The Museum of London Docklands latest show explores London’s lost rivers, and finds imaginative ways to bring them back.
The Tyburn Angling Society are an ambitious bunch. They want to knock down £1 billion-worth of Mayfair properties and demolish Buckingham Palace, all to resurrect the long-lost River Tyburn. Meanwhile, the Effra Redevelopment Agency sought to restore that south London watercourse, albeit with tongue firmly in creek.
Two of many highlights at Museum of London Dockland’s Secret Rivers exhibition, which explores the hidden watercourses of our city.
The show opens with another map. A humble map. With no artifice or razzle-dazzle, we’re presented with a chart of the Thames and its tentacular tributaries. It may be familiar to many but, here, blown up to giant portions, its pull is magnetic. This is a simple but clever way to introduce the topic to those who might not know their Rom from their Peck, but will also please the army of lost-river geeks.
This is, after all, a well-paddled topic. The past half decade has seen numerous books, TV shows, blog posts and a well-known series of novels all lifting the sewer lid on London’s lost rivers. I have to admit a presentiment of doubt that the curators could find anything new to say about rivers Fleet, Wandle, Walbrook et al.
Shows how little I know. The exhibition’s first trick is to bend the title ‘Secret Rivers’ around expectations. Yes, much of the content here is about the long-buried tributaries, but the Thames also seeps in. That river could never be described as ‘secret’, even under the modern, diluted definition of the word. But that’s not to say it doesn’t contain secrets. The early part of the exhibition focuses on some of the objects drawn from the Thames, including ceremonial weapons from the Bronze Age. Worth studying in detail is the Bishop at Lambeth’s flotsam-laden cope, worn at a recent Thames blessing, which shows how the river still holds spiritual meaning.
Another highlight of the exhibition is the much-publicised triple-seater toilet, plucked from Fleet mud where it had lain since the 12th century. The veteran khazi is almost overshadowed by an adjacent video display, which throws up some truly mesmerising pans-and-zooms around the Victorian sewers. It’s like actually being there, without all the shit and miasma and dead rats and stuff.
For me, the second half of this exhibition has the strongest currents. It’s here that you’ll find the part-inspirational, part-baffling schemes to ‘daylight’ the lost rivers. Nearby hang some rather lovely artworks, contrasting the filthy waterways of Jacob’s Island (in Victorian Bermondsey) with the pleasure gardens at Ranelagh, along the River Westbourne.
The show ends with modern art and works of literature inspired by the rivers, including a cameo from our own archives.
All in all, this is a spellbinding exhibition with plenty to see. You’ll lap it up, even if you’re the sort of person who already heads out at weekends to press your ear against manhole covers in the search for buried water.