hidden europe 55

Reclaiming Our Rivers: Europe's Lost Waterways

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: Lviv’s opera house was opened in 1900. Its construction meant that the River Poltva had to be channelled underground (photo © hidden europe).


Do not the rivers which once powered urban economies deserve more visibility in a post-industrial age? Clean rivers should surely not be hidden away in subterranean culverts. Let's bring them back to the surface and let them help with the rejuvenation of tired cityscapes.

Recent media coverage of Belfast’s long-lost river set us thinking. The River Farset, which indirectly gave its name to the city, is one of many European rivers which have entirely disappeared.

Old maps of Paris show the River Bièvre meandering through the city to join the Seine just upstream from the Île-Saint-Louis. Yet this leftbank tributary of the Seine is, as far as we know, no longer visible at any point on the surface. The René-Le Gall gardens in the 13th arrondissement (sometimes called the jardin des Gobelins) mark the site of a former island in the Bièvre, which at this point split into two channels as it flowed north and east towards the Seine. The island was called L’Île aux Singes, a local toponym nicely perpetuated in the name of a good restaurant on rue Corvisart by the southernmost tip of the René-Le Gall gardens. Old accounts of Parisian life recall the days when tanners and weavers worked on the banks of the Bièvre, the waters of which were also so important to the tapestry industry in this quarter of the French capital.

Do not the rivers which powered the economy of early industrial cities warrant more visibility in a post-industrial age? Rivers that gave life to cities deserve to be seen.

When it comes to losing watercourses, Vienna has certainly lost more rivers than many European capitals. Old maps show a score of small streams flowing east from the Wienerwald down through the city. Some, like the Döblinger Bach, simply no longer exist. Others, like the Krottenbach and Alserbach, still flow in subterranean culverts, shades of their one-time surface life recalled in street names, viz. Alserbachstrasse and Krottenbachstrasse. In the Austrian capital, as also in some other European cities, the 19th-century diversion of rivers to underground courses was in part a move to stem the spread of waterborne diseases such as cholera. Film buffs will surely remember the famous scenes of Vienna’s underground rivers and its wider sewage system in Carol Reed’s film The Third Man (1949), set in post-war Vienna and starring Orson Welles.

How many visitors to Moscow realise as they walk from the Bolshoi Theatre along Neglinnaya Street (Неглинная улица) that just a few metres below flow the waters of one of the city’s major rivers? The Neglinnaya once formed part of the moat of the Kremlin, but over the past 200 years the river has been completely rerouted underground and has thus slipped from visibility. But its sevenkilometre route through underground culverts, joining the Moskva River by the Bolshoi Kamenny Bridge, is still broadly similar to that taken by the one-time surface river.

Cities which were shaped by their rivers have sidelined those rivers. You’ll be hard pushed to find the River Sheaf in Sheffield, and there’s not much to see of the Senne in Brussels — although diligent visitors who head to the Musée des Égouts in Anderlecht, a museum entirely devoted to sewers, can get a glimpse of the subterranean Senne in a culvert.

Elsewhere in this issue of hidden europe we feature the Ukrainian city of Lviv, where there is little to be seen of the River Poltva which was progressively channelled below the streets in a series of urban redevelopment programmes in the second half of the 19th century. It’s said that the sound of running water heard in the cellars of the city’s opera house is a reminder of Lviv’s lost river.

This leads us to wonder if we should be reclaiming our rivers. Is it not time, perhaps, to restore the redemptive sound of running water to our cities? The Fleet, Moselle, Effra and Walbrook are some of a score of London rivers which have entirely disappeared from modern maps.

Do not the rivers which powered the economy of early industrial cities warrant more visibility in a post-industrial age? Rivers that gave life to cities deserve to be seen. No longer is there the same threat of disease and good, clean rivers flowing at the surface might help with the rejuvenation of tired cityscapes.

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