The River Fleet is one of the most famous lost rivers of London. Once a major river running through the capital, it is now mostly part of London’s sewer system. Despite being almost entirely underground however, it is still possible to trace the original path of the river. This post contains everything you need to know about walking the course of the River Fleet.
The River Fleet runs for 3.7 miles from Hampstead Health to the River Thames at Blackfriars. Although most of the river now runs underground, it is still possible to walk the original route of the river.
As you walk the river’s former path, you will see how it has shaped some of London’s landscape. For example, the unusual building line adjacent to King’s Cross Station follows the original course of the river.
The River Fleet has also given its name to places in London such as Fleet Street, and Holborn (the southern part of the Fleet was named “Holbourne”. The Jubilee Line, which travels along part of the river’s course, was also meant to be named the “Fleet Line” before the name was changed in 1977.
In Victorian times, the River Fleet was known for being an over polluted sewer. Areas around the river were slums and dwellings full of disease. It was these slums around the River Fleet that became the inspiration for Fagin’s den on Saffron Hill, in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist.
Today the River Fleet is still used as a sewer, but runs almost entirely underground. The only parts of the River Fleet which remain above ground today are in Hampstead and Highgate.
Below is a list of points along the original course of the River Fleet. If you use this guide to plan your walk please tag us with @WandleNews in any photos on Twitter and Instagram!
River Fleet Map
River Fleet Self Guided Walking Tour
The River Fleet has two sources which rise on Hampstead Heath and meet in Kentish Town. One source starts in Kenwood and flows down the eastern side of Hampstead Health, and the other starts at the Vale of Health, and flows down the western side of Hampstead Heath.
On the map above, I have started the walking trail from the Vale of Health and marked the point in Kentish town where the two branches of the River Fleet become one.
1. Hampstead Ponds – Vale of Health
Hampstead Heath is the only place where the River Fleet still flows above ground.
The western area of Hampstead Heath used to be called Hatchett’s Bottom, and was a water logged marsh until the 17th century when the Hampstead Water Company drained the area and built ponds. These ponds would be used as reservoirs to supply Kentish town and the West End.
After the ponds were created, the name of the area was changed to Vale of Health, but despite its name, the water was not healthy or clean. This was until 1851 when an act was passed in Parliament stating that water companies must properly treat the water they supplied.
After this, Hampstead became abundant with clean water, and a central place to clean laundry. Even up until the 1960s you could see white linen drying on Hampstead Heath.
Today there are three ponds on the southwest corner of Hampstead Health. One pond is a mixed bathing pond, one is for wildlife, and one is for fishing. There is also the Viaduct Pond and Vale of Health pond.
2. Highgate Ponds – Kenwood
Kenwood and Highgate Ponds is where the other source of the River Fleet starts.
Like at the Vale of Health, a number of reservoirs and ponds were created here, but on a much larger scale compared to the western side.
The Highgate tributary of the River Fleet makes up eight large ponds in total, five of which are within the grounds of Kenwood House.
Today there is a bird sanctuary pond, boating pond, and male and female bathing ponds. This is the only place where you can swim in the waters of the River Fleet before it goes underground and joins London’s sewer system.
3. Kentish Town
Kentish Town was once a village on the banks of the River Fleet. In fact, the name Kentish Town derived its name from the River Fleet. The Celtic word Ken-ditch or Caen-ditch means “bed of a waterway.”
As you walk through Kentish Town you can see road names that were influenced by the river that once flowed there, such as Fleet Road and Angler’s Lane.
Quinn’s pub on Kentish Town road marks the point where the two tributaries of the River Fleet meet.
4. St Pancras Old Church
After passing through Camden Town, the river reaches the site of St Pancras Old Church, which is one of the oldest churches in the country.
St Pancras Way, which passes the former site of the St Pancras workhouse, was originally a track winding alongside the River Fleet.
St Pancras Church is alongside the site of the former workhouse, and once stood on a small hill just to the east of the River Fleet. This was an area that was subject to frequent flooding.
In the 15th century, due to the persistent flooding, another chapel was built in Kentish Town, and parishioners were encouraged to move north. Despite this however, St Pancras church still remains today in the same place.
5. St Pancras Well
In the 16th century St Pancras had its own spa which had a well, gardens and shaded walks. The water from the well was claimed to have healing powers and could cure all kinds of skin conditions.
By the end of the 18th century however, the well was enclosed within the garden of a private house near St Pancras church. It was neglected and built over when these houses were demolished during the building of St Pancras station.
6. King’s Cross
King’s Cross was previously called it was called “Battle Bridge”. The name Battle Bridge was a distortion of Bradeford Bridge which was a bridge that existed here over the Fleet River.
At this point, the course of the River Fleet ran along Pancras Road and past the current King’s Cross Station. It was joined by two tributaries in Kings Cross. One tributary joined the river where King’s Cross Station is today, and the other joined near Caledonian Road. The tributary on Euston Road was still uncovered at the start of the 19th century.
The area around the Fleet close to St Pancras was always at risk of flooding due to the confluence of these three streams and the flatness of the land.
7. St Chad’s Well
St Chad’s Well was another well found close to the banks of the River Fleet. It was dedicated to St Chad who was the patron saint of springs and wells. At its peak, St Chad’s Well had over 1,000 visitors a week in the 18th century when wells were popular.
Like St Pancras Well, the area around St Chad’s Well became a popular spa location for local people. The water was believed to have medicinal properties, and similar composition to the wells in Litchfield. The well and gardens disappeared in 1860 when the Metropolitan line was built.
Today the original location of St. Chad’s Well is at the junction of St. Chad’s Place and Gray’s Inn Road.
8. Bagnigge Well
Bagnigge Wells was one of the most popular 18th century spas. It had a fish pond, flower gardens and bowling green, as well as seats along the banks of the River Fleet where people could drink cider.
The gardens around the wells were opened daily and visitors were charged to taste the waters. One of the wells contains water with high levels of iron, and another was found to have purgative properties.
The spa closed in 1841 and was built over soon after. There is a plaque on the wall at 61-63 Kings Cross Road which marks the original north-west boundary of the Bagnigge Wells site.
The plaque reads “This is Bagnigge House. Neare the Pindera Wakefeilde, 1680”. Baginigge House was on the site with the wells and garden, and Pinder of Wakefield was a nearby pub.
9. Coldbath Fields
The river flowed past an area now known as Mount Pleasant, but once known as Coldbath Fields which is to the east of Grays Inn Road. Coldbath Fields was named after a spring that was discovered there in 1697, which contained water that was meant to help cure and prevent illness.
Coldbath Fields Prison was also built there in 1794, on the site which is now Mount Pleasant Postal service sorting office. The river ran right beside the prison’s wall.
Samuel Coleridge and Robert Southey mentioned Coldbath Fields prison in their poem “The Devil’s Thoughts”.
As he went through Coldbath Fields he saw
A solitary cell;
And the Devil was pleased, for it gave him a hint
For improving his prisons in hell.The Devil’s Thoughts – Coleridge and Southey
The area around Ray Street, just north of the junction of Clerkenwell Road and Farringdon Road, was once known as Hockley-in-the-Hole. It lay on the north bank of the River Fleet. The name “Hockley-in-the-Hole” comes from its proximity to the Fleet as “Hockley” comes from the Saxon word for “muddy field”.
This area was notorious for being one of the most infamous areas in London. It was a resort of thieves, highwaymen, and bull and bear baiters.
Next to the Coach pub on Ray Street there was once a Bear Garden where men would wrestle, or fight with swords or cudgels for money. People would also watch dogs, cocks and bulls fight.
The old house on the site, which later became the Coach and Horses pub, was rumoured to have a vaulted passage which led to the banks of the River Fleet.
Directly outside the the Coach pub on Ray Street you can see a grate on the pavement. If you look down you can see and hear the River Fleet flowing.
You can hear the River Fleet through the grate on Ray Street, in the video below.
11. Saffron Hill
The area around the River Fleet known as Saffron Hill was known to be an area filled with crime and disease. Charles Dickens writes about Saffron Hill in Oliver Twist.
As the Artful Dodger takes Oliver to Fagin’s den, which was situated at the southern end of Saffron Hill, he writes:
A dirty and more wretched place he had never seen. The street was very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours.Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
In the novel, “The Cripples Pub” was the fictional pub that Bill Sikes and Fagin visit, but in Dickens’ Time, The Three Cripples was the name of a house in Saffron Hill located next to a pub called “The One Tun”. It is believed that The One Tun pub was the inspiration for the pub in Dickens’ novel.
You can still visit The One Tun pub today on Saffron Hill.
12. Holborn Viaduct
This part of the River Fleet was known as Holbourne, which means “hollow stream”. It is where the name Holborn comes from. The Holborn Viaduct which you can see just past the junction with Farringdon Street, was once a bridge over the River Fleet.
In medieval times, this was where ships unloaded the stones for the original St Paul’s Cathedral. You can still see signs that this area was a former dock from some of the nearby street names such as Old Seacoal Lane.
The photograph below shows the view from Holborn Viaduct looking down on where the River Fleet once flowed. Today the river is replaced by cars and buses.
13. Fleet Prison
Fleet Prison once stood on the eastern bank of the River Fleet, in between Ludgate Hill and the Old Fleet Lane. Fleet Prison was predominantly a debtors prison, and stood on the banks of the River Fleet from 1197-1842.
The prison was destroyed and rebuilt twice. The first time was in 1381 during the Peasant’s Revolt, and the second time was in 1666 by the Great Fire of London.
After the prison closed in 1842, it became the site of Ludgate Hill Railway Station. Today, Ludgate Hill Railway Station no longer exists, and there are office buildings where the railway station and prison once stood.
Around 1515 Henry VIII built a palace next to the River Fleet known as the “Bridewell Palace”. It was used as one of his main London residences for eight years.
The palace was later turned into an orphanage and hospital for the poor, a “place of correction for wayward women” and then a prison.
You can find a plaque at 14 New Bridge Street, where the original palace once stood. Above the entrance you can see a reconstruction of the original gateway to Bridewell Prison.
15. Blackfriar’s Bridge
The River Fleet meets the River Thames at Blackfriar’s. The lower part of the River Fleet, from Ludgate Circus to the Thames was covered in 1769 for the opening of the new Blackfriars Bridge.
Today, the Thames Tideway Tunnel is being built to stop sewage from being poured into the Thames, and take it instead to a treatment plant at Beckton.
In the photograph below, the construction work you can see under the bridge is the point at which the River Fleet meets the Thames.
River Fleet History
The River Fleet was a major river in London in Roman times, but over the years as London grew, it became increasingly more polluted until eventually it turned into an open sewer.
The area around the River Fleet became known for poor-quality housing and prisons. Even Bridewell Palace itself was turned into a prison.
After the Great Fire of London in 1666, Christopher Wren proposed widening the River Fleet, but this proposal was rejected. Instead the River was converted into the New Canal with wharves that were used by the coastal coal trade from the north east of England.
In 1737 the upper part of the canal between Holborn and Ludgate Circus was covered over, and 1769, the lower part from Ludgate Circus to the Thames was covered before the opening of Blackfriar’s Bridge.
Over the hundred years that followed, the rest of the River Fleet was buried underground, until the final section in Hampstead was covered in the 1870s.
The River Fleet was also historically known as the “River of Wells” since it had so many wells long its banks. These included Chalybeate Wells, St Chads, Clerks Well, St Pancras Well and Bagnigge Wells.
FAQs About the Lost River Fleet in London
What Happened to River Fleet?
The River Fleet was buried almost entirely underground. Today only a small part of the river can still be seen above ground on Hampstead Heath.
Despite being buried underground however, the River Fleet still flows, and is the largest of London’s subterranean rivers. Today the River Fleet forms an important part of London’s sewer system.
Does the River Fleet still flow?
Yes, the River Fleet still flows from its source on Hampstead Heath through to the River Thames. Although the river flows almost entirely underground, there are points where it can still be seen and heard through gratings in the pavement.
One of the best spots to see and hear the River Fleet is just off Farringdon Road where you will find a grating in the pavement on Ray Street. The grating is right in front of The Coach pub (formerly the Coach and Horses).
How long is the River Fleet?
In total the River Fleet runs for 3.7 miles, or 6 kilometers.
River Fleet Alternative Name
The lower part of the River Fleet was known as “Holbourne”, and today gives its name to that part of London. The word “boune” meant “river” or “stream”.
Other Lost River Walks
Other Posts About London’s Rivers
Thank you for Reading my Post
Thank you for reading my post about the River Fleet. The Fleet is one of the hidden rivers of London, but was once one of the main rivers in the city. If you walk along the original course of the river, please leave me a comment below and let me know how you get on.