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Bradford, T. (2004) The Groundwater Diaries Flamingo ISBN 0 00 713083 X

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After reading the 2014 A London Country Diary by Tim Bradford I went in search of one of his earlier offerings, the 2004 The Groundwater Diaries. Bradford describes it as:

A heavily illustrated London travel book in which I use old maps, hallucinogenic high strength lager, dream analysis and an old coat hanger to help me find the city’s lost streams. Over the course of a year I walked the routes of many of these buried tributaries of the Thames, drew some sketches and read history books. The book covers the great themes of existence – punk, football, feminism, beer, nurses, politics, free jazz, jellied eels, Dickens, offal, capitalism, sex and death.

It’d seem, from the tone and content of this book, that in the early noughties Tim Bradford would have been the sort of stranger you’d sit down next to in a quiet pub and end up having a mammoth session with, sharing rambling tales and having a good laugh too.

A flight of imagination back to a time when London was green meadows and rolling hills, dotted with babbling brooks. Join Tim Bradford as he explores the lost rivers of London. Over the last hundred and fifty years, most of the tributaries of the Thames have been buried under concrete and brick. Now Tim Bradford takes us on a series of walks along the routes of these forgotten rivers and shows us the oddities and delights that can be found along the way.

He finds the chi in the Ching, explores the links between London’s football ground and freemasons, rediscovers the unbearable shiteness of being (in South London), enjoys the punk heritage of the Westbourne, and, of course, learns how to special-brew dowse. Here, then, is all of London life, but from a very different point of view.

With a cast that includes the Viking superhero Hammer Smith, a jellied-eel fixated William Morris, a coprophiliac Samuel Johnson, Deep Purple and the Glaswegian deer of Richmond Park, and hundreds of cartoons, drawings and maps, ‘The Groundwater Diaries’ is a vastly entertaining (and sometimes frankly odd) tour through not-so-familiar terrain. Harper-Collins promotional blurb

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In truth the book’s only tangentially about either underground streams or walking, much more it’s about a love-affair with a city and an off-beat excuse to say a fond farewell to the relative freedoms and excesses of twenty-something (or thirty-something) life.

Very funny, fascinating, convincing and engaging. Read in small bursts “The Groundwater Diaries” have the wit, energy and attitude of punk music itself which was not without serious cultural importance and even occasional beauty. Independent on Sunday

Whilst Tim Bradford is neither a Nick Hornby nor a Bill Bryson, through tales of lost Danish punk bands, elusive hardline feminist river walkers, water-hexed football stadia and the use of extra strength lager (as an aid to dowsing), he does succeed in vividly capturing something of the elusive and meandering nature of London’s seemingly silent submerged waterways.

The book is interesting and informative, yet at times frustratingly elusive as specific locations, accurate maps and cold hard facts are often missing, replaced by the story of a personal odyssey, anecdote mingled with wildly hit-&-miss creative guess work. For lovers of London trivia, particularly those with a passing interest in the lost rivers in particular (or waterways in general) these are minor quibbles, and The Groundwater Diaries remains a mildly anarchic enjoyable read.

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Imagine a lost river, such as the Fleet, re-surfaced and running along London streets once more – MAGICAL!

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