A Mews – A River runs through it
WATER COURSE MEWS
where the river runs through
London Mews are named after many varied and interesting things. The names of most Mews relate to the name of a person (Adams, Browning, Portman), or a place (Astwood, Chesham, Horbury). Their names may have an association with other location features such as a market, a railway, or a station. Some Mews are named after water or river features – spring, brook, and conduit for example and when this occurs, the names can be followed to track the river’s path.
Geological cross section of London Basin
LONDON’S ICE AGE LANDSCAPE
London lies at the lower end of the Thames flood plain in a lop sided basin upon a bed of sand, gravel, clay and chalk, deep beneath which are rocks. The London clay most people are familiar with is more than 50 million years and appears as a thick, sticky and pliable reddish brown soil. Above this is a mixture of sand and gravel through which springs rise in places like Hampstead, Islington and Hackney. The glaciers of the Ice Age formed the rivers which now descend from the upper levels of the basin to the River Thames.
POLLUTION OF LONDON’S RIVERS
Originally the rivers were sources of fresh water and fish as well as the means for sewage dispersal. Due to the expansion of London during the nineteenth century they became foul public health hazards. No longer exposed or easily identifiable, the majority are now buried in culverts, pipes and sewers.
Fourteen watercourses still flow into the Thames in London (not all shown to the right).
Ancient tributaries to the Thames in the London Basin – ECM Lost Rivers of London
ANCIENT TRIBUTARIES AND NATURAL SPRINGS
In terms of its volume, but not the number of Mews it encounters along its route, the most significant of the tributaries is in fact the ‘Fleet’ also known as the River of Wells, which in the past has been recorded as being more than 20 metres wide. Rising in two ponds on Hampstead Heath, it flows down the Fleet Road to Camden and then onto Kings Cross. At one time the area around Kings Cross Road was reportedly filled with wells, springs and pleasure gardens. The Fleet then proceeds towards Farringdon, where in Turnmill Street it once powered three watermills. From Farringdon Road it finally empties into the Thames at Blackfriars. The Fleet lay open until the foul discharge from public lavatories, slaughterhouses and other industry caused it to clog up with silt and rubbish.
TSUNAMI OF SEWAGE IN 1846
After the great fire of London in 1666, Sir Christopher Wren widened the Fleet to create a canal with stone wharves on both sides and a new bridge at Holborn. This proved an impractical solution and it was built over and after the 1820’s became Farringdon Street. The Fleet remained buried until it burst free in 1846 destroying roads and buildings in a tsunami of sewage. Today, the site is covered with the modern Holborn Viaduct.
Ancient tributaries to the Thames in the London Basin
LONDON’S HISTORIC RIVER TRIO
The three most significant rivers in respect of the Mews and the ones that determined their locations and shaped their development are the Tyburn, The Westbourne and Counter’s Creek.
From a spring in Hampstead, the Tyburn then passes through Swiss Cottage and Regent’s Park before it joins another tributary of the Thames and follows Marylebone Lane across Oxford Street through Mayfair into Piccadilly (once called Tyburn Road) across Green Park passing Buckingham Palace, continuing through Victoria and Pimlico before entering the Thames by Vauxhall Bridge. In so doing, it passes in close proximity to five Mews and directly crosses Brook’s Mews, Davies Mews and Hinde Mews.
The Westbourne – now known as the Ranelagh Sewer – rises in Hampstead and makes its way to the river in Chelsea. En-route it passes through Kilburn, Paddington and Hyde Park. Passing through Bayswater which was named after the river, and in turn contains the Mews shown on the detailed map (see below). The Westbourne indirectly passes approximately fifteen Mews, including five directly: Orsett
Mews, Gloucester Mews West, Upbrook Mews. Brook Mews North, Elms Mews, and Cadogan Lane. Proof of its existence can be seen in a great pipe above the platforms of Sloane Street underground station.
Counter’s Creek – Whilst carrying less water than the Westbourne, Tyburn or Fleet (largest of the tributaries in this area), Counter’s Creek is geographically significant as it forms the boundary between the boroughs of Hammersmith and Fulham and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Its source is near Kensal Green cemetery and flows underground in a south easterly direction for approximately five miles through White City, Olympia and Earl’s Court before reaching Chelsea where it enters the Thames somewhere near the power station in Lots Road. Along the final few hundred metres of its journey it is known as Chelsea Creek. En route it passes only Russell Gardens Mews and Cluny Mews. Preferring cemeteries to Mews, it runs close to Hammersmith cemetery, Brompton cemetery, and Fulham cemetery. Unlike other hidden rivers, which have a multitude of streets and Mews named after them not one is named after Counter’s Creek.
MEWS that follow the course of the River Westbourne (Ranelagh Sewer)
- THE WESTBOURNE RIVER
- Elms Mews
- Leinster Mews
- Lancaster Mews
- Craven Hill Mews
- Brook Mews North
- Upper Brook Mews
- Gloucester Mews
- Smallbrook Mews
- Westbourne Terrace Mews
- Eastbourne Mews
- Chilworth Mews
- Conduit Mews
- Spring Street
- Brook Street
- Hyde Park Garden Mews
Smallbrook Mews – built in line with the Westbourne
Upbrook Mews – which is about 3 metres below the level of the main houses around it
MEWS’ NAMES RIPPLE THROUGH THE CITY
In Bayswater a number of the Mews are named after their proximity with the local river – the Westbourne – including Upbrook, Smallbrook, Lower Conduit – all lie somewhere along the course of the river which has been a physical feature of the landscape for considerably longer than any Mews has existed. As can be seen from the annotated map above, the river runs roughly along the line of Gloucester Terrace and is noticeably lower than the surrounding areas, ranging between 19 and 20 metres above sea level. There is a perceptible rise above the rivers to the adjacent streets which come in at roughly 22 metres above sea level. This rise is most apparent in the aptly named Craven Hill area.
LONDON’S HIDDEN RIVERS CARRY MURKY MYTHS
The hidden rivers symbolise the changing London landscape over the last two thousand or so years. They are the subject of much literature and painting. People are as fascinated with them today as they have ever been and for many reasons: G.W.Lambert in his survey of the Geography of London’s Ghosts concluded that 75% of London’s paranormal activity takes place near hidden waters. There is of course some logic in this as pagan and other religious rituals often require some form of cleansing and/or dispersal.
FRESH WATER RISES OVER FOUL THROUGHOUT LONDON
The rivers are now better hidden than exposed. Thankfully they are no longer required for the discharge of sewage; indeed this use dried up in the 15th century as the waterways were literally clogged with detritus. Today, the Victorian sewage system designed by Joseph Bazelgette is being supplemented with a new relief system under the Thames which has been designed for another 100 years. Fresh water is now separated from foul water and supplied by the London ring main.
Hidden as the rivers are, they remain traceable thanks to the streets and Mews of London. Everchanging as the Mews are, with a modern sewer system and a modern water main they should hopefully remain immune from any unpleasant undercurrents into the foreseeable future.
This article was written by Martyn John Brown MRICS, MCIOB, MNAEA, MARLA, MISVA of Everchanging Mews – www.everchangingmews.com who is a specialist Mews Consultant.
Everchanging Mews is owned and run by Martyn John Brown MRICS, MCIOB, MNAEA, MARLA, MISVA who provides professional advice in respect of Mews development and refurbishment projects as well as professional surveying advice – For any appraisal or advice on Mews Projects and Surveys, Valuations and Party Wall matters contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or call Martyn on 0207 419 5033.