Walk 17 - Buried River, Walking the Walbrook

Approximately 2.2 Miles / 3.6 Km - about 1.5 - 2 hours

For an online, zoomable version of the above map, click this link

When the Julius Caesar first invaded Britain (55 BC), the Walbrook river was fed from a number of sources in what are now the Islington, Barbican and Shoreditch areas. Shoreditch at that time was a marshy place. 

The river flowed down through the Walbrook Valley, and then through what became the City of London, and finally down past what is now the Cannon Street area, to where it joined the River Thames. 
When the Romans built their city wall around Londinium, in around 200AD, it was built across the Walbrook, which was channelled underneath it. It’s thought the name that we now use for the river, the “Walbrook”, derives from the fact that it flowed along and underneath the wall.
Excavations have shown that the Romans occupied land on the banks of the Walbrook, using it a water source for living, and as a part of their worship. 

Since approximately 1440, the part of the Walbrook that flowed within the City of London (inside the City wall) began to be channelled, covered over and built upon.  

In the 15th century, the monasteries of Charterhouse and St Bartholomews diverted some of the western tributaries of the Walbrook to flow towards the Fleet, reducing the flow of the Walbrook, and leaving Shoreditch as the main source.

Today, the whole of the Walbrook is underground, running in pipes, and some of its water is diverted into the sewer system, so the exact route is difficult to follow exactly.
However, we will try to follow the route as near as we can, looking at interesting historical features above ground on the way. The walk starts at St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch, and we will be walking gently downwards toward the point where what is left of the Walbrook joins the River Thames. 

Towards the end of this walk we pass the London Mithraeum, beneath the Bloomberg building. If you haven't been to the Mithraeum before, a visit would enhance the walk. It is free to enter the Mithraeum, but you will need to book a place for each visitor. If you forget to book, at very slack times you may be able to call in and ask if you can book on the spot, using your phone, although entry this way is not guaranteed.  

The Mithraeum is a temple to the god Mithras, built in the third century AD, about 200 years after the Romans founded Londinium. The temple was built next to the river Walbrook. Temples to the god Mithras were commonly built underground and next to water sources.

If you would like to visit the temple while doing the walk, you can pre-book places here: londonmithraeum.com - Allow about 60-75 minutes from the start of the walk to the Mithraeum.

Mithraeum opening times
Tuesday – Saturday 10.00 – 18.00
Sundays 12.00 – 17.00
First Thursday of the month 10.00 – 20.00
Closed Mondays, Christmas & New Year bank holidays 

The walk is designed to be used directly from your phone. 
Just scroll down to start.
There are links within the text to more information about things that are discussed in the walk. You can follow these up later if you wish. 
In the walk: 
- Directions are shown in black text.
- History notes are shown in red text.

The walks starts from outside
St. Leonard’s Shoreditch Church.  

You can get there from either:
Just outside Liverpool Street Station, Bishopsgate exit, catch the 26 bus (stop F) or the 149 bus (stop E) to Shoreditch Church. When you alight from the bus, carry on walking in the same direction for about 100 metres, and then cross the road to St. Leonard’s Church . 


From Shoreditch High Street Tube Station, turn left at Bethnal Green Road then turn right into Shoreditch High Street. 

St. Leonard’s Church is on the right (500 metres walk).

STREETS AT THE FRONT OF SHOREDITCH CHURCHThe streets, here at the front of St Leonard's Shoreditch, have been here a long time. Old Street is indeed a very old street. It was recorded as being called Ealdestrate in around 1200, and was referred to as Oldestrete in 1373. It follows  the route of an old Roman road connecting Silchester in the west, and Colchester to the east. The eastern side of Old Street here is now called Hackney Road. This route was also possibly a pre-Roman track. 

Old Street also crosses Shoreditch High Street here. Shoreditch High Street turns into Bishopsgate and Gracechurch Street to the south, before crossing London Bridge. To the north, it becomes Kingsland Road. This road was originally part of Ermine Street, a Roman road from London to York.  Ermine Street is a corruption of the Old English name Earninga Straete, recorded in 1012, which derived from the name of a tribe who lived around the Cambridgeshire area that the road ran through, called the Earningas.

Walk into St Leonard's Church churchyard, through the gate to the left of the church front.

St Leonards is the church referred to in the line “when I grow rich said the bells of Shoreditch” from the nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons”.

The current St Leonard's is the third church on this site, and dates from around 1740. It replaced a Norman Church which was built in 1185, and which had probably itself replaced a previous Anglo Saxon church. 

As one of the sources of the Walbrook, this area was always noted as being marshy. The previous Norman church is said to have subsided because of the softness of the ground.

The church has a connection to Shakespeare, because it is situated near to the sites of two places where he acted and wrote when he was first in London. These places are The Theatre, England's first purpose-built playhouse, and the Curtain Theatre in Curtain Road. You will be walking past the site of these theatres shortly on the walk.

The Norman crypt (now below the current church's crypt) is the burial place of a number of Tudor period actors who were the contemporaries of Shakespeare. These include James Burbage, the founder of The Theatre, and his son Richard, who was the first leading man in many of Shakespeare's plays. Also buried here are the actors Gabriel Spenser, who was killed by Ben Jonson in a duel, and Richard Tarlton, an Elizabethan comic actor. 

Above: The water pump outside of St Leonard's Shoreditch, the site of the source of the Walbrook

What marks the source of the Walbrook now is the Water Pump, to the left of the church entrance, which was installed in 1832.  The pump sits on a spring. It is possible that this beginning of the Walbrook may be the origin of the name Shoreditch. “Suer“ is the Anglo-Saxon word for stream, hence “Suerditch”. 

From St. Leonard’s, cross over Shoreditch High Street and turn left.  Walk along and turn right into Bateman’s Row (there is no street sign at the moment, but you can see a sign to Anning Street a little way down it). Pass Anning Street on the left and French Place on the right. When you get to New Inn Street on your left, walk down it.

Bateman's Row marks the northern boundary of Holywell Priory, founded in the 1150's and whose formal name was "The Priory of St John the Baptist". The priory housed Augustinian nuns, and it's thought that it's other name came from having a well which 
perhaps had miraculous properties attributed to it. 
A map made in 1920, showing the details of the priory as they might have been in 1544 (from an agreement between Alice Hampton and the Prioress concerning her use of the Priory) - PUBLIC DOMAIN IMAGE

Walking down New Inn Street, on the right you will come to "The Box Office". This is the site of the first theatre built in London, and a place where William Shakespeare acted and wrote. It is now a small permanent exhibition space showing some of the finds from an archeological dig done here before the current building was erected.

At the start of the reign of Elizabeth I, there were no “Playhouses” in London (buildings built specifically to put on plays). Instead, drama was put on by groups of players in places such as the Inner Temple, in private houses, and in inn yards.

Groups of players moved around the country to centres of population big enough to get an audience together. London’s population doubled in the 16C (from 100k to 200k) giving better scope for getting a large audience for regular performances.

Plays were performed in inn courtyards in London. However, in 1571 the Mayor of London and his Aldermen banned plays in the City. This was due to worries about spreading the Plague, riotous behaviour, and also pressure from Puritans who thought plays were immoral.  In 1572, Elizabeth's privy council introduced a Vagabonds Act. Justices of the Peace were called on to license beggars. Unlicensed vagabonds were to be whipped and burned through the ear. The Act stated that local surplus funds should be used to “place and settle to work the rogues and vagabonds.”  In addition, it demanded that all actors companies be licensed. Then in 1575 the Mayor of London had all players expelled from the city under pain of flogging. This now made it extremely difficult to put on plays in the City. Seizing the opportunity, in 1576, James Burbage, together with his brother in law John Brayne (who had previously built an unsuccessful theatre called the Red Lion in Whitechapel), took a 21 year lease on some ground from the owner, Gyles Allen. They then had “The Theatre” built. The land that The Theatre was built on was adjacent to the Liberty of Norton Folgate, and was on land that before the dissolution of the monasteries used to be part of Holywell Priory. This made it out of the jurisdiction of the City and its ban on plays. 

"The Theatre" was successful from the start. The first players company to use it was possibly Lord Leicester's Men, which was the players company of Robert Dudley, the 1st Earl of Leicester, and of which James Burbage was a member. Later in the 1580s the Admiral's Men, of which James Burbage's son Richard was a member, used The Theatre.  In 1594, James Burbage set up another players group called ‘The Lord Chamberlain's Men’. James’ son, Richard Burbage, became the leading actor of the group and performed at The Theatre until 1597. William Shakespeare is thought to have joined this players group in the early 1590's. 

Above: Shakespeare statue outside the site of "The Theatre", the first successful purpose built theatre.
When the playhouses were built, the audience was charged to enter, putting their coins in a sealed pot with a slot in the top (a bit like a piggy bank). These were later smashed and the coins put into a large wooden box kept in a secure room (hence the term 'Box Office'). 

It's hoped that the BOX OFFICE permanent exhibition will be open soon for visitors.

Carry on to the bottom of New Inn Street, turn right into New Inn Yard and walk a few metres to Curtain Road.

The map above is from John Rocque's map of London in 1746. The red dot marks your approximate position now. On the other side of Curtain Road (Curtain Street then), opposite from where you are now, was the Holywell Mount. A man-made small hill, used as a burial site for centuries, it was used to bury victims of bubonic plague in a number of the outbreaks. Image of one of the 1665 plague burials on Holywell Mount - (Getty Images Website)

On your side of Curtain Road is a Foxtons Estate Agency. On its Curtain Road side are two plaques commemorating “The Theatre”.

Walk down Curtain Road, crossing Great Eastern Street at the lights. Proceed down Curtain Road, crossing Holywell Lane and then Hewett Street. On the left is The Stage Development, built on the site of the Curtain Theatre.

The Stage development is so named as this is the spot that the Curtain Theatre was built in 1577. This is about a year after The Theatre, further up the road, was built. It stayed open for forty five years, closing in 1622.

The Curtain Theatre was named after a curtain wall that surrounded a pasture near here. 

This theatre was used by The Lord Chamberlain's Men (for whom WS worked) in 1598 and 1599, performing some of Shakespeare's plays, until the Globe Theatre was built at Bankside. The exact position of the Curtain Theatre was only found a few years ago.

The site of the Curtain theatre is currently being developed, to include a 40-storey tower, providing 385 homes, 250,000 sq ft of office space and 50,000 sq ft of retail space. The cost is estimated as around £750,000,000.

It has been promised that the historic remains of the Curtain will be preserved in a glass enclosure which will also hold a Shakespeare museum and a performance space.

Museum of London Archaeology had access to do the excavation. You can see on the MOLA web site some of their discoveries

The Stage development plans to have a performance and exhibition space in the courtyard between the two high rise sections. This will show exhibits from the archeological exploration of The Curtain Theatre.

Carry on down Curtain Road. As it swings to the right, continue straight on into Appold Street.  When Appold Street bends to the right and becomes Sun Street, turn left past a tall, multicoloured art work that looks like a pile of blocks, on to the pedestrian way. 

Walk straight on down the pedestrian way, and at the end turn left. You will come to Broadgate Circle. 

Turn right and remain at the same level to walk around the edge of Broadgate Circle, keeping it on your left side. At the other side of Broadgate Circle, turn right on the footpath and walk away from it on to an outside footpath, passing "Fulcrum", a 55 foot tall sculpture made of rusty metal slabs, on your right. 

Walk on to arrive at Broad Street Place.  On the left is the entrance to the Elizabeth Line at Liverpool Street Station. Straight ahead is Blomfield Street.

Picture above is looking east at Liverpool Street, from where Broad Street Place and Blomfield Street join. This is the area that was the Bedlam Hospital graveyard.

The Bethlem Hospital was founded in 1247, originally a priory which collected money for the crusades. When the Crusaders lost Bethelem in 1244, the priory became a ‘hospital’, somewhere where poor and needy people could be looked after. During the Reformation, the City of London was given control of the hospital.

By 1403 the hospital seems to have specialised in mental health, and was described as “An abode for those that have fallen out of wit”. From about this date the hospital was commonly referred to as “Bedlam”. 

Bedlam itself was where Liverpool Street Station now is.

The Bedlam Burial Ground lies beneath the area where the new Crossrail ticket office has been now built, outside the station. As part of Crossrail excavation preparation in March 2015, archaeologists excavated over 3,000 skeletons from this area.  

Walk on along Blomfield Street.

Blomfield Street follows the course of the Walbrook. In 1838 when a new sewer was being put under the street, a very large number of human skulls were found. Only a very few other human bones were found with them. Since then over 300 further skulls have been found in this area, around 50 of them during the Crossrail project mentioned earlier.  It’s thought many more may still be in the ground near here.  Carbon dating has shown that the skulls are from the Roman period of occupation.

Above: Some of the skulls found in the Crossrail dig. Creative Commons 2.0 Credit: falling_angel - Flickr

The presence of skulls in the area has been known about for a long time. Geoffrey of Monmouth, in about 1136, suggested that a Roman legion who took part in a revolt at the end of the third century AD were all beheaded here. Others have suggested that they are the skulls of Roman soldiers beheaded by Boudica, that they are trophy skulls collected by the Roman army, that they are executed criminals, or are from gladiators slain in Londinium‘s amphitheater (now viewable under the Guildhall Art Gallery). 

In March 2014, a study was published which described  marks on a number of the skulls which showed multiple injuries, some of which had healed. The study suggested that this gave weight to the idea that they were the skulls of professional fighters such as gladiators.

A current thought about the skulls mystery, is that they might be from a cemetery, or from bodies deposited in the water further upstream. Experiments that have been done with bodies left to decompose in running water, which has shown that the skulls become separated, and float further downstream where they could collect together in a shallower area.

There are public toilets in Liverpool Street Station.

Continue to the end of Blomfield Street. At the junction with London Wall, turn left and walk about 90 metres. On the left is the church of All Hallows on the Wall.

The “All Hallows” in the name of this church refers to the “hallowed”, all the Christians who have died and gone to heaven. All Hallows Day (also known as All Saints Day) is the day after Halloween, a contraction of All Hallows Eve.

The Walbrook got to the other side of the London Wall at this point. 

In the section of the Agas map below, which shows London in the 1560’s, you can see the Walbrook flowing south and reaching the London Wall. It is then being directed east and west in a ditch alongside the wall. You can't see the water flowing on the City side of the wall, as by 1560 the Walbrook had been culverted within the City over the previous 120 years. 

You can also see figures on the “More Fyeld”, next to the ditch, using the area as a “tenter ground”. This is an area used for drying new woollen cloth after “fulling”, a process that cleaned and thickened it. You can see the cloth hooked onto frames called “tenters” and stretched taut to dry. 

Cross over the London Wall road, and walk back along in the direction that you came. On the left, you will come to some big metal gates across the entrance to Throgmorton Avenue.  

- If the gates are open, walk down Throgmorton Avenue. On the left you’ll pass Austin Friars, once the home of Thomas Cromwell. Go to Route A.

- If the gates are locked, walk further along London Wall and then turn left into Copthall Avenue. Got to Route B.

(Route A) Just past the turn off into Austin Friars are some more metal gates.  

- If these are open, walk through them to the end of Throgmorton Avenue. Now pass through another metal gate and turn right into Throgmorton Street.  Walk to the end of the street and straight into Lothbury.

- If these second gates are locked, turn right into Copthall Avenue then left into Angel Court.  At the end of Angel Court, turn right into Throgmorton Street.  Walk to the end of the street and straight into Lothbury. 

(Route B) Walk down Copthall Avenue. As it bends to the left, turn right into the narrow Angel Court. turn right into Throgmorton Street.  Walk to the end of the street and straight into Lothbury.

Looking down Lothbury you can see the Bank of England on your left, and half way down, St Margaret Lothbury Church on the right. The Walbrook flows under these buildings from right to left. There is a slight sloping down in the middle of Lothbury which shows it's approximate position.

Walk further down Lothbury to the front of St Margaret's Lothbury.

The first mention of St Margaret Lothbury in a document is in 1185. Until the dissolution (under Henry VIII) it was under the patronage of the abbess and convent of Barking, now in east London.

In 1440, mostly at the expense the Lord Mayor at the time, the Walbrook in this area was buried underground, and the church was rebuilt over the top of it. That church was damaged in the Great Fire of 1666 and was rebuilt by Christopher Wren from 1686 to 1690.

The Walbrook is still flowing under the foundations of the St Margaret Lothbury. In the 1980s, as part of essential repairs, a diver had to work on the foundations of the building, as the stonework had been eroded by the stream.

The Walbrook also flows under the Bank of England. Steve Duncan has photographed the pipe beneath the Bank that holds the Walbrook.
You can see the image on the excellent Spitalfields Life blog here 

Carry on down Lothbury, then turn left into Princes Street (which the path of the Walbrook crosses from left to right) keeping the Bank of England on your left. You will arrive at the intersection of (going clockwise) Princes Street, Threadneedle Street, Cornhill, Lombard Street, and Mansion House Street. 

Where you are now, to the east is Cornhill and to the west Ludgate Hill, two of the three high points in the City of London (Tower Hill is the third one). Up to the early 15th century, the Walbrook flowed south, above ground, at this low point between the hills, on it's way to the Thames.

Picture above is of the Bank of England on the left and the Royal Exchange on the right.

Cross Mansion House Street towards the Mansion House (it has 6 columns, The Royal Exchange has 8). 

It is worth noting that both Shoreditch Church, where the walk started, and the Mansion House were designed by the same architect, George Dance the Elder. All Hallows on the Wall, that we passed earlier, and that was near to where the Walbrook passed under the London Wall, was designed by his son, George Dance the Younger.

If you look west towards where the road splits into Queen Victoria Street and Poultry, you can see the low point in the road. This marks the path that the Wallbrook would have flowed, across where Poultry is now and down where the street now called Walbrook stands. 

Walk towards Queen Victoria Street, and just after Mansion House, turn left into the street called Walbrook. A little way down it, on the left, is the Church of St. Stephen’s Walbrook.

Picture above shows the view looking down Wallbrook, showing St Stephens Walbrook in the centre.

Walk down to St Stephen's Walbrook, which gets it's name from the Walbrook river flowing under the road outside it. 

It is worth looking inside St Stephen's. The church is normally open on Mondays to Friday between 10am and 3.30pm. It is usually closed at weekends except for great festivals.

The current St Stephen’s Walbrook was, as were many of the City churches, designed by Sir Cristopher Wren after the Great Fire of 1666. This church replaced a 15th century predecessor. The 15th century church had itself replaced a Saxon church, which was founded between 700-980 AD. The Saxon church was a short distance away just down the hill.

The internal dome is thought to have been a trial run for the one built later in St Paul’s Cathedral, also by Wren.

A former rector of St Stephen's was Dr Chad Varah, who founded the Samaritans charity in 1953. The first Samaritans branch was set up at the church, and you can still see the first telephone that was used in a glass box in the church.

In 1987, a massive white, circular, polished stone altar was commissioned from the sculptor Henry Moore. It was placed in the middle of the church, and caused some controversy when first installed, but the issue was finally resolved by an ecclesiastical court.

Carry on walking down Walbrook. On the right is the London Mithraeum.

The Mithraeum is below the Bloomberg building, and is an underground Temple of Mithras. It is free to enter, but places need to be pre-booked. You can do so here:  londonmithraeum.com 

The London Mithraeum, under the Bloomberg European headquarters.
Photo by Carole Raddato - Creative Commons 2.0.

The cult of Mithras was a religious activity associated with the Roman military and with water, although it may have been adapted by local religious practices and gods. Temples to Mithras were commonly built near rivers and other water sources, with offerings and objects asking for divine help being cast into the waters.

There were multiple Mithraeums in Britain, this one appears to have been one of the largest. The Cult of Mithras differed in different parts of the Roman world. In western Europe, the worship of Mithras was connected to treaties and contracts. This may indicate the likelihood that a fair proportion of it’s worshipers had military and merchant connections. 

Above: The riverbed of the Walbrook, revealed when the Bloomberg Building was being built.Photo by Matt Brown - Flickr - Creative Commons 2.0  

Continue down Walbrook towards the intersection with Cannon Street. Just before you get to Cannon Street, on the right, is part of an art installation called "Forgotten Streams" by Cristina Iglesias. Made of bronze, the installation evokes the hidden waters of the Walbrook. If you want to see the other two pieces of the installation, they are at the far end of the Bloomberg Arcade, which is to the right of this part of the installation. Return to here to continue the walk.   Photograph above: Credit: Loz Pycock - Flickr - Creative Commons 2.0

From the bottom of Walbrook, facing Cannon Street, turn left and walk about 60 metres along Cannon Street. 

Cannon Street is a contraction of Candlewick Street, which was it's name in the 14th-16th centuries. This was because it was a street where candle makers were based.  

On the left is the London Stone.

The date and original purpose of the London Stone are not really known. However, there has been interest in it, and speculation about it, since around 1100. It is possibly a remnant of a Roman building or a Roman milestone.

In 1450, Jack Cade, the leader of a rebellion against Henry VI, struck his sword on the London Stone and claimed to be "Lord of this city".

In the time of Queen Elizabeth I, the London Stone was shown on maps, as a landmark and as a visitor attraction. It was thought then that it was connected to King Lud, a legendary ancient king. In some medieval texts, it’s said that Lud was a pre-Roman king of Britain, and the founder of London. It was thought that Lud was buried at Ludgate, which was named after him.

Cross over Cannon Street and turn right. Walk along about 60 metres and turn left into Dowgate Hill, then immediately turn right into Cloak Lane.  

The 'Cloak' in the lane's name is thought to be a corruption of the latin word 'Cloaca', meaning sewer. This might give a clue as to how this last stretch of the Walbrook was put to use in the past.

Turn first left into College Hill.  

About 40 metres down, on the left are two plaques.  

The first marks the site of Richard (Dick) Whittington’s house. Whittington was four times a Mayor of London in the late 14th and early 15th centuries.

Richard Whittington became rich as a merchant. He used his wealth to do a lot of good works in London.  One of the most interesting was building a 128 seat public toilet (called 'Whittington's Longhouse') that was sited about 40 metres from this spot. 

The second plaque is on the Church of St. Michael Paternoster (now the headquarters of  “The Mission to Seafarers”) which Whittington founded and is buried in.

At the end of College Hill, walk through the small Whittington Garden. Cross Upper Thames Street and enter the covered Bell Wharf Lane. Walk under the covered section then follow the Riverside Walk sign to the footpath along the Thames. Turn right and walk to outside the “Little Ship Club”.

Below the walkway is the place that what is left of the water of the Walbrook joins the Thames.

The picture above shows, at low tide, a concrete chute coming from a lidded hole in the river wall that guides what is left of the Walbrook into the Thames.

When viewing the Thames, to your right is Southwark Bridge. You can climb up steps to it to get a view of the river.  

From outside the “Little Ship Club”, looking towards the Thames,  return left along the riverside walkway. 

Just before the covered section, on the right, there is a useful information panel that explains about Walbrook Wharf. 

Continue along the riverside path,  which ends near a pub called “The Banker”. If the tide is out, there are steps here down to the foreshore.

If you turn left at the pub, you join Cousins Lane. Walk up it. On the right you pass Steelyard Passage which is so named after "The Steelyard" which was near here.

The Steelyard was the main trading base of the Hanseatic League in London during the 15th and 16th centuries. The Hanseatic League was a group of merchant guilds who traded along the coasts of Northern Europe.

Carry on up Cousins Lane.  Cross Upper Thames Street and continue into Dowgate Hill (named after a former watergate leading on to to the Thames here).  

On your right you will pass Cannon Street underground station (Circle and District lines). 

Further up Dowgate Hill, turning right into Cannon Street is Cannon Street Rail Station 

There are public toilets in Cannon Street Rail Station.

There is also a pub, the Sir John Hawksmore (Wetherspoons) within the rail station.


Layers of London - Use the Tudor Map overlay to see the precise original route of the Walbrook

Museum of London Archeology Blog Posts

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Russell & Paul