venetian-canal didn’t endure; and by the 1730s, the river’s principal function was to serve as a muddy grave for drunken Londoners, unsteady on their way home. And so it was covered, with a new Fleet Market built on top in 1737 – although sections remained defiantly open for another thirty years, and continued to receive lurching revellers. Samuel Scott’s circa 1750 painting, Entrance to the Fleet River, depicts an oddly idyllic, largely Venetian scene and suggests an enthusiasm for Canaletto rather than an interest in London’s actual waters. Scott’s scene certainly sits uneasily with Jonathan Swift’s description, from 1710, of ‘Seepings from Butchers’ stalls, dung, guts and blood;/Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all dressed in mud,/Dead cats and turnip-tops come tumbling down the flood.’ In the 1860s, the Fleet was integrated into London’s new sewer network, designed by Sir Joseph Bazalgette in response to what historians fondly call ‘The Great Stink’ of 1858.

But encounters with the Fleet have perhaps always been nostalgic: as far back as the thirteenth century it was a fallen river that caused Londoners to wonder at a pure past now lost. In 1290, the prior of a Carmelite house in Whitefriars complained of the incense-defeating stench; and a century later, Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, lamented that the Fleet, once ‘of such breadth and depth’ (Stow reports) to welcome ‘ten or twelve ships’, was now ‘by filth of tanners and such others, sore decayed.’ Stow imagines ‘sweet and fresh waters’ circulating through pre-Conquest London – ‘they had in every street and lane of the city divers fair wells and fresh springs’ – but the river of Stow’s sixteenth century, ‘in process of time’, was ‘utterly decayed.’ Londoners pick through the mud of the Fleet for the detritus of the past: nineteenth century grubbers and toshers and mudlarks – often young children – scavenged for anything valuable; and their learned equivalents in the British Archaeological Association turned up arrowheads, coins, padlocks, keys, daggers, seals with Saxon names, crucifixes, a ship’s anchor near the end of Baker Street and a delicate bone knife carved with a female bust that perhaps resembled Catherine de Medici.

The paradox of rivers is always their simultaneous permanence and transience: they provide natural boundaries that carve up landscape, organising and defining cities; yet they are also always passing by. The Fleet resonates for Londoners, now, in the place names that recall its presence: Brookfield Park in Camden; Anglers Lane in Kentish Town; Well Walk and Fleet Primary School in Hampstead. The river almost returned to life as a source of transport and circulation when, in the 1970s, London Underground planned a ‘Fleet Line’, which would have traced part of the river. But this went the way of those Elizabethan restorations: the route was revised and the Fleet Line became, in 1977, the Jubilee. But anyone, now, seeking a sense of ‘the filth, stench, noise’ of ‘this dire passage’ need only turn to Ben Jonson’s poem.

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