One of my favourite books as a child (and still) is The Magic Lamplighter by Marion St. John Webb illustrated by Margaret Tarrant (1926 – inherited from my father). It’s the story of a little girl, Marigold, who follows one of London’s last lamplighters around the city, travelling back through time as well as from place to place. One of the things that fascinated me about the story was the permeability of both time and space. People from the past walk the streets again and a river that once ran free is now invisible, or almost: “And from this pipe, after miles of travelling in the dark underground, the river Fleet came pouring out into the light of day once more–only to be swept into the currents of the great river Thames and carried swiftly away on the tide, and lost forever.”
Living as I did near the red mud banks of the Petitcodiac River where surfers sometimes ride the tidal bore , I couldn’t begin to imagine how a river could be hidden away underground and I longed to see the place near Blackfriars Bridge where the Fleet found freedom again. The map on the end pages made it seem more real, a place that I could actually visit one day.
I did eventually visit London, a printout of the map in hand, but most of the area was transformed by new development. Blackfriars Bridge is still there but I didn’t manage to locate the mysterious pipe. This article says the river can still be heard beneath “a grate at Ray Street, Farringdon near the Coach and Horses pub” so I’ll know where to look–or listen–if I go to London again. Meanwhile, the London Museum of the Docklands’ current exhibition is about London’s lost rivers. I’m longing to visit that too but I won’t get there.
I live in St. John’s now and we have a few hidden rivers here so instead I’ll trace their routes beneath our feet right here at home.