As new and enthusiastic members of NAS, Ashton East and Aimee Minns seized upon a free Saturday and went to expand their marine knowledge of their local area at the Museum of London Docklands’ Secret Rivers exhibition.

There are forgotten rivers flowing under London. Over the centuries these Thames tributaries were tamed and eventually buried, hidden below street and buildings. Most people may not be aware these rivers ever existed, but they are an important part of the history of London and continue to shape the city to this day. We visited the new Secret Rivers exhibit at Museum of London Docklands to learn more about them.

Living in London and with an interest in urban exploration, it was not a surprise to us that London has buried waterways. What we really appreciated was learning how London grew up around these rivers, how central they were to the life of the city, and how the communities in turn physically shaped them.

The exhibit made very clear that despite the centrality of rivers to the cultural and economic life of London, there is a long history of pollution and neglect. There is a sequence of maps showing how the river Fleet changed over time, from its natural state as a broad meandering waterway, to an increasingly straightened and narrow canal, and eventually confined to an underground tunnel. The exhibit includes a slideshow of photographs taken by urban explorers showing how the Fleet River appears now: a disgusting sewer lined by impressively arched Victorian brickwork.

Recovered artefacts are used to explore the rivers religious/spiritual significance through the ages, such as writing implements speculated to have been thrown in the river as offerings, skulls of animal sacrifices to ancient gods, and foundations of roman temples. Historic paintings show the contrast between rich and poor across different areas of London, manifested physically in the health of different river systems: slums and industry plague the Neckinger River in the south, while parklands for the wealthy line the Westbourne River in the west.

In a city like London you are spoiled for cultural choice... hundreds of shows on the west end, ancient historically significant artefacts at the British Museum, a plethora of parks, cafes, shops and a rich tapestry of diverse cultures. Exhibitions like Secret Rivers remind us why we are all here and how long people have lived, inhabited and depended on this space. The Museum of London Docklands has used these forgotten rivers as a canvas upon which they painted a vivid picture of the people and communities that laid the foundations for the London that we know and love.

To find out more about the Secret Rivers Exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands, click here

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