Bodies Rising to the Surface – A review of The Walbrook Pilgrimage

[Remember, dear reader, that this is a duplicate article. All Annexe articles are posted primarily to – Sooner or later they won’t be here at all!]

The Walbrook Pilgrimage
Review by Michael C. Schuller



When I was a child, a creek ran behind our house. Well, we called it a creek, but really it was an invention of the necessities of drainage in a city. For about six hundred yards it ran between the back gardens of the houses on our block where, at the end, it vanished into a hole beneath a street, presumably to make its way to the river. If you were to chart out the history of the games my brothers and I played, whole civilizations rose and fell on the banks of that runnel. An entire generation of neighbourhood kids knew it as a major landmark.

The last time I was back at that house, I remember going out in the back garden and looking at the creek again. It was dry, as was to be expected. But standing on the rocky bed, looking east and west, I noticed that you could no longer see the full length of it. Fences had been put up, or revised along actual property lines, until the whole thing was cut to pieces by wooden slats and chain link. One of the great mysteries and pleasures of childhood (and adulthood, if we are lucky) is learning the lay of the land around us. It is equal to learning the nature of the world that you live in. The naturalist and essayist Gary Paul Nabhan posits that the kind of learning that we undertake in those childhood adventures is essential to an adult mindset that not only feels connected to our environment, but also the need to protect and conserve it.

It’s hard to imagine that the same space that contains underground railroads and leaping skyscrapers needs the same kind of protection as ones full of flora and fauna. But at least in the rural environment, the biological ecosystems get on without much human interference. Systems regulate and adapt, however slowly, to even to the most sudden and dramatic changes in climate and chemistry. That doesn’t make them impervious, but nature can be surprisingly resilient. The same is not true of cities, where the force of human development is completely asymmetrical to any of the gradual self-regulation of natural selection or dieback and niche-filling. Fences across a creek are nothing compared to the ability to divert or entomb whole rivers, to suck up the groundwater with industrial pumps, bore deep tunnels, or simply turn natural tributaries into sewers. If the city is the reality of the future, then we will need to build cities differently than we do now, and how we have done for much of history. One reason is that they simply can’t fit everyone who wants to live in them. The other is that even if they could, they can’t support all of those people with the existing infrastructure.  On top of that, the best reason is simply that they are badly built. On floodplains, in the paths of hurricanes, tornadoes, and volcanoes, these emblems of the future carry all the baggage of the ancient past.



We end the walk on the Thames foreshore, at low tide. The sun has just set, and the lights of the City peer out at us over the far bank. Like a well-trained tour guide, our host came prepared with a torch, and holds it up to his clipboard to read us the last passage of the performance. Here, as before, he refers to the walk as a ‘pilgrimage’. It is appropriate to the theme of the afternoon. We have been walking for two hours, walking the length of the now lost Walbrook river, running from Arnold Circus to the Thames.

By the time we reached the river, our varying paces had caught up with each other again. There were perhaps twenty of us, equipped with headphones and MP3 players, being guided along by the recorded instructions. The practical directions (“First you need to cross the road at the traffic island. Be careful as you do, and wait when you get to the other side.”) mix with the back-story of the city, the origins of names like Holywell and Shoreditch (a restorative water source, and a sewer respectively). We get treated to audio clips, background music, a touch of theatricality that only becomes suspect when pre-recorded traffic noises begin to mix with the actual ones. The writing is definitely performative, definitely poetic. It holds your attention not on itself but on the buildings and the streets around you. If Chivers permits himself the occasional slight sneer about the state of contemporary culture (“His rise from vandal spraying his tag on tube trains to artist displaying his wares in major art galleries is typical of a form rapidly losing is power to subvert and to shock.”) it comes off as a critic’s own aesthetic judgement, rather than malicious. Besides, the now is not why were are here, and it is not what we were promised.

Where the piece springs to life is in the descriptions of the history of the city, especially the role of the Walbrook in Roman London. The major water source of the Roman town, artifacts found in the area have provided a trove of information about the city’s most ancient past. As we walked through Finsbury Circus, we are told about what the excavations in preparation for the Crossrail project uncovered [a section of the walk that was informed by  Natasha Powers, Head of Osteology at Museum of London Archaeology].

   A hoard of Roman crania. One hundred and thirty two burials. Some cremations. CSI Walbrook. Two bodies are found crouched in pits, as if in fear. One body found without a head, I mean decapitated, I mean… . One double burial – a female and a young male lying prone, like they were holding each other when they went in. Two found with leg rings. Evidence of de-fleshing.
   Outside the walls. But a strange place to bury the dead. Too wet. Too waterlogged. Walbrook floods and coffins scoured by the water, bodies rising to the surface, free again from earth, the river washing clean their bones, washing them downstream, skulls rolling along the riverbed, bobbing against the banks, bodies breaking up. First go the hands and the wrists, then the feet. Off goes the head, and the mandible. The legs and arms begin to separate, and then we’re done. A floating torso. That was a man. That was a woman.

In these moments it seems like the river really is beneath our feet, ready to push its way up through the cracks in the asphalt and pavement. It won’t, of course – it has been tamed a long time ago. Even the mighty Thames has been battened down against the potential for all but the most surprisingly catastrophic flooding.

The whole event was sold to me as a ‘psychogeographic tour’ of one of London’s buried rivers. Indeed, there was at least the one almost obligatory reference to Alfred Watkins at the start of our walk, and Chivers himself boasts a ringing endorsement from Iain Sinclair on his website. It’s important to qualify this description, though. Although as a field of art and philosophy it doesn’t need to be defended, that label seems to project to some an air of stuffy, backward-looking writers. Indeed, in a recent piece in the London Review of Books, Owen Hatherley made reference to ‘Ian Sinclair or the London “psychogeographers” [sic], with their taste for pathetic fallacies and loathing for anything remotely new’. It is fair to say that Hatherley entirely misses the point. Or, at least, that he fails to grasp the most important lesson of this approach to studying the city.

At the start of our walk, on the band-stand at Arnold Circus, we learned that the mound itself was built up from the ruins of the proto-housing estate that once sat nearby. It is also the site of an ancient mound, the legendary source of the Walbrook, and the end of the Shoreditch leyline that Watkins posited. These are facts that add up as more than historical oddity: they tell us about what the city itself actually is. In our daily life, the city seems immovable, a gigantic construction which is growing and self-perpetuating. The truth is that it is an adhocracy, a provisional space created and maintained by human presence, a monument that would be effaced from the land it sits on were it not for the constant maintenance, the digging and the building. The bones of dead Romans beneath the streets we walk every day are evidence enough of that. And when we are told about the origins of places like Tokenhouse Yard, about the history of the architects of the Bank of England, or see an old, disused drinking fountain from the turn of the century, still poking out from the side of the building into which it was built, we are reminded that no matter how many people live here today, by the time this place has gone the way of Uruk or Nineveh, there will be more dead in the ground here than walking over the earth above it.



Tom Chivers does many things. He runs a celebrated publishing outfit that puts out innovative books, he writes, and right now he is the writer in residence for  Cape Farewell, an artist-founded organization for increasing cultural awareness of climate change. The Walbrook Pilgrimage has come out of this project, out of Chivers’s own desire to interrogate the changing city he was born in. Like all good interrogators, he is thorough. He manages to find vivid details which illustrate larger ideas. There is something evidence-based about this work, not content to just make sweeping and alarmist statements. Indeed, there are no statements of the kind anywhere in the material we experience. The few points at which environmentalism appeared in the walk were organic and unencumbered.

At the end of the walk we are standing in the shadow of a river barge, left dry on the rocky foreshore by the receding tide. Chivers finishes his reading and passes around the last artefact of the day, tiny glass phials with which to collect a bit of river water. (Appropriate action for a pilgrimage.) We are led down the shore, around the barge, to a hatch in the embankment wall. It is heavy steel at the top of a concrete chute, around which rocks and pebbles have settled. This is the mouth of the Walbrook. Water only flows out of it when a sluice, hidden upstream beneath the road, is opened. It looks like barrier to a sepulchre, rendered in iron. I can’t help but think of the creek behind my house, and wonder if this is the fate of all rivers that lie inside the bounds of a city. The hatch, Chivers tells us, is opened by the sheer weight of the water that comes flowing out of it.


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