Lost Rivers of London: The River Tyburn

Black and white painting of a protest in the street, with the Elizabeth Tower and the House of Parliament in the background.
Image: Protest on Parliament Street, near the Houses of Parliament, London, where the River Tyburn used to flow; painting by Wilson Yau, 2023

Subject: Sights along the route of the River Tyburn
Medium: Pen and acrylic on canvas
Date of creation: September 2022 – January 2024

My paintings

My second series of paintings on the lost rivers of London looks north of the Thames and is based on the River Tyburn, which takes a rather scenic route through central London. It began with me walking the route over two days in September 2022, a lovely excuse to explore London. I took many photographs and from these, I selected scenes that resonate with me or I think are interesting.

It has taken me more time to create this series than the one on the River Effra back in 2022. These eight paintings were mostly done whilst I’ve been working full time. When I went on the walks I had recently been made redundant and I was blissfully thinking I had plenty of time to make my paintings. I started a new job full-time job shortly after.

pencil sketch on a white canvas, on top of a table top with a pencil and eraser.
Image: Pencil drawing of Shepherds Well, Hampstead, ready to be inked and painted.

Each painting is drawn in pencil on a white canvas, then the lines are drawn over in waterproof ink pen. Once the inking is complete, the pencil is rubbed out. Black acrylic is watered down and used to paint directly onto the canvas.

I managed to exhibit some of these in time for the outdoor Urban Art exhibition in Brixton in July 2023.

Black and white painting of a quiet and leafy residential road, a tall brick wall on the left has a round plaque with the words Shepherds Well.
Image: Shepherds Well, Hampstead, London, the source of the River Tyburn; painting by Wilson Yau, 2023

About the River Tyburn

The source of the Tyburn is Shepherd’s Well in leafy Hampstead from where it flows downhill and southwards. As it does so, it flows beneath the famous parks of central London beloved by tourists – Regent’s Park, where it once fed the Boating Lake, and Green Park – and through the prime real estate spots of St John’s Wood, Marylebone and the West End. It also runs under centres of power, such as Buckingham Palace. Formerly, a branch of the Tyburn flowed around Westminster Abbey to create Thorney Island.

Black and white painting of small kiosk and a picnic table in a park full of trees, on the right a man is walking a dog and is carrying another dog in a bag.
Image: Closed kiosk, Regent’s Park, London; painting by Wilson Yau, 2023

The Tyburn over the centuries has been covered over and is mostly channeled into underground pipes as a sewer, but its course can still be seen in the roads which follow parts of the river’s former above-ground route. Marylebone Lane, South Milton Lane and Briton Street in the West End are easily spotted as a legacy of the Tyburn, their winding or angular path defies the street grid imposed around them. Through such a dense and complicated part of the city, the river crosses many barriers. The Tyburn flows in pipes across Regent’s Canal and over the Tube tracks of the London Underground at Baker Street station.

Black and white painting of a busy Tube platform with trains and crowds of people. A large sign above the platoform has the names of Tube lines.
Image: Baker Street, London Underground station, London; painting by Wilson Yau, 2023

Nowadays, the river ends where it feeds into the Thames at Grosvenor Street in Pimlico, not far from Vauxhall Bridge.

I wish I could do more paintings of this river, as I saw so many interesting sites on my walks, but I have limited time. I feel now that I should move on to looking at the other rivers that feed into the Thames. I’ve recently moved to Norwood, near Croydon, in the outer part of south London. It’s an opportunity to look at the watercourses in this part of the city and discover more local history.

Gallery of my paintings of the River Tyburn

All paintings by Wilson Yau.

If you want to know more about this river, below is a list of some good sources I used. As its name suggests, Tom Bolton’s book is a great all-round reference book on the topic of London’s lost rivers.

  • Book: ‘London’s Lost Rivers: A Walker’s Guide, Volume One’ by Tom Bolton, 2011.
  • A good online map is here via Google Maps.
  • An interesting blog post from a Museum of London curator who followed the river’s route.
  • A history of the river’s former route through Westminster is on the Thorney Island Society website.
  • A nice photo album of a walk following the route.