Read The Fields Beneath Online

Authors: Gillian Tindall

The Fields Beneath (3 page)

‘The Fields Lie Sleeping Underneath’ still, at the time of writing, proclaims itself from the lintel of the house in Prince of Wales Road. But the squatters have been evicted (or, as they insist, have managed to induce the Council to re-house them) and the house is in the hands of builders. Originally it was supposed to be knocked down as part of a grandiose scheme for the area, conceived at a period which now seems laughably remote. That was why the squatters found it empty in the first place – a theme in Kentish Town’s most recent history to which I shall be returning at a later stage in this book. The bit of land on which it and the rest of the terrace stands was originally ‘scheduled as an open space’ in the jargon of the planning report, and had that been carried through the field underneath would indeed have been revealed again as the inscription seems to predict, though perhaps without its cows and buttercups. But in fact local resentment about the destruction of inoffensive, liveable houses became so intense in the early 1970s that the plan was abandoned, at any rate for the moment. Currently, the house is being rehabilitated (the jargon of
decade). The roof has been taken off and put on again, at the upper storey a large expanse of new, yellow London stock bricks shows the house’s original pristine colour by contrast with the greyish tinge the rest of it has now assumed. The variegated windows are being restored to the correct, twelve-paned uniformity. When Camden Council does decide to do up an old house for its own tenants, it restores it to its original appearance with a care and knowledge few private owner-occupiers emulate – which, ironically, leads the casual passer-by to the false assumption that the house has been acquired by middle-class owner-occupiers. Since this book will inevitably contain a number of harsh words about those who are now the public custodians of a very large slice of Kentish Town, I should like to put their care on record also.

Perhaps some council servants, reluctantly abandoning the authoritarian, late-1940s planning precepts on which many of them were reared, have come round in recent years to the realisation that William Morris’s famous dictum still has validity today. It is often quoted, but I make no apology for quoting it again here; it needs perennial restatement: ‘… These old buildings do not belong to us only … they belonged to our forefathers and they will belong to our descendants unless we play them false. They are not in any sense our property, to do as we like with them. We are only trustees for those who come after us.’

In the beginning there was the road. But before the road, there was the river.

Present-day London has a number of buried rivers: there is the Wandle, which has given its name to Wandsworth, the Tyburn which for centuries gave its name to the crossroads we now call Marble Arch, the nearby Westbourne which further downstream flows in a pipe over Sloane Square tube station, and several others. But the best known of all is the waterway called for most of its length the Fleet. Kentish Town lies neatly in the valley of the Fleet, and it is this circumstance which has shaped it and made it a corridor – a natural route in and out of London since time before history. It is also from the Fleet, according to divers explanations, that Kentish Town derives its name (Ken-ditch = the bed of a waterway. ‘Ken’ in this sense is common in place names).

Yet this once-important watercourse, which for centuries provided not only the
raison d’être
of the village but also its transport, its principal source of water for men, beasts and crops, the power to turn its mills, and its only drainage, has become invisible. Most people who live in the area, or in Hampstead to the north, where other tributaries of the same river rise, have vaguely heard of the Fleet, but few have much notion of where it once ran – or rather, runs. Local building firms, not to mention large national ones, seem similarly ill-informed: it is not uncommon for the foundations of a new council block in west Kentish Town, or a new in-filling development of ‘town houses’ on the Brookfield Estate, to become inundated with water, to the consternation of all concerned. Yet a glance at the maps of 150 years ago would have shown architects all they needed to know. Perhaps because of this vaguely apprehended building hazard in Kentish Town, other people seem to have a general impression that the Fleet may be
: any time a cellar in the area shows signs of rising damp, tales circulate of people lifting up floorboards in their basement kitchens and finding ‘the bed of the Fleet’ underneath. One imagines a clear but shallow stream, with bright, round pebbles and fronds of weeds, a few minnows and perhaps a corroded anchor or two from a long-ago ship.

Such an anchor was in fact found in the eighteenth century, when the section of the stream then running open at the back of the Castle Tavern tea-garden was dredged. No date, even conjectural, was assigned to it, and writers commenting on it not long after seem to have imagined it as belonging to something akin to a Spanish galleon, or a mythic vessel of some remote but resplendent golden age not locatable in actual chronology. One should perhaps qualify statements about ‘whole navies’ having once come up river as far as Kentish Town with the observation that, in distant times, ‘ships’ (like ‘rivers’) came in modest sizes. It seems however likely that the Romans sailed their boats up the Fleet: in the foundations of St Pancras Old Church (early mediaeval, but known to be on the site of an older building or a series of them) lie courses of Roman brick and fragments of their tiles. So perhaps the church, like St Paul’s Cathedral itself, in whose gift it was for so long, lies on the site of a pre-Christian temple. It was confidently asserted in the eighteenth century that the bones of an elephant, brought to Britain by the Romans ‘to frighten the barbarians’, had been dug up not far from the church; but twentieth-century scholarship, with rather more accurate perception of the aeons of time that lie behind us, is more inclined to regard these as the bones of some prehistoric mammoth, overtaken by death while seeking a drink at the crackling, frozen verge of the Ice Age Fleet. Even further back in time there are indications that the whole area was covered by the sea: an unsuccessful boring for water in the nineteenth century got down to beds of carbonised shells.

Returning to a more measurable time-scale, the facts are these: one or more main tributaries of the Fleet rise near the Vale of Health on Hampstead Heath and flow in one stream via Hampstead Ponds and South End Green along Fleet Road to Gospel Oak. This stream then proceeds due south through west Kentish Town, crossing Prince of Wales Road just below Angler’s Lane (the derivation is obvious) and then continues in a slightly more eastwards direction till it crosses the lower part of Kentish Town Road below the Castle Inn, at almost the same place where the Regent’s Canal has run since 1820. But just before making this cross to the eastern side of the road it is joined by its other main tributary, a stream which rises in the grounds of Ken Wood, and flows down through Highgate Ponds (which are old reservoirs) on the edge of Parliament Hill. This stream veers east under Highgate Road at about the level of St Alban’s Road where it is joined by the rivulet of the Brookfield brook: the end houses of St Alban’s Road stand in what was once a sizeable pond, utilised in the late eighteenth century for a gentleman’s ornamental water garden. It continues due south, then veers west again back under Highgate Road at the particularly bleak point where two large factories now stand right on the road. Behind them, somewhere in the waste of railway lands and abandoned scraps of pre-urban Kentish Town fields, it picks up another little stream coming from the north and then continues on its way through west Kentish Town to join with the Hampstead branch.

Once joined, somewhere near the railway bridge which spans the main road like a portcullis at the southern end of present-day Kentish Town, the enlarged stream proceeds determinedly onwards following the curve of St Pancras Way – or, to be more accurate, the line of St Pancras Way still follows the curving route of the pack-horse track that once followed the bank of the stream. It passes close beside St Pancras Old Church, which was built either on a natural hillock above the marshy watercourse or on land specially embanked there to lift the building clear of the spring floods. It then continues on, down under the complex of railway bridges north of the main line stations, down past King’s Cross where Bagnigge Wells once were, through Clerkenwell and on – its name now transiently the Olde-bourne – down Farringdon Street, past the site of the one-time prison that bore its name, past Fleet Street, and finally out into the Thames itself and hence at long last to Gravesend and the sea. Today, from the Highgate and Hampstead ponds onwards, it is encased in cast iron pipes the whole way to the Thames.

There is evidence that, from the thirteenth century on, there was chronic concern about over-use and misuse of the river. In 1290, the eighteenth year of the reign of Edward I, we find the White Friars, near Ludgate Hill, complaining that putrid exhalations from it stifled the smell of their incense at Mass, and this was a complaint which was to be repeated up and down stream, with variations, till the Fleet’s final imprisonment. In 1307, according to Stowe, there were complaints that whereas ‘in times past the course of water, running at and beside London under Olde-bourne Bridge and Fleet Bridge in to the Thames, has been of such bredth and depth that ten or twelve ships laden with goods, could sail there together,’ it was now ‘sore decay’d’. The blame was laid on the tanners, who polluted the waters, and on those who raised wharves beside it, but the principal problem seems to have been that the water was diverted to turn the paddles of mills built near the stream. The struggle for supremacy between those who wanted to use waterways for industrial purposes and those who wanted to use them to transport heavy goods about, is a constant theme in mediaeval and post-mediaeval life. Successive laws were passed and efforts made in the following centuries to clean the river, dredge it, remove the mills and so forth, but it was never brought back to its old breadth and depth, and came to be regarded less as a river than as a brook. The last plan for cleaning and canalising it was by Christopher Wren. But, like most of Wren’s grandest plans, including his scheme for rebuilding London after the Fire with a new street pattern like a classical Italian city, this idea for turning the squalid outflow of the Fleet at the Thames into a Venetian-style asset did not come to anything. London has a long tradition of rejecting visionary planning schemes, though this has not prevented twentieth-century planners from seeing visions and dreaming dreams just as revolutionary as those of a Wren or a Haussmann.

Waterways lead a life of their own, and there may have been other factors in the Fleet’s decline apart from the wasteful, despoiling ways of those who lived upon its banks. One identifiable cause for its progressive degradation was the late sixteenth-century formation of the pond-reservoirs north of Kentish Town, with conduit pipes made of elm trunks leading the water off to supply London. This lowered water levels further downstream – though not enough to prevent the occasional disastrous flood in the Battle Bridge (King’s Cross) district, overturning brick walls and drowning cattle. Where the stream ran through Kentish Town it still seems to have been reasonably sweet and clean up to the end of the eighteenth century or even later, which was just as well when you consider that it was still the main source of water for many people living in its vicinity: only middle-class houses, in the eighteenth century, had water laid on, and then usually only in the kitchen or yard. But lower down, towards Clerkenwell and Holborn, where it was now known as the Town Ditch, it had by then become a byword for filth:

… Fleet ditch, with disemboguing streams

Rolls the large tribute of dead dogs to Thames,

The king of dykes! than whom no sluice of mud

With deeper sable blots the silver flood.


Gradually, as the eighteenth century progressed, more and more of this fetid open drain was arched over and confined to a brick culvert. Its lower reaches became a general sewer into which scores of latrines, built out over the backs of houses, discharged directly. And, as London gradually increased in size, so the brick gulley extended higher and higher up the watercourse since, above a certain population density, human beings seem inevitably to pollute and foul their streams. The Fleet was still open just north of St Pancras church in the early nineteenth century, perhaps because this was then a very sparsely populated area, but a large segment disappeared underground when the Regent’s Canal was constructed. (It crosses
the canal, but for a little way through Camden Town the canal takes the exact route of the old river, as if replacing it.) It was still capable, in the 1820s, of causing floods in the Kentish Town area, principally at the point where it crossed under the lower part of what is now Kentish Town High Road and what was known for centuries before as ‘Water Lane’. Indeed the watery habits of the Fleet made themselves known again at that point some twenty-five years later, when the North London Junction Railway was being constructed by unwary engineers and several arches of the viaduct collapsed with a rush of water at the foundations. Further up, its fluctuating levels did less harm. In 1825 the pond where the stream crossed under Highgate Road (near the entrance to College Lane) was said to be thirteen feet wide at flood, and so it was there that the water-carts regularly came. A house where the carters refreshed themselves, Bridge House, stood there and in fact still stands (but see page 16), disguised behind the pebbledashed modern facade of a metal dealer’s offices.

But the population explosion experienced by Kentish Town as the nineteenth century went on – the transformation scene which will be a dominant theme in this book – had a terrible effect on the Fleet, which suffered the fate of rivers up and down the country in that newlyindustrialised era. Typical of many general laments for the lost stream, that archetypal playground of lost childhood, lost innocence, is that of James Hole, a housing reformer of the same generation as the great sanitary propagandist, Edwin Chadwick. He wrote in 1866: ‘The inhabitant whose memory can carry him back thirty years recalls pictures of rural beauty, suburban mansions and farmsteads, green fields, waving trees and clear streams where fish could live – where now can be seen only streets, factories and workshops, and a river or brook black as the ink which now runs from our pen describing it.’

Kentish Town was by then rapidly filling up with inhabitants, increasingly working-class, and between them their cess-pits, street drains and workshops did for the Fleet. As each new area of land disappeared under paving and foundations, another section of the brook was arched over. In 1872 the Metropolitan Board of Works finally encased its whole course, from Highgate Ponds, in a new sewer, some of it as much as fifteen feet below the level of the modern street. Two years earlier, Samuel Palmer, the principal and almost the only historian of St Pancras, had written:

There still remains a few yards in our parish where the brook runs in its native state. At the back of the Grove, in the Kentish Town Road, is a rill of water, one of the little arms of the Fleet, which is yet clear and untainted. Another arm is at the bottom of the field at the back of the Bull and Last inn, over which is a little wooden bridge leading to the cemetery. [Highgate Cemetery]. It is pleasant of a summer evening to walk the meadow, or lean over the little bridge, and allow fancy to range back when that running rill flowed on to join the River of Wells, pure and clear, which emptied itself into what was then the clear and stainless Thames …

Palmer’s vision of the primitive world was that of the Pre-Raphaelite painters, every leaf and petal standing out in childlike colour, of Ruskin or of William Morris’s escapist
Earthly Paradise
, which never existed historically, or at any rate not in the pristine form envisaged:

Forget the spreading of the hideous town

Think rather of the packhorse on the down,

And dream of London, small and white, and clean,

The clear Thames bordered by its gardens green.


From then on
references to the Fleet are couched in this elegaic tone, obsessionally contrasting past with present in favour of the former. The river, having disappeared below ground, had ceased to be a perceived fact but had become a myth, a mysterious presence, an embodiment of all that civilisation has lost.

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