The Walbrook was the river on which London grew. Then known as Londinium it would become a major trading port for the Northern Roman Empire. The river played a significant role in making the settlement possible. This was due to its confluence with the Thames.
The sighting of the town was ideal. The estuary on the Thames provided a perfect thoroughfare for goods from all over the known world. The river at the heart of that old settlement is what came to be called the Walbrook. It drained the marshes of the Moorfields. This was the area around modern day Shoreditch and Moorgate. Flowing between the hills of Ludgate and Cornhill. It drained into the Thames at the modern day Walbrook Wharf.
Roman London and the Walbrook River
Old Roman London grew up around the banks of the Walbrook river. The river provided a harbour as well as water and sewerage disposal for ancient Roman settlers. It was the ideal spot on which to found a new port. Excavations have since revealed evidence of this early life. The Museum of London contains many exhibits from various digs along its route. The famous temple of Mithras was also discovered. That’s something which can still be visited.
Later on as London grew, a wall was erected around the perimeter of the city. The river came through the wall between the gates of Bishopsgate and Moorgate. It is believed that this transit through the old Roman wall, is what gave rise to the name Walbrook. More specifically it is believed that it flowed through the wall along the length of present day Blomfield Street.
Nowadays the Walbrook River is barely known. As the city of London grew traces of the river disappeared. At least that was the case on the surface. Now the river is subterranean and plays it’s role as part of the sewerage network of modern day London.
This blog post attempts to trace the route of the Walbrook. Traces which can still be hinted at in the landscape and topography. They can also be hinted at in place names of the city. By consulting contemporary sources we can help to put those together and walk the river overground. From it’s source in Shoreditch to it’s mouth leading into the Thames.
From Shoreditch to the Thames
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. However there are clues in the names of the area, not least on Holywell Lane. In medieval times a priory grew up around here. The Holywell was a place with notable fresh water source within it’s grounds. The area eventually became known as the Moorfields and tributaries would have fed into the Walbrook from around the area.
The Route of the Walbrook
The Walbrook river followed the line of the modern day curtain road. It then flowed into the city passing along modern day Appold Street and through Broadgate Circus. Eventually it came through the old roman wall following the approximate line of Blomfield Street. This would have run between the gates of Moorgate and Bishopsgate. A small section of the Roman Wall still exists next to the nearby All Hallows Church.
Curtain Road and Appold Street
Blomfield Street and London Wall
Once through the wall the Walbrook River passes under the general area of Austin Friars heading towards St Margarets Lothbury. The exact route in this area is difficult to determine as it has been heavily built up over centuries. Generally speaking though it’s likely that it would have flowed along the line of Throgmorten Avenue towards the area of Tokenhouse Yard. St Margaret’s was actually built on the culverted river and the modern day topography of Lothbury gives clues as to where it ran through. A dip in the modern day road separating the church and the Bank of England reveals the rivers line.
The Walbrook then runs underneath the Bank of England towards Bank junction. The topography again gives a large clue as to it’s flow. Bank junction notably dips around Mansion House to run down modern day Walbrook. At this point it begins it’s descent towards the Thames. It is here where the majority of excavations have taken place over the years. Indeed the name of the street remembers it’s origins.
Bank of England
The most recent excavations took place during the development of the modern Bucklersbury House. It was A chance to explore an area of old Roman London once thought lost. To see what not only sat on the banks off the Walbrook but what lived in the middle of the old city. It was here that the Temple of Mithras was discovered in the 1950’s. This was then removed only to be replaced as part of the modern development. The temple now stands on the same site in which it was first discovered having been extensively restored.
Looking down from Walbrook the line of the river follows Dowgate Hill. From a northerly approach it is possible to identify how this sloping street leading past Cannon Street station could indeed follow the rivers line. The topgraphy of the river valley is clearer by looking west from Cannon street towards Ludgate Hill and the direction of St Pauls. Here you will notice a dip in the lay of the land which correlates with the line of Walbrook leading towards Dowgate Hill. This line runs along the side of Cannon Street station.
An artwork by the artist Christina Iglesias can be found on Walbrook. Called ‘Forgotten Streams’ she took her inspiration from the Walbrook River. It reveals an image of a river bed through which water flows. The base of the bed appears to be root systems. It would be reminiscent of the old river bed of the Walbrook once uncovered after being hidden away for years. The artwork was commissioned as part of the Bucklersbury Development of the site.
Another point of interest close to the route of the river is a fragment of the old London stone. This used to stand where the entrance to the station is now. It was once known as the point from which Roman London calculated distance to and from the city. Now only a fragment of the stone remains. It is hidden behind a recently renovated grate. If this were indeed a true relic of Roman London then it’s original position would have been prominent. It was one that would have stood at the junction of the Thames and Walbrook leading into the city.
What remains of the Walbrook River now spills out from underneath Walbrook Wharf. You can walk straight down Cousin Lane and get to the shore of the Thames. The outfall now comes out underneath Walbrook Wharf. This is still a working wharf and today transports much of the City of London’s refuse. The outfall sewer can be seen at low tide. Back in Roman times this would have been a real estuary. The banks of the Thames however would have come much further inland than they do now. It is likely that this would have reached the line of Upper Thames Street.
There are lots of other great sources about the Walbrook to be found and some of them are below.
- The Walbrook Discovery Program – Museum of London
- Walbrook River – History
- The River Walbrook – London Geezer
For some other Inspiring City historical articles have a look at: