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Creative Non-Fiction: 'A resurrection, from sewer to source'

Written by Vera Zakharov

It is not a name but a verb: an act of determination, flowing, resurfacing, assuming.



At low tide, she reveals her mouth. It’s less a voice than a laboured gurgle, pronouncing fatbergs and shit in between gasps for air. There is only a whisper of her ferrous lifeblood here. This is a half-life, if that, no longer coupled with the brackish Thames tide among her currents.


St. Bridewell’s Church

And where is the Bride herself? Even the most determined hunter of the Goddess of holy springs and poetry will be rebuffed. Even the church staff are barred from entering the nook where her once flowing altar stood. 



The viaduct straddles nothing in particular. It only hints at ancient memories of imperial idyll, a Roman riviera along sunny banks, a resplendent river welcoming boats and bathers. Now subsumed, the bourne long hollowed out.


Saffron Hill

Heading north, recall Dickens’ Fagin’s Den, the river an uncredited character, muddy, fetid, pregnant with odours. Cast as a demon of detective novels and cautionary tales, taking the lives of the foolish and the hapless. A channel that once ran red with blood from Smithfield, muddling entrails, hogs’ heads, drowned puppies. In the role of culverted chamber of the dark arts, she bubbles with revenge. Her ghosts still plague the placenames of cobbled alleyways, where lovers press backs, hands, knees against the sweating brickwork, noses buried in perfumed hair to evade the stench, dreaming of a lazy riverbank.


The Prince Albert

Now kneel to the ground. Press your ear to the ribs of the drain cover outside the pub. Can you hear her gentle exhalations? Prostrate yourself before the glory of the ceaseless rush. Consider her gifts, now caged in, still given freely.


St. Chad’s Well

She was called the River of Wells, the multi-mineral curer of various ills, including: scurvy, bile, worms and piles, indigestion, nervous complaints. Thousands lined up to pay for a sip from the venerable well, now a literal hole in the wall alley. There were others, now dry and keeping vigil. Remember their names. St. Pancras Well; Bagnigge Well; Black Mary’s Well (also known as Black Madonna, Black Isis, dark side of the Moon); Clerkenwell; Skinner’s Well; and, again, St. Bride’s Well.


Quinn’s Pub

Here is the secret meeting place, where the Highgate and the Hampstead twine. Here legs eagerly edge toward each other, then touch, then finally entangle under cover. Another drain cover offers the rush of this union, if you stoop to squint into the darkness.



Head north, where the city falls away as the hills of London Clay and Bagshot Sands, and the Heath that cloaks them, rise resplendent. Here her streams unveil themselves, cupped lovingly by a rosary of ponds. Announce each one. Hampstead Number 1 Pond; Hampstead Number 2 Pond, Mixed Bathing Pond, Viaduct Pond; Vale of Heath Pond; Highgate Number 1 Pond; Men’s Bathing Pond; Model Boating Pond; Bird Sanctuary Pond; Ladies Bathing Pond; Stock Pond; Thousand Pound Pond; Wood Pond.


Parliament Hill

Don’t be fooled into thinking these are ponds of simple pleasures, ageing infrastructures of Victorian idylls. Here bodies gather in ritual, tapping into carnal wisdom. Watch as they abandon themselves daily to the ecstasies of these ancient waters. How they eagerly break the gathering ice in winter and forth up the silt in the heatwaves of summer. Bent knees rise among the golden hay meadows as skin recovers in lusty exhaustion, among portable stereos and cans of gin, in prayer to the alchemy of aquifer and sunshine. Flesh takes in a communion of ferruginous wine: iron, manganese, calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium.


Goddison’s Fountain

Scramble further uphill, via narrow footpaths among the brazen brambles and the towering nettle. Seek in the earth signs of the source – burnt orange and clay red seeping over the soil, spilling forth over the lip of a finely carved well, squirrels and small birds dancing among drooping fruits. Find the Eocene voice of the old great Bagshot, whisperer of the North Sea, forgiver of ice sheets, sweeper of the ancient stage of Salisbury Plain, goddess potent as any other, as Ganges, as Indus, as Niger. Here is Fleet, irrepressible, pouring restoration over your palms and fingers.

About the Author

Vera Zakharov is a Russian-American-British food campaigner and poet living in Sussex with her family. She likes to explore heritage, sex, motherhood and queer ecology through her writing. She is the winner of the 2023 Creative Future platinum poetry award. Her work has been published in Magma, the Madrigal Press, Ink, Sweat and Tears and elsewhere. X: @verushka Insta: @vera_in_the_wild

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