It is the 400th anniversary of the opening of the New River this month and it is being celebrated. The New River is no longer new and nor is it a river. It is in fact a man-made waterway created to bring clean fresh water to the population of London, from its original source in two springs in Hertfordshire north of London, taking water from the River Lea on the way down, originally as far as the New River Head, a site near Sadlers Wells in Clerkenwell. The length of the waterway’s channel has varied over time, from about 28 miles now to 38 or even 48 in the past, with changes in its course through straightening kinks and loops. It now officially ends in the East Reservoir in Stoke Newington but it still provides about 8% of London’s daily water supply. Of course it was never free, being set up as a money-making enterprise, The New River Company, and only the rich could afford to have the water piped to their houses, the poor having to make do with drinking beer or buying water from watersellers, but it did improve the health of the population over time.
It is surprisingly little known except by those living near it and for much of its course is hidden among back streets, in culverts and even underground in places. Hence it is often called the hidden river.
Last weekend the very enjoyable The Hidden River Festival in Finsbury Park, in North London, brought together community groups and local residents (including me) to celebrate the history and benefits of the New River. It included a history talk by Peter Berthoud, a specially commissioned New River Cantata sung by local singers, walks including a foraging walk. This was led by the Bicycling Forager (Andy Pattenden), starting from his beautiful stall and walking along the (fenced off unfortunately!) section of the New River in Finsbury Park and the beginning of the section towards the East Reservoir.
29th September is the actual anniversary and there are many more events then, and the rest of the year, including a sold out two-day walk of the whole length of the New River. Most of it can now be walked by the public after a considerable public involvement with Thames Water. I have done several sections over the years, having first known about it from the underground section in Islington which was paved over for ornamental gardens, and which I included in a previous blog post. I only recently discovered the (to me surprisingly!) picturesque section in Enfield (see photographs below), now a cut off loop. There are many photographs of other sections on Paul Talling’s website, a follow-up from his book London’s Lost Rivers.
- By the banks of the New River (wellcomelibrary.org)
- Council celebrates 400th birthday of New River (islingtongazette.co.uk)
- Free as Conduit Water, published by past tense (www.past-tense.org.uk)