The Lost Rivers of Seville

I’ve long had a fascination with those bits of a place that have been lost and largely forgotten, such as Seville’s second bullring, and one aspect of this in urban areas is the old watercourses that have been buried or diverted, and disappeared from view. My interest began in London, with rivers like the Fleet, the Walbrook, the Lad Brook and the West Bourne, and has continued now that I live in Seville.

The city of Seville is on the banks of the River Guadalquivir, and although the valley is quite wide and flat, there are uplands not too far away from which streams drain into the main river.

Indeed, the main river itself has seen substantial changes since the beginning of the 20th century. Before that time the areas of Seville near the river had been subject to frequent, and sometimes severe, flooding, the result of snow melt in the mountains above Córdoba and the winter rains. In addition to this the old port on either side of the Torre del Oro had become silted up, and inaccessible to modern commercial shipping. This resulted in an ambitious project to deal with both these problems.

It can be seen on old prints and paintings that just below the old city the river followed a big looping curve to the right (west) of its present course. In the early 20th century a completely new artificial channel was created that cut off the loop, and allowed the modern port of Seville to be built. Later, another new channel was cut to the west of Triana that takes the main flow of the Guadalquivir (the last stage of these works was completed around 1990 for the expo of ’92). The river that you see now by the old city is therefore the original course, but it no longer connects to the new river at its inland end, preventing floods in the city centre. Perhaps most surprisingly, the site of the April Fair is built on land reclaimed from the old course of the river.

Although it’s difficult to visualise now, there was also a second channel beside the main river that ran from near the Barqueta Bridge, through what is now the Alameda de Hercules, along Sierpes and Constitución to near the Torre del Oro. The Vikings used this route to attack the city in the 9th century (one of their longboats was discovered beneath the Plaza Nueva), but most of it was drained when the city was expanded in the 11th century. The northern section, however, remained as a stagnant lagoon until the 16th century, when it was cleared and drained to create the Alameda de Hercules. A small stream whose be springs fed the water cisterns under the Plaza de Los Pescadores, and which can still seen in the crypts beneath El Salvador church, also ran here.

The last of our lost rivers is the Tagarete. This ran around the east and south of the city, just outside the walls, and though its course was diverted to the north of the city in the 20th century the small culvert where it joined the Guadalquivir can still be seen near the Torre del Oro. Also still visible are the culverts that fed the moat around the Royal Tobacco Factory. Sometimes a substantial stream, and sometimes almost dry, depending on the season and the rains, it was often noxious and polluted, as it ran past both the mediaeval tanneries and the slaughterhouses outside the Puerta de la Carne.

Nowadays there is almost nothing to show where these rivers ran, although if you know where to look in the layout of the streets, with a little imagination you can almost see them as they were, and how the city itself might have appeared in those bygone days.

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