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  • Miles Hedley

SECRET RIVERS at the Museum of London Docklands



We’re rather spoilt for enjoying rivers in Greenwich because not only do we have the Thames but a stone’s throw away is Deptford Creek and just to the north is the Lea, both significant tributaries that are still very much alive and accessible. Which is more than can be said for most of the other rivers and streams that flow into the Thames in the 30-odd miles between here and Kingston.


Many of the names of these lost waterways are legendary – the Fleet and Tyburn, for example, both live on by association with, respectively, the newspaper industry and a notorious site of execution in the Middle Ages.


Yet none of them is truly lost – they still exist in some form. For the most part, their courses have been buried underground in culverts and drains but some can still be seen. The Westbourne, for instance, feeds the Serpentine in Hyde Park, the Fleet waters Hampstead Heath’s famous swimming ponds and the Tyburn can be traced back to the ornamental lakes in Regent’s Park.


A fascinating new exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands called Secret Rivers tells the story of these waterways through artefacts dating back 3,000 years found by mudlarkers and archaeologists, historical and contemporary maps, artworks from the past three centuries and literary references.




Among the highlights on display are a 19th painting of the cholera-infested slums beside the Neckinger river in Bermondsey which were immortalised by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist, gorgeous Roman jewellery, medieval glass, a pewter tankard from the infamous Fleet Prison and even a 12th century loo-seat – which you can look at while sitting on a replica.


Curators Kate Sumnall and Thomas Ardill not only trace the history of the rivers but also look to the future, including plans to reopen some of them in a process called daylighting. Part of the Quaggy has already been restored in Sutcliffe Park, Eltham, and is now part of a nature reserve before it empties into the Ravensbourne, which itself flows into Deptford Creek.


There is also a madly ambitious scheme to daylight the Tyburn, even though it would require the demolition of Buckingham Palace and a swathe of zillion-pound mansions in Mayfair.


This is a fascinating, family-friendly and free exhibition that offers something for everyone and I urge you to go. Further details at https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/museum-london-docklands/whats-on/exhibitions/secret-rivers


Map ©Museum of London