Walking the Walbrook, Londons forgotten river

Once upon a time there was a small port town which grew up either side of a small river in southern England. That town, then known as Londinium, would become a major trading port for the Northern Roman Empire and the river would play a significant role in making the settlement possible.

The sighting of the town was ideal because the Thames estuary provided a perfect thoroughfare for goods from all over the known world. Our little port needed access to the Thames but the river at the heart of that old settlement is what became to be called the Walbrook.

Old Roman London grew up around the banks of the river which rose in the swampy area now better known as Shoreditch and which drained into the Thames at the modern day Walbrook Wharf just down from Cannon Street station. It was ideal, the river provided water and sewerage disposal for ancient Roman settlers looking for the ideal spot on which to found a new port.

Later on the city grew and a wall was erected around the perimeter of the city. The river came through the wall between the gates of Bishopsgate and Moorgate and it is believed by some that, it is this transit through the old Roman wall, which gives rise to the name Walbrook.

Now the Walbrook is barely known. Covered up over the years so that as the city grew, traces of the river disappeared, at least on the surface. Now the river is subterranean and plays it’s role as part of the sewerage network of modern day London.

So this blog post is going to attempt to trace the route of the Walbrook. Traces can still be hinted at in the landscape and place names of the city as well as by consulting contemporary sources so with that in mind the plan is to put those together and walk the river overground, from it’s source to it’s mouth.

The first place to start is in the area of Shoreditch. This whole area was marshland and had a number of natural springs which drained into and which became the Walbrook. It’s difficult to know exactly the exact source but there are clues in the names of the area, not least on Holywell Lane. In mediaeval times a priory grew up around here and the Holywell was a notable fresh water source within it’s grounds. Tributaries also would have fed into the Walbrook from around the area which later became known as the Moorfields.

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The river followed the line of the modern day curtain road into the city passing along Appold Street and through Broadgate Circus eventually coming through the wall near to where All Hallows church is now on London Wall.

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Once through the wall the river passed by the church of St Margarets Lothbury (one of the churches from the oranges and lemons song) and under the modern day Bank of England. It would have cut across the Bank junction and down the modern day road actually called ‘Walbrook’.

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Now there is a major dig happening at the site of the now demolished Bucklersbury House. The site is a rare opportunity to explore an area of old Roman London which not only sat on the banks off the Walbrook but bang in the middle of the old city. It was here that the Temple of Mithras was discovered in the 1950’s and the large scale excavation happened now is unearthing some incredible finds.

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Looking down from Walbrook the line of the river follows Dowgate. Looking towards the street from a northerly approach it is possible to identify that this sloping street leading past Cannon Street station may indeed have led to it’s outlet at the Thames. From Cannon street itself anyone looking towards the line of river would notice a dip in the lay of the land which again points to topographical evidence for the former route of the river.

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Another point of interest close to the route of the river is a fragment of the old London stone which used to stand where the entrance to the station is now. This was the point from which Roman London calculated distance to and from the city. Now though only a fragment of the stone remains hidden behind a grate next to WH Smiths. If this were indeed a true relic of Roman London then it’s original position would have been prominent at the junction of the Thames and Walbrook leading into the city.

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The Walbrook now spills out from Walbrook Wharf by the ‘Banker’ pub. You can walk straight down and actually get to the shore of the Thames from here. The outfall can be seen at low tide just under the bridge. Back in Roman times of course this would have been a real estuary and the banks of the Thames would have come further inland than it does now, probably the bank would have been a lot closer to modern day Upper Thames Street.

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There are lots of other great sources about the Walbrook to be found and some of them are below.

In search of the Walbrook – Spitalfields Life
The Walbrook Discovery Program – Museum of London
Walbrook River – History
The River Walbrook – London Geezer