Today (September 29) in London History – the New River

The New River opened on September 29, 1613. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Let’s think about flags for a minute.

In particular the colours in flags.

The colours blue and green figure in a lot of national flags. And why would that be? Well, not least because green often represents life and blue represents water. And where there’s water there’s life. This week I’m running up flags of a sort on the London Walks website. I’ve been busy putting up the various Christmas walks. Our portmanteau term for them is the category Christmas Specials. And if you think about Christmas symbols – well, broadly speaking, you’re into the same territory as those flags. Green is a colour that figures a lot in the symbology – if that’s the word – of Christmas. The Christmas tree, mistletoe, holly and so on. And of course what is Christmas about but new life, the birth of that baby boy in Bethlehem all those years.

And what’s this have to do with September 29th? Well, it’s a connection of sorts – a gentle lead-in and a little bit of extra meaning for this day in London history. Specifically, September 29th, 1613.

The date the New River was officially – ceremonially – opened. A long time ago. 

Roger and his IWA colleagues – IWA stands for Inland Waterways Association – anyway, yes, Roger, the leader of the merry little band, Roger and his IWA colleagues are a subset of the London Walks team of guides. They’re the guides who lead our canal walks. They’ve now got 25 canal walks in their repertory – which, happily for us, means those walks are in the London Walks repertory. 

And I suspect that repertory will continue to grow. Counting the Thames, there are about 120 miles of Inland Waterways in the Greater London area. The 25 canal walks in the London Walks programme cover, in total, about 40 miles. So, a third of the way there. Roger and team have plenty of towpath trailblazing ahead of them.

And as long as we’re on the subject generally, I’m going to take the opportunity – indeed, I’m going to hasten to add – that Roger and his team donate their fee to the IWA. So when you go on one of our canal walks most of what you pay for the walk will be going toward supporting the work of the IWA.

Anyway, Roger and Co. – the IWA team – have a fun line about the New River: “it’s not new and it’s not a river.”

And that gets us properly to what happened on this date, September 29th, 1613. (Aside here: where I’m coming from – a literary historian – I can’t help but think, my goodness, 1613 was William Shakespeare’s London. He will have known the New River. Wonder what he made of it.

What we know of it was it was the most important addition to London’s water supplies. 

It’s fun to picture the ceremony. Apparently there were 60 labourers on hand. They were neatly turned out. On a signal they shouldered their digging tools and marched round to an accompanying piece of doggerel, recited by their spokesman. The doggerel – and I’m glad they did this, it was the right thing to do – the doggerel was in honour of those who had made this miracle happen. Once the recitation was wound up, the floodgates were opened. And what happened next – well, let me quote from the contemporary account: “the streame ranne gallantly into the cisterne drums and trumpets sounding in triumphall manner, and a brave peal of chambers gave full issue.” Chambers giving full issue, what’s that you ask. Chambers were cannon. They fired cannon in salute of the opening of the miracle.

And how about if – for our birthday salute – we fire some cannon. A fusillade of fact.

The New River was 39 miles long. It started at springs at Chadwell and Amwell, near Ware, in Hertfordshire, and wound its merry way to a reservoir called the New River Head in Clerkenwell. Bears repeating, the New River wasn’t a river. It was a canal. A canal approximately 10 feet wide and four feet deep. They started digging it in 1609. By September of that year 130 labourers were hard at it. What I want to know is, was that full extent of the workforce? Hard to believe that it was. Because this was an astonishing engineering and building feat. Bears repeating: this was a 39-mile long, ten-foot wide, four-foot deep trench (in effect) that started well up into Hertfordshire and arrives in Clerkenwell, just north of St. Paul’s. That would be a considerable engineering and building feat in the 21st century. They did it over 400 years ago.

And credit where credit’s due: its main instigator was a London goldsmith named Hugh Myddleton. 

And getting the canal dug and the water to Clerkenwell was just half the battle. If anything, getting it to London households was an even higher mountain to climb. The technology could hardly have been more primitive. It was fed through pipes hollowed out of elm trunks which tapered into one another. 

There was a great deal of seepage. The operating life of a pipe hollowed out of an elm trunk was only about four or five years. 

Anything else? Yes. The water couldn’t be pressurised because the pipes would burst apart. Which in turn meant that only the ground floor of houses could be supplied. 

It also didn’t help that a lot of people believed water from pipes was more contaminated than that from London wells.  And of course the New River water wasn’t free. The water from London wells – but of course you had to fetch and carry it. Having water piped into your house – that must have seemed like a miracle. 

What a great London story. Is it too much of a stretch to say the New River should at least be in the conversation about great bygone engineering and building feats, be they pyramids or Roman aqueducts or the Colisseum or whatever.

Great London story. And a great London Walk. Yes, that’s the Today in London recommendation. Be sure to catch the Four Hundred Years of the New River walk the next time it comes round on the London Walks carousel. 

Happy Birthday, New River. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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