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The Sewers of London: A Drunken Descent

Posted by on July 27, 2013

When Darmon came to us in the Dublin Castle, Camden Town, with a story of an ancient river, bricked-over and lost for centuries, yet still flowing, unbeknownst to most, beneath present-day London – and to top it off, that he had the key – it’s fair to say I remained sceptical.

But then again, I never say no to a crazy scheme.

If you don’t know Darmon or Robin you’ll probably want to skip straight to the descent, or at least to the story of the lost River Fleet.

Darmon is known for his wild stories and for a while, I confess, I too had my doubts about their legitimacy. Until one day I found that people thought the same of me. One friend told me that when we met, his first thought was; “complete bullshitter. How could anyone have travelled that many countries in so few years?” Another friend confessed that he’ll never be able to believe that I found myself caught up in a Texas Swingers party. (At some point, if I’m brave enough, or drunk enough, I’ll post my journals from that night.)

I guess the sad truth is; the crazier the things you do, the less they’ll be believed.

When you live life to its extremes, and leave yourself open to them, life will throw experiences your way that the common man will most likely never know.

Darmon is one of these people, who just can’t help but plunge head-first into whatever comes his way. (We’re talking about a guy who’s been to North Korea…not once, but twice.) And so it stands to reason that his stories seem too good to be true. But I can assure you, they are.

Wherever he goes, a story is in the making…and this night was no exception.

varna houseparty

The Varna crowd, minus a few key players

I was in London “on business” and so took the opportunity to catch up with some of my old Varna drinking buddies, who are rarely in the same place at one time. Robin can usually be found, these days, lurking in some unpretentious London pub, while Darmon was back in the UK for a three-week slot after a hectic year of travelling. When he’s not on the road, he lives in Bulgaria.

Anyway, after an initial catch up and a couple of pints, Robin took us to the Sheephaven Bay, where I was in the process of making an Irish joke when Robin directed my attention to our surroundings. I finished the joke anyway. It was a good one. At least I think it was.

This was where Darmon told us the story of the River Fleet.

The Story of the River Fleet

The Fleet was once one of London’s major rivers. While the Thames flowed in from the West, the Fleet came to meet it from the North. It starts in Hampstead Heath from two streams, come dammed up ponds. From here on in it goes underground and joins “London Below”. Here’s a map I made, if anyone wants to try it themselves:

 

In Roman times it was a magnificent river and the place where Boudica – the Celtic warrior-Queen – took on the Roman army. “Battle Bridge”, where the action took place, was renamed King’s Cross and is now, of course, unrecognisable.

fleet ditch river london 1844

The Fleet in 1844, by then just a “ditch”

The Fleet became a key trading dock in the Anglo-Saxon era, but over the centuries it was progressively used as an open sewer. The area became associated with poorhouses and prisons. By the 13th century, the river was officially contaminated. Large numbers of dead dogs floating by was, sadly, not an uncommon sight.

The growth of industry cut the flow of the river even more.

After the Great Fire of London it was transformed into a canal, but as sections became unpopular and fell into disrepair, they were covered over and forgotten. London’s increasing urban growth, the development of the Regent’s Canal and of new highways, are had their impact. Eventually, one of the last sections, which had been enclosed to form “Fleet Market” was closed, and by the end of the 1860’s the river was entirely bricked over.

Since then, the only people who navigated these waterways were a class of scavengers who travelled by punt in search of the wealth of scrap and flushed valuables that could be found during the Victorian era.

The river was effectively lost for a century.

That is, until it was rediscovered during plans to build a new line of the London Underground. The line was never built, but word got out, and an increasing number of “Urban Explorers” are trying to get at it.

“So,” asked Darmon. “You want to go see it or what?”

The Drunken Descent into London’s Sewers!

Walking around Camden, up and down the same streets, it seemed unlikely we’d find it.

Then suddenly, “Bingo! Here we are.”

We stood above a drain just like any other, with people milling about this way and that, but we were in luck for two reasons. Firstly, there was a pub opposite, and secondly, a van was ideally parked so as to cover our descent from anyone smoking outside.

We went in the pub for another pint and to assess the situation.

Robin agreed to stay above ground to keep watch, which deep-down I was glad about, since, despite Darmon’s claim that it would be easy to push open the grate from inside, and even with the laws of Physics on his side, I still had visions of getting stuck down there with the rats.

Darmon gave me his old Nokia with the built in torch and he strapped on a head-torch. “Don’t you want my phone? In case we get separated and you manage to get signal?”

“Nah.”

When we got back to the drain we looked up to see a house-party going on directly above, and a guy smoking out the window.

“Shit! We’d better do this quick!” Whispered Darmon as he produced a drain key, fitted it, hauled up the lid and dived into the darkness.

I followed him, caught hold of an access ladder and began scrambling down.

The last thing I heard was someone yelling, “Oh my God, there’s some guys going down into the sewers!” and then the cover closed, leaving Robin to deal with whatever mess we’d created.

Total blackness. Just the sound of Darmon scampering off down some tunnel below.

river fleet london sewers subterranean underground below

This photo’s from Undercity.org

I’d memorised the buttons I needed to press to switch on the torch, and I was now glad for it. I switched it on. The ladder was old, encrusted with dirt, but dry dirt like decades-old cobwebs and rust. As I neared the bottom I saw a pile of workman’s gloves, obviously tossed back down in disgust as soon as they were no longer needed. The threat of Viles Disease came to mind and I made a note to wash my hands thoroughly as soon as I got out. As if I needed a reminder.

(Worryingly, Darmon had never heard of Viles Disease.)

Once on the ground, I followed a passage with many curves and grand Victorian brickwork. I caught up with Darmon at a junction. He had found the river, but we were at a dead-end, and would have to climb to get to it. At this level, everything was covered in a fine layer of green slime…shit, basically. This is mid-July, and one of the hottest periods in recent UK history, so the water level was at a rare low. Ahead of us was a slight basin, filled with rags and rubbish and general filth. If we slipped, we were going in that. We climbed up another ladder, walked precariously along the top of the wall, and finally got sight of the once mighty River Fleet.

“That’s not a river. That’s a sewer.” I said.

“I think I just saw a floater,” was his reply.

We reached a point where we could go no further. It was either; a) disappear down a vertical drop, b) sail the river of shit, or c) head back.

I was glad for the experience. You see stuff like this in the movies, but part of you doesn’t believe it really exists unless you get down and dirty and see it yourself.

Best London tourist attraction ever!

We didn’t get any photos as it was too dark, but Darmon recently did the Effra, another subterranean London river, so you can get an idea of the kind of things we saw. You can also follow his latest escapades on Facebook.

I threw the cover open with no trouble and rushed into the pub toilets before they had a chance to tell me they were closed. With clean hands I came back to find Darmon explaining to a collection of faces in the first-floor window that they were sitting on one of London’s lost rivers.

Things turned sour and Robin pissed on their doorstep.

After that, we headed to Leytonstone, hit another bar, then picked up some beers and isopropyl nitrite from a convenience store and went back to Robin’s. Darmon passed out on the terrace and me and Robin drank more beer and had one of the more obscure night’s I can remember, full of improvised dancing, piano playing and tequila.

A message received from my phone was sent at six in the morning, way after sunrise.

After some much-needed beauty sleep, we said goodbye over a Wetherspoon’s breakfast.

Next night, Darmon came down to Brighton, and while at a barbecue on the beach another crazy scheme began to take shape: a drunken, midnight swim to Brighton’s derelict West Pier.

“Wait a minute…Evan, you’ve got a boat, right?”

But that’ll be another story.

west pier brighton sunset

West Pier, Brighton, from BrightonDailyPhoto.com

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