Lost plastic toys, medieval toilets, swords, pots, modern relics, giant crosses, bones, skulls, and books galore — all highlight how the rivers of London have captured our imagination and preserved our history.
The Museum of London Docklands has given over its main exhibition space to the story of what it calls Secret Rivers, although for most the rivers aren’t really that secret. They are however hidden under the streets of London, a veil over their existence, tantalizingly close yet so far from touch.
London is often defined by the Thames – do you live north or south, are you a taxi driver — yet for early Londoners, it was the other rivers that dominated lives. The smaller more manageable rivers were far more important than the great wide expanse of the Thames.
The rivers weren’t treated well though, being often more of an open cesspit and industrial waste disposal zone, so covered up, turned into hidden sewers and lost from view.
But they emerge at times, in literature, in archeology, and more fancifully, in grand schemes to open them up again.
One scheme to open up the Tyburn would cost upwards of £1 billion just to buy the properties that would need to be demolished, let alone all the rest of the costs. More likely are the schemes further away from central London, where rivers more often corralled into narrow concrete canals can be allowed to breathe again.
The map looked nice though.
It’s a sign of how we now value the open spaces and gentle sound of running water that ideas like this are rejected less for being impractical, than simply for being too expensive. If only we had the money, we’d do it we sigh.
The museum’s exhibition looks at all these aspects, starting with modern interpretations before getting into the history of the hidden rivers and the various schemes to restore them.
Rivers can also be destructive in floods, but their mud is often a perfect preservative, and here are the relics of past times, when mankind looked to the Gods for security, and offered up valuables to the rivers for blessings.
It was genuinely fascinating to learn that in the Thames was sanctified as a sacred river as recently as 1970, for the the Hindu faith, and religious tokens cast into the river are already now being recovered and turned into a museum artifact.
One of the most talked-about objects on display is a part rotted away slab of wood, with three holes in it. An old toilet before modern sanitation where people shared their bodily functions openly, and crapped into the river below.
Of course, we now frown upon that sort of thing, and one of London’s other hidden marvels, the great sewer network also engenders awe and pride, even though we only see glimpses of it.
I was more amused by the sight of the plastic dinosaurs, wondering if they were hopeful icons thrown into the River Wandle by dutiful children, or lost overboard by distraught children. And what would future archaeologists make of them had they not been cleared out by works to restore the river.
You could probably have an exhibition for each of the major hidden rivers and still have space left over for more, so this exhibition is a good mix of informative without being overwhelming.
It’s also free to visit, which is exceptional.