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Underground Rivers

Historic Water Courses

Interest in the many hidden streams, which had formerly flowed beneath the streets of the Redington Frognal area, was prompted by conversations with the late Dr Stephen Myers, water engineer and author of Walking on Water (2011).

To learn more, Redington Frognal Neighbourhood Forum commissioned Arup to undertake a desk-based mapping assessment. This research was to be a key element of the evidence base for a Neighbourhood Plan policy on underground development.  

The streams had formed the headwaters of the River Westbourne but, during the Victorian era, they were combined into sewers.  

The presence of underground rivers or other bodies of water is often indicated by soggy ground, poplar and willow trees. RedFrog became interested in daylighting underground rivers following a meeting with water engineer Dr. Stephen Myers, in May 2015. At the end of 2016 Arup was commissioned to map underground rivers for the neighbourhood plan evidence base.

The Arup map of RedFrog underground rivers indicates the presence of many historic rivers, such as the Westbourne, East Westbourne, Cannon, unnamed rivers, springs, wells and ponds. As many as five water courses can be found within a space of 800 yards. While these have mostly been absorbed into sewers, clean water runs between Branch Hill and Redington Gardens, where the stream can be heard. Mostly, however, the streams have become degraded, devalued, and discarded –  interred in underground culverts, out of sight, out of mind.

Sub Surface Water Features in the Redington Frognal Area

Source: Arup / RedFrog

This map is taken from the Arup Red Frog Sub-surface Water Features Mapping Report. More information on the flow of underground rivers is also available on the RedFrog Forum website.

The Arup map of RedFrog underground rivers indicates the presence of many historic rivers, such as the Westbourne, East Westbourne, Cannon, Boundary Stream, unnamed rivers, springs, wells and ponds. Of these, one clean stretch of the underground Westbourne is known to remain: clean water runs between Branch Hill and Redington Gardens, where the stream can be heard.

Further reading:
Time Out featured an article on How our cities’ lost rivers are being revived, by Julia Webster Ayuso in 2022.
Time Out featured an article on 11 lost rivers in London you should know about, written by Robert Lordan in 2016.


Surface water: The biggest flood risk of all

Details of the speech made by Sir James Bevan KCMG, Chief Executive, Environment Agency 17.10.18 outlining why surface water flooding is such a real and growing risk is available here: Surface water-The biggest flood risk of all-GOV.UK

The Redington Frognal area lies within a Flood Risk Zone and Critical Drainage Area and Camden is designated at “lead local flood authority”.

Surface water flooding last occurred here in 2002 – see photo of Lymington Road below, take from page 24 of “Managing flood risk in Camden: The London Borough of Camden flood risk management strategy” at the link below:

The cause of the 2002 flooding was accepted to have been overwhelmed sewers and drainage systems. Further information is available in the attached Arup report:

And there is more information here:

Daylighting Lost Rivers of London

A video presentation by Dr Adam Broadhead of ARUP available on YouTube


Walking the Westbourne

As a further stage, it is proposed to mark the historic route of the lost River Westbourne, which has its origins at Branch Hill.  The river flowed through Kilburn and the Serpentine, beneath Knightsbridge and into the Thames by Chelsea Hospital, but has long been absorbed into London’s sewer network, as seen on the exhibition boards.

The Lost River Westbourne

Communities in West Hampstead, Kilburn, Knightsbridge and Pimlico are all connected. How? By the lost River Westbourne. The river that once freely ran from the hills and sandstone springs on Hampstead Heath down to the Thames.

Where is it now? It lies beneath our feet, encased in brick and concrete pipes. The Westbourne, like many of London’s historic former waterways, was buried underground during the Victorian period and  turned into the trunk sewers of the city’s sanitary system.

But thanks to the work of the Redington Frognal Association and Neighbourhood Forum, this lost river is now not quite so lost. By uncovering the Branch Hill Pond, the ceremonial headwaters of the lost river are now revealed once more. And, it is hoped, a renewed interest in the role of green and blue spaces in our cities will see more of the river eventually uncovered. Making space for water in the city once more will help to combat flood risk, climate change, and reverse the decline of biodiversity. But, done right, it will also promote better quality spaces for people to live, work and play in.

Far down from the thunder
And rush of the street,
Flow Westbourne and Tyebourne
And Effra and Fleet,
‘Neath blue skies and grey skies
Once freely that ran —
Lost rivers of London,
Forgotten of man.
— Cicely Fox Smith, 1931

A second stage of the Lost River Westbourne project will mark the former route of the lost River Westbourne, which is now absorbed within the sewer system.  It is planned to indicate the former route and direction of flow with the aid of cast bronze glyphs and information boards showing the geology of the Redington Frognal area together with the historic rivers.

QR codes at certain junctures will link to the Redington Frognal Association website and a Lost River Westbourne Walking Trail.