To write about London and its rivers is to enter a crowded literary field. Many aspects of watery life in the capital have been documented for public consumption over the past 150 years, from Hilaire Belloc’s lament for the river’s lost monasteries in The Historic Thames to Peter Ackroyd’s doorstop, London: A Biography. More recently, it is previously unremarked everyday stories which have found a home on many publishers’ lists. The practice of mudlarking especially of sifting objects from the river’s mud has held readers in thrall. Sometimes it sounds as though the Thames foreshore at low tide must be as busy as a King’s Cross platform during a pre-pandemic rush hour.
In this latest addition to the city’s riparian canon, London Clay, the poet Tom Chivers documents a series of ‘journeys in the deep city’. He wisely makes no attempt to be comprehensive or exhaustive in his wanderings, choosing rather to cover those areas of the metropolis to which he has a personal connection. Thus, he begins on the cusp of the East End in Aldgate where he lived for many years as a young man, moves on to the Herne Hill area of south London where he grew up, and ends in his family’s current home, Bermondsey. Along the way, he makes excursions to places such as Westminster, Hampstead, the City and Stratford which have links to the subterranean features he is examining.
The lost rivers of London are a major preoccupation of this book. These are streams, such as the Fleet and the Walbrook, which have been gradually diverted and culverted over the centuries to run through sewers rather than on the surface. Armed with a Streetfinder map which he has coloured in to show the city’s different rock strata, Chivers and a rotating cast of friends walk the course of several such streams and observe their modern-day traces.