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At the bend of Ray Street in north London’s Clerkenwell area, a group of people were kneeling down next to a drain grill. They took turns to crouch down and put their ear over the grate, while others kept an eye out for any traffic headed their way. “I can hear it!” said one woman, peering deep into the dark void. “You should come back in summer,” said Paul Talling, the man in charge of the group. “You'll be able to smell it then!”

Of all the ways to get in touch with London's history, sticking your nose in a sewer might not seem the most appealing. But this is no ordinary sewer; the water that can be heard – and just about glimpsed – is that of the River Fleet, one of at least five lost rivers that threaded through London until the mid 19th Century. Most were built over as the city expanded, disappearing below pavement or merging with the new Victorian-era sewage system. Today, they have taken on mythical status, watery ghosts whose presence is now often only marked by street names dating back to when the rivers were above ground.

Talling has made it his task to bring the English capital's lost rivers back to the surface, metaphorically at least. He has written a book, London’s Lost Rivers, tracing the routes of the five main rivers, as well as 22 other canals and waterways that run or ran through the city. Talling also launched a series of guided walks, enabling visitors to dive into London's watery history.

“I love digging below the surface, and starting to uncover hidden layers of London's history,” he said. “Rivers like the Walbrook [in east London] are the reason why London is the city it is today – it was a very important factor in the Romans' decision to settle here.”

Our tour followed a route along the bottom half of the Fleet River, the biggest and most famous of London's former waterways. The group met just outside the Black Friar, an ornately decorated pub built in 1905 on the site of an old Dominican friary near the Blackfriars Bridge.

“Look up above the door,” Talling said, pointing to a panel depicting two monks fishing in a river. ”That's the Fleet.” He led the group towards the nearby Thames walkway, which runs alongside the famous riverbank. From one particular angle, it is just possible to make out the mouth of the Fleet under Blackfriars Bridge, pouring into the Thames. Talling passed around a painting dating from 1750 showing the same scene, only with ships and rowboats passing through an estuary lined with wooden houses.

The Fleet was once an important artery that brought goods and business into the city. As we walked north up what is now Farringdon Street, Talling pointed out the names of the small alleyways leading off towards the west; names such as Old Sea Coal Lane and Turnagain Lane. These testify to the coal ships that would travel along the Fleet, bringing supplies from Newcastle. Nearly all of these alleys once led to a bridge spanning the river.

The Fleet was a typical river for its (pre-sewage system) time, and was regularly used as a dump by the households and businesses along its route. But even for Tudor London, the Fleet was bad – the proximity of the Smithfield meat market, which is still up and running today, meant that its waters were often choked with meat offcuts and waste. Unsurprisingly, the stench made the section south of the market a rather insalubrious place to live. The area soon became renowned as a place of crime and danger – to the extent that Charles Dickens used Saffron Hill, a road running parallel to the Fleet, as the location of Fagin's Den in Oliver Twist. “The street is called Saffron Hill because it used to be grown on the banks of the river”, explained Talling. “Back then, saffron was much cheaper than it is now. It was used to disguise the taste of rancid meat.”

From medieval times, the Fleet was lined with wells, used by local people for drinking water. As the group walked up Farringdon Lane, we stopped off to peer through the glass windows of the Well Court council building, where the remains of the Clerk's Well – which gave the area its name of Clerkenwell – have been preserved. The well itself was named after the Parish clerks who would perform miracle plays (dramatizations of Biblical miracles or Saint's lives) and was in use until the 19th Century.

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