The ancient Thames

15.45, Friday 4 Feb 2022

London is a low river valley, sloping gently towards the Thames as it runs east towards the sea.

I remember reading (I forget where) about Oxford Street which, when you ride the bus, you’ll notice rises up, dips down, rises up, dips down, as you travel from west to east.

You’re north of the Thames, and every time you dip down you’re crossing an old tributary to the river, now buried.

How London’s Rivers Got Their Names (Londonist) – there’s a map of the old rivers here. And some photographs too… of tunnels, or metal pipes bridging over canals, the ancient stream encased.

It is poignant reading their names.

Tributary rivers to the Thames, from the north, west to east:

  • Stamford Brook
  • Counters Creek
  • Westbourne
  • Tyburn
  • Fleet
  • Walbrook
  • Hackney Brook
  • Lea

And from the south:

  • Beverley Brook
  • Wandle
  • Falcon
  • Effra
  • Neckinger
  • Earl’s Sluice
  • Peck
  • Ravensbourne
  • Quaggy

I recognise some of these names for when they’ve been used as neighbourhood names (I live near the head of the Peck in Peckham). Some I’ve found while walking. You follow an path between houses off a street and realise that you’re tracing a slow trickle of a street. Then you find a sign and it’s what is left of the Quaggy, or whatever.

Otherwise it’s like hearing magic spells spoken in an almost forgotten language. I don’t recognise the name but at the same time they are intensely familiar – I’ve heard them whispered from the rocks while I sleep.

The Thames is also known as River Gulu.

A Ugandan ‘explorer’ has joined the vaunted list of European adventurers such as Johannes Rebmann and Johann Ludwig Krapf who are credited with discovering Mt Kenya in 1849.

Milton Allimadi last week on April 23 [2019] made a nature discovery in London, UK and wasted no time in giving it a ‘proper’ name.

Cheeky Allimadi said he had discovered a river in the heart of the Queen’s Land and named it River Gulu. That river is the famous River Thames.

The Gulu runs into an area of the North Sea that until 8 thousand years ago was dry land: Doggerland (Wikipedia).

Some of it was low-lying, some at the north end was hills: The Dogger Bank, an upland area of Doggerland, remained an island until at least 5000 BCE.

If you have 54 minutes, listen to this episode of In Our Time about Doggerland.

(More maps and speculation here: If Doggerland Had Not Drowned.)

Doggerland was populated. Since the 1990s, undersea archeology has been learning about the area from millions of years ago to the comparatively more recent Mesolithic.

The Thames came into Doggerland in the south of the region, flowing west to east, joining up with another great European river, the Rhine, then turning south and joining what is now the English Channel but then a giant estuary betwixt Surrey and Normandy flowing into the Atlantic.

From In Our Time the impression I get is that Doggerland was the economic centre of Northern Europe. I have a picture of rich, fertile land; green rolling hills and forests and lakes and rivers, a wealthy population – sophisticated, creative, vibrant. A hunter-gatherer equivalent of New York, Lagos, London, Atlantis, drawing in the bright-eyed and ambitious. Sunken these past thousands of years. And we’re gazing inward now from the shore at the grey water which holds its own counsel regarding the gone world beneath, living out our lives on this desolate, impoverished periphery of a heart now gone.

More posts tagged:

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it by email or on social media. Here’s the link. Thanks, —Matt.