The River Fleet. Dividing the two London Saxon settlements.

It is known that prior to the time of King Alfred the Saxon community in London had largely moved out of the old Roman walled city and had moved to the area that we now know as Aldwych and Covent Garden. After about 886, when King Alfred is said to have restored London, the main settlement became once again within the Roman walls. It seems clear that for a period of time there would have been two communities. In King Alfred’s time the two communities would have been separated by the River Fleet, which presumably would have been bridged at some point. It is important to note that this was not a small river. This is easy to forget now that it’s flow is subterranean in sewers. However, there are clues from the landscape and from history for those who look for them. In this post I only look at the course through central London, as this is the most relevant to establishing what made London at the time of King Alfred. The sources for the river are the springs feeding the ponds that are on the high ground at Hampstead and at Highgate. I pick up the route at Old St Pancras Church, which is to the west side of the tracks coming out of St Pancras International train station. I will place a video at the end, which picks up the route a little further on at King’s Cross Road. Things are complicated by there being three routes: one being the course of the lost river,  another being the canalised sewer that now holds the flow, and yet another being an overflow. My priority was the course of the river itself.

St Pancras Road, London, looking south. On the left is Old St Pancras Church and straight ahead is St Pancras International train station. A yellow line gives a broad indication of the former course of the River Fleet.
St Pancras Rd, London, looking south. On the left is Old St Pancras Church and straight ahead is St Pancras International train station. The yellow line gives a broad indication of the former course of the River Fleet.

The river ran to the west of St Pancras Old Church and its course then runs under St Pancras Train Station to then reappear on the other side where it explains the curve in the Great Northern Hotel.

Looking north from Euston Road, London. St Pancras train station is on the left, King's Cross train station is out of shot on the right, and the Great Northern Hotel is visible on the right. An arrow shows the approximate former course of the River Fleet. The arrow follows the curve of the Great Northern Hotel.
Looking north from Euston Road, London. St Pancras train station is on the left, King’s Cross train station is out of shot on the right, and the Great Northern Hotel is visible on the right. The arrow shows the approximate former course of the River Fleet. The arrow is attempting to follow the curve of the Great Northern Hotel.

From there the route goes a short way down Pentonville Road until King’s Cross Road branches off, which it then follows.

After King's Cross train station, the course of the River Fleet heads down Pentonville Road until it meets with King's Cross Road. This photo shows which road is Pentonville Road, and therefore the former course of the river must head in this direction. The photo is taken looking east, with King's Cross just visible on the left.
After King’s Cross train station, the course of the River Fleet heads down Pentonville Road until it meets with King’s Cross Road. This photo shows which road is Pentonville Road, and therefore the former course of the river must head in this direction. The photo is taken looking east, with King’s Cross just visible on the left.
Looking east and showing the junction of Pentonville Road with King's Cross Road, which the course of the River Fleet then follows.
Looking east and showing the junction of Pentonville Road with King’s Cross Road, which the course of the River Fleet then follows.

Things get a bit trickier when one arrives at Cubitt Street as the river then ceases to follow King’s Cross Road but bends to the west instead. It is tricky to follow the exact route here (you will see the confusion in my video!), but its route can be picked up again in Mount Pleasant (near the Royal Mail sorting office, built on the site of Coldbath prison) from where it runs down Warner Street and Ray Street until it joins Farringdon Road.

At Mount Pleasant, looking west. The dip in the road, where the River Fleet would have flowed, can be clearly seen.
At Mount Pleasant, looking west. The dip in the road, where the River Fleet would have flowed, can be clearly seen.
At Mount Pleasant, looking east. Again, the dip in the road where the River Fleet would have flowed can be clearly seen.
At Mount Pleasant, looking east. Again, the dip in the road where the River Fleet would have flowed can be clearly seen.

I was told that outside the Coach pub and restaurant (previously Coach and Horses pub) one could hear the waters of the Fleet through a grill. I am very pleased to say that this was the case, although this of course is not the actual river but the canalised flow. It did sound quite healthy though.

A grill in the road where the flow of the River Fleet can be heard.
This photo should help you find the correct grill

Once you have reached Farringdon Road the course is much simpler to follow as it follows Farringdon Road, then Farringdon Street, then New Bridge Street down to where it flowed into the Thames where Blackfriars Bridge is today. There are some great places to see how the river flowed through here by looking at the landscape. My favourite is to walk up towards Smithfield Market (up Charterhouse Street) and look back. It is very easy to see the dip in which the river once flowed.

On Charterhouse Street, London, looking west. If you look carefully you can see that the roads runs downhill and then rises again after the yellow arrow. A yellow arrow shows the former line of the River Fleet running down into Farringdon Street.
On Charterhouse Street, London, looking west. If you look carefully you can see that the roads runs downhill and then rises again after the yellow arrow. The yellow arrow shows the former line of the River Fleet running down into Farringdon Street.

As you head closer to the Thames you pass Ludgate Circus, which would have in the past been the site of an important bridge across the Fleet. Whether there was a bridge here in Saxon times is not known.  On the right as you proceed further you will pass the site of Henry the VIII’s palace called the Bridewell. It is amazing to think that Henry VIII had a waterfront palace on this lost waterway. This later became another prison.

I understand that the flow into the Thames can be seen, but it seemed to me that the position from which one could view this was obstructed by construction work when I visited.

Near the end of the route there is a pub called the Black Friar, which I thoroughly recommend for a break.

You can watch the video below. My book, King Alfred: a Man on the Move, is available on Amazon.

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