The Ghosts of Senate House is one part of a creative research project led by Sarah Sparkes. It serves as an archive for uncanny, apocryphal stories emanating from Senate House. These stories formed part of "a Magical library for the 21st Century" an archive of writings, recordings, artwork, artefacts, and other contributions, which was first shown at the University of London as part of The Bloomsbury Festival October 2011.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Return of the Lost Rivers

'The Moat'  - could one of London's Lost Rivers be attempting to fill it up?

Several stories are circulating about the existence of a pond, lake or well beneath the foundations of Senate House.  John Stone, Building Services Technical Officer at Senate House, was able to shed light onto the possible origins of these watery tales when he took me on a tour of the subterranean world beneath North Block.

Our tour began above ground on North Block Green, a grassy square overshadowed by Senate House and SOAS buildings; here John took me to look over the side of ‘the Moat’ a sunken, tile-lined gully built to bring light into the basement levels of the building.  At the bottom of ‘the Moat’ and going unseen by most is a surprisingly fast flowing stream of clear water!
“There has always been a bit of water here” John explained, going on to say that in recent years the amount has significantly increased, ebbing and flowing with the seasons, the water decreasing towards the end of the summer.  John told me that tests show only trace elements of chlorine and other Thames Water chemicals making it doubtful that the source is a leaking water main.
Geologists, employed to investigate the water, suggest that a spring up to a mile away has been diverted by building work  however, this does not account for the fact that the water has been present to a greater or lesser extent since the buildings construction. I speculate that this water may originate from one of the lost rivers of London, possibly the Fleet.  John agrees that there may be some truth in this citing that recent excavations of North Block Green unearthed an old conduit.

 Next, we descended below ground into ‘The Moat’ itself.

John unlocked an ominous looking doorway and we stepped through into a warm chamber heavy with the noise of pumps and generators.  From here we climbed a steep ladder up to a narrow service tunnel bathed in the eerie green glow of the safety lights and leading right underneath Senate House.

This tunnel runs all the way from the British Museum to Torrington Square, but is mostly inaccessible due to the current building works at the university. As we travelled further along the tunnel the sound of running water grew louder until finally we descended another ladder into a deeper tunnel from where the sound was emanating.  An extraordinary and haunting sight met my eyes - for here, beneath Senate House, was a large pool of water.

Water is flowing through a fissure in the wall and collecting on the floor.  The duck boards dotted along the tunnel serve as stepping stones and were placed there when the building was first constructed showing that the water was always present.   A channel two inches by two inches has been carved into the stone floor to allow the water to flow into a sump pumping the water up to The Moat above.
What lies beneath Senate House
 Below Senate House, water is flowing in from some mysterious source.  The water is constantly pumped out to prevent serious flooding. The pump keeps going and the water keeps coming back, but where is it coming from?

Please note: These tunnels are not open for public access.  Access was granted under special circumstances and the correct safety procedures were adhered to.