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.
From there the route goes a short way down Pentonville Road until King’s Cross Road branches off, which it 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.
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.
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.
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 and also visit the site of my book at www.king-alfred.com