Islington’s Waterways

For many centuries Islington’s abundant natural water sources played an important part in its history. From medieval times, drovers taking livestock to Smithfield market stopped in the Islington countryside to feed and water their animals. By the Tudor age Islington was known as ‘Cowtown’ because its rich pasture was ideal land for dairy farming and pleasure-seekers were coming out from London to shoot ducks on the many ponds or take the waters at Mr Sadler’s famous well. 

Three important waterways that run through Islington, one natural and two manmade, have all left their mark to this day.

Drain cover over the Fleet

The Fleet River

If you go looking for the Fleet River you’ll struggle to find any evidence of one of London’s largest vanished rivers. It’s now a sewer maintained by Thames Water and today is only visible on Hampstead Heath where the river rises up and fills two of the ponds. 

In the 13th century the Fleet was known as the ‘river of wells’ and stretched 91 metres across where it joined the Thames at the end of Farringdon Road.

The plentiful clean water wells along the river’s banks included the Clerks’ Well which gave Clerkenwell its name. It is still visible through a window at Well Court and you can go inside on our Medieval Monasteries Walk. In the 12th century the Monastic Order of the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem established their English headquarters in the area to take advantage of the many fresh water springs as did St Mary’s Nunnery nearby. Street names off Farringdon Road hint at what a verdant area this was in the 15th century when the Fleet provided water for crops on Vine Hill and Herbal Hill. Crocuses were grown on Saffron Hill, an outpost of the Bishop of Ely’s diocese, the proceeds of the highly prized saffron harvest enriching the bishopric.

The Fleet’s proximity to Smithfield Market meant it wasn’t long before it became polluted with waste from the slaughterhouses and tanneries. Attempts to scour and dredge the river to let it flow again were futile as it soon became clogged with the medieval equivalent of a fatberg. 

Following the Great Fire of London in 1666, Christopher Wren widened the river as part of the city rebuilding project. Inspired by the Grand Canal in Venice, he designed new stone embankments and four decorative bridges – at Bridewell, Fleet Street, Fleet Lane, and Holborn – all high enough to allow the passing of large barges. 

However, this did little to improve the River Fleet which remained polluted and overused.  In 1736 the Gentleman’s Magazine reported that a missing boar was found in a ditch having wandered the sewer for five months, and to the delight of its owner had gained so much weight that its value had risen from ten shillings to two guineas!

In the 18th century the area in Clerkenwell around The Fleet suffered from acute poverty. Slums of closely packed buildings, known as a ‘rookeries’, were riddled with disease, gin addiction and prostitution, inspiring Charles Dickens to set Fagin’s Den in ‘Oliver Twist’ here.

By 1820 the river had been covered and Farringdon Street built over it. But stand outside The Coach in Ray Street and you can still hear The Fleet burbling under the grating in the pavement… a sound that’s been heard here for centuries. 

New River Walk today

The New River

The New River has supplied water to London since 1613. Nearly 40 miles of channel were dug by hand in little over four years to bring a water supply from Hertfordshire to the capital. 

This manmade river terminated in ponds at New River Head, just next to Sadler’s Wells theatre. It was the ideal location, just north of the City, from where water could then be distributed through pipes across London.

There were already many natural ponds here because the land is on non-porous London Clay rather than the free-draining gravel found further south in Clerkenwell. It is also a high point, with roughly a 30-metre drop down to the River Thames, thereby allowing gravity to transport water down towards consumers in the City, originally in pipes made from hollowed out elm trees. 

The New River now terminates at Stoke Newington where it still supplies water to London’s Ring Main. Originally an open channel, the section of the New River that ran through Islington was covered over following the Metropolitan Water Act 1852.  The Act required all aqueducts within five miles of St Paul’s to be concealed in an attempt to tackle cholera that was then so rife in London. 

Today you can stroll along an ornamental stretch of the New River at New River Walk starting just across Canonbury Grove from the Myddleton Arms, named after Sir Hugh Myddleton, the man in charge of completing the New River back in the 1600s. You can see a rather charming brick hut by the water. It was built in the late 18th century for one of the New River Company’s  watchmen to keep the water clear of debris and to stop people fishing, swimming or dumping rubbish. 

The path continues to its termination at New River Head. On the way in Colebrooke Row you will find the house in which Charles Lamb, the essayist and author of ‘Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare’ once lived right on the New River’s bank.  Further on you pass Sadler’s Wells theatre. The New River ran directly in front of the theatre down what is now Rosebury Avenue. At one point water was diverted from the river to a tank below the stage to re-enact famous British naval victories for stunned audiences. 

The New River Path ends at Myddleton Passage where there is a viewing platform over what was once New River Head. 

From there you get a great view of the coal house, engine and pumphouse that were installed from 1768 as technology gradually took over from gravity to supply the increasing demands of Londoners for water.

If you walk round to Amwell Street and go south you can see the base of a windmill installed in 1708 to pump water up to Claremont Reservoir in the middle of what is now Claremont Square. 

In 2024 the Quentin Blake Centre of Illustration will open in the New River Head site, having relocated from King’s Cross in 2020. It will have exhibition galleries, education studios and event spaces as well as a shop, café and landscaped gardens. The centre will also eventually house Sir Quentin’s extraordinary archive of over 40,000  illustrations, the first of which was published in 1948.

View inside the Islington Tunnel on the Regent’s Canal

The Regent’s Canal

The most recent of Islington’s significant waterways is the Regent’s Canal. By the time it enters the borough it has already flowed from its origins in Little Venice through St John’s Wood around Regents Park and past London Zoo.

After Camden Lock, with its colourful market, and the newly renovated area around Kings Cross the canal enters one of its three tunnels – the Islington Tunnel – which takes it under Upper Street, the borough’s bustling main thoroughfare, to emerge at Duncan Street just east of Angel tube station.

Begun in 1812, the Regent’s Canal was part of architect and town planner John Nash’s development for this part of North London. He envisioned “barges moving through the urban landscape”. The scheme was named after Nash’s patron, the Prince Regent, George, Prince of Wales (later George IV).

The canal was intended to carry imported goods from East London’s docks to the heart of England via a link with the Grand Union canal and, in reverse, manufactured goods from the industrial Midlands to the rest of the world. 

The coming of the railway almost superseded the canal completely and while it did survive commercial traffic diminished. By the 1970s this previously busy waterway was all but abandoned.

The Islington Tunnel is the longest on the Regent’s Canal but there is no path through it so horses that towed the barges had to be unhitched and walk the length of the 878 metre tunnel overground.

You can see evidence of this at the Duncan Street exit where there is a ramp up from the canal rather than steps. Without horses the bargees had to ‘leg’ their boats through the tunnel lying flat on their backs and pushing them along using their legs against the roof of the tunnel. 

Before walking along the towpath from here it is worth looking at Duncan Terrace, a charming row of  18th-century houses. There are several blue plaques on the houses celebrating famous past residents. 

Also close by you will find The Island Queen and the Narrowboat – two good pubs to fuel you for your walk. There is no shortage of pubs where canal people lived and worked hard!

Along the towpath you come to City Road basin which was built in 1820 and quickly became more popular for trade than the large basin in Paddington further west. It became the distribution centre for London, especially in heavy goods such as coal, timber, bricks and sand, reflecting the expansion and development  of London and growth of the building trades. However, as the railway gradually took over, by 1929 both canal and basin had begun a steady decline. 

In 2004 islington Council’s regeneration plan opened up the basin to the public for the first time providing open space and sailing facilities. Developers saw an opportunity to convert warehouses to apartments following the success of such schemes in Docklands.

As you continue eastwards notice Shepherdess Walk where you will find another reminder of more bucolic times. At the opposite end of this street, which provided access to the wharves, is a pub immortalised in the nursery rhyme ’Pop Goes the Weasel’:

         Up and down the City Road 

         In and out of the Eagle

         That’s the way the money goes

         Pop! Goes the weasel.

Now you’re almost at the Islington border where the towpath continues past little galleries and studios. It is a favourite with walkers, runners and cyclists many of whom use it as commuter route.

Starting at Angel tube station and ending at Haggerstown overground station, it’s a great walk and, being a canal, is conveniently flat.