Sally Stevens drops in on some of the hostelries that remind us of the presence of Clerkenwell’s hidden river.
The Fleet River, the largest of London’s hidden rivers, may have disappeared underground but at street level there is evidence of its earlier use as a clean water source for brewing and gin making at the various pubs and distilleries near its banks.
The Cannon Brewery in St John Street originated in the 1670s with a brewhouse attached and would have made use of the abundant water supply from the Fleet River and the wells in the area. By the 1740s, it was the twelfth-largest of London’s 52 main breweries, producing more than 23,000 barrels annually.
These days the subterranean River Fleet may be home to record-breaking fatbergs, but in 2016 when the owner of one of our favourite watering holes in Clerkenwell, The Sekforde, discovered during renovation works that a tributary of the Fleet was flowing underneath his 180-year-old pub, he contrived a novel use for the water and installed a heat exchange system in the basement which heats the building and cools the beer. The cooling system, which is visible to the public through a glass floor in the basement, saves around 80 percent on bills. The water has been found to be pure enough to drink, however the publican has yet to start serving any to customers.
It’s hard to believe that the upmarket bijou pub The Coach in Ray Street, built in 1790, was the centre of one of the most infamous, crime-ridden, impoverished areas of London in the 19th century. Known as Hockley-in-the-Hole, it was the haunt of highwaymen, thieves and gamblers. The stakes were high and plenty of money changed hands as customers were entertained in a courtyard adjacent to the pub, watching sword fighting, wrestling, bear and bull baiting, dog and cock fighting. Nowadays you’re promised a posh G&T and high-end cuisine as you listen to the Fleet babbling along under the grating outside the pub.
The One Tun Pub in Saffron Hill is named after the largest beer storage barrel with a capacity of 252 gallons or four hogsheads. The pub was built in 1759 (rebuilt 1875) and would have overlooked the Bishop of Ely’s orchards and saffron fields, all watered by the Fleet. However, by 1840 the area had become a rookery and the pub was immortalised by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist, renaming it The Three Cripples, the favourite watering hole of Bill Sykes.
In 1960 John Betjeman stepped in and campaigned to prevent the demolition of one of London’s most splendid pub buildings located where the ‘River of Wells’ joins the ‘Silver Thames’. The Blackfriar, whose name is a nod to the medieval Dominican friary established in 1270 is a grade II listed pub, built in 1875 and redesigned in 1905 in homage to the Arts and Crafts movement. The interior is packed with copper reliefs depicting merry monks and friars all having a good time drinking and eating. A colourful mosaic panel above the front door depicts two monks holding a large healthy fish caught in the pristine waters of the River Fleet.
So, while you’re enjoying a pint in one of the excellent hostelries along the route of the Fleet, pondering on the fact that by the 1870s it was reduced to a covered sewer, remember the once clean, sweet waters of a former significant river still flowing beneath the street out to the Thames.
For more, please contact Sally Stevens the author of this post.
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