Stroll around London and you could be standing above one of the capital’s many rivers without even knowing it. They run for many miles, entombed in concrete culverts and sewer pipes, out of sight and out of mind.
Unknown to most, the capital is home to more than a dozen underground rivers, tributaries of the rivers Thames and Lea that were built over during the city’s growth.
Once so important in the development of the nation, whether for transport, as a vital source of drinking water or as open sewers, some of these rivers also have a rich historical background.
Take the River Neckinger, which rises in Southwark and joins the Thames via St Saviour’s Dock. It is known by historians as the place where convicted pirates were hanged in the 17th century, while the dock itself is where England’s greatest author, Charles Dickens, chose to kill off Bill Sykes, the sinister character in his novel, Oliver Twist.
For the best part of two centuries, however, the Neckinger, like its subterranean counterparts, hasn’t seen the light of day. But all this could change thanks to a shift in attitude towards urban rivers by town planners, combined with efforts by the Environment Agency to restore neglected areas of the UK’s waterways network. Many of these forgotten waterways of yesteryear could be looking forward to a new lease of life.
Design for London, a recent exhibition of ideas aimed at ‘transforming the capital into a prosperous, better connected, more environmentally responsible city’ which was attended by new London mayor Boris Johnson, included proposals to start bringing concealed stretches of 16 ‘lost’ waterways to the surface, potentially opening up miles of new water for urban anglers to fish.
A spokesman for the mayor said: “Opening up parts of London’s subterranean river networks is one of many ideas to improve the quality of living in our city. As with all these ideas, a full study would need to be undertaken to assess its feasibility.”
So, although little more than a pipe dream, small projects instigated by the EA over the past year have proved what could be possible if the true potential of these subterranean streams is once again unlocked.
“The attitude towards urban watercourses is changing. They are increasingly seen by developers as adding value to projects, whereas once they were hidden under or behind developments,” said Tom Cousins, an Environment Agency technical specialist in the Thames region.
“A lot of our work nowadays is spent screening planning applications with a view to maximizing the natural resources. Allied to this is our ongoing policy to open up access to the natural environment for members of the public. These watercourses are animal superhighways. If we remove or modify culverts, weirs and other obstacles that prevent the passage of fish, they will establish self-sustaining populations.”
Proof can be found in projects carried out on two neglected Thames tributaries, the Ravensbourne in south-east London and the Beverley Brook in the south-west of the capital.
The Ravensbourne is, perhaps, best known among historians for being the place where, in 1580, Queen Elizabeth I knighted Francis Drake on board the Golden Hind on his return from circumnavigating the globe.
For many years, however, most of its length has been shrouded in concrete culverts, but there have been recent attempts to breathe new live into it.
“On the Ravensbourne, near Deptford Creek we did a swap with Docklands Light Railway whereby they took over a concrete culvert of ours and we subsequently took the river out of the culvert into the open air,” said Mr Cousins. “Before long, we found numbers of juvenile elvers in the stream – these fish had come under their own steam from the Thames, a hell of a long way.”
“Further west, at Beverley Brook near Barnes, we uncovered a section of the stream and cleaned it up, removing a range of obstacles. We then stocked a couple of hundred chub and dace, and left them to their own devices. When we went back to check, we found that they were thriving. It just shows what is possible if you give the fish a chance,” he added.
While projects like the one at Beverley Brook prove what can be achieved on a small scale, the secret to long-term success lies in reconnecting the tributaries directly to the Thames.
“The Thames is the key – it’s a huge, thriving reservoir holding 124 different species of fish – and the elvers coming up the Ravensbourne have shown just what is possible if we get the habitat right. Where angling opportunities exist we will always promote that, and the goal is for these tributaries to be self-sustaining, receiving their fish directly from the Thames. It’s far better than having to stock them every year.”
One of the real success stories is the River Wandle – the only Thames tributary which runs overground for vast swathes. Little more than an open sewer several decades ago, the river is now a superb, self-sustaining multi-species venue which supports barbel and roach to specimen sizes.
Parliamentary spokesperson for angling Martin Salter MP has fished the Wandle and other Thames tributaries since childhood and is optimistic about their future.
“We’ve already seen the success of the Wandle restoration, despite the recent hits it has taken from pollution, so it shows what can be done. It would be brilliant if other tributaries could be cleaned up, regenerated and opened for public use. They are always vulnerable to pollution, but sewage works have a legal obligation to improve by 2015 and will do so. It’s much easier to cover a river than uncover it, but hopefully any changes will be another boost to London angling,” said Martin.
His sentiments are echoed by Dave Harper, Angling Times’ match fishing correspondent for the South of England and a man who also remembers fishing the Wandle in the 1960s.
“It’s a mammoth task, but any opportunity to increase angling in the capital can only be welcomed. If you look at the three London boroughs south of the river, there is little running-water fishing on offer for coarse anglers.”