Friday, October 29, 2010
THE LOST RIVERS OF LONDON
Earl's Sluice / Peck
South of the Thames, lost rivers are always harder to find. The land's flatter, the contours less distinct, and any former watercourse more completely eradicated. Take, for example, these two conjoined streams flowing north from sort-of-Peckham towards Rotherhithe-ish. To the west was the Earl's Sluice, and to the east was the Peck (I'm sure you can spot the suburb-naming connection there). Neither is especially well documented. Wikipedia's take on the Peck, for example, stretches to less than 50 words and an irrelevant photo. My apologies, therefore, because these latest watery jaunts are going to be less precise than usual. But I'll do my best.
THE LOST RIVERS OF LONDON
First I'm going to follow the Earl's Sluice from its source to its confluence with the Peck. The river's named after the Duke of Gloucester, allegedly, who was Lord of the manor round here in the time of Henry I. Its headwaters were on Denmark Hill (yes, there's a clue in the word 'hill'), close to the twin healthcare behemoths of the Maudsley and King's College Hospitals. But there's nothing in Ruskin Park today to hint that a river ever started here, apart from a mild slope and an ornamental lake. The closest water feature to the source is the park's paddling pool, currently drained for the winter (and ideal for teaching your toddler how to ride a bike). The river flowed north, where the electricity substation now is (and where 71 residential units and a mixed office development soon will be). A series of backstreets follow, some pleasantly terracey, others the sort of social housing where a teenager named Edvin might be stabbed to death. We're in Camberwell here, a settlement named after its groundwater. The original "Camber Well" provided liquid sustenance for ancient residents of Peckham and Dulwich, and was recently uncovered in Noreen's back garden in nearby Grove Park. There's tons more here, if you're interested (and I was).
From Camberwell Green we head north along Camberwell Road as far as the park entrance, at which point the Earl's Sluice dog-legged abruptly right. Burgess Park didn't exist in those days - it's a surprisingly recent intervention, created since the war by filling in a canal and demolishing umpteen streets. The most charming bits of the park are the bits they didn't destroy, like the old lime kiln and the ornate Passmore Edwards Library. There's also a more recent Arts Centre, plus an undulating cycle track where I watched a lone fox sunbathing in broad daylight. But the Earl's Sluice missed all of that and ran instead along Albany Road, where the park rubs up against the monstrous slab blocks of the Aylesbury Estate. There's one single clue to the river's burial, which is a green stinkpipe emerging from the pavement at the junction with Bagshot Street.
Next up, Monopoly's bargain basement - the Old Kent Road. It's a brief crossing, straight into the Southernwood Retail Park (where Currys and Argos no doubt each pay considerably more than £2 rent). More interesting is Rolls Road, whose Victorian brick wall sort-of follows the old river. This gappy barrier was formerly the southern perimeter of the Bricklayers Arms Goods Depot - the last remnants of a misguided early Victorian attempt to create a major London rail terminus far from the centre of town. The station complex is now covered by boxy housing, but a couple of buildings survive as the local stables and a still-functioning forge. And then somewhere along the Rotherhithe New Road, close to Millwall's Den, is the point where the Earl's Sluice joined up with its partner the Peck. Next I'll guide you back here via river number two.
THE LOST RIVERS OF LONDON
The Peck is Peckham's lost river (obviously). It's not quite as lost as you might expect. Nor as interesting, sorry.
If reports are to be believed, the source of the Peck was on One Tree Hill in Honor Oak. That's the marvellously steep mound above St Augustine's church, the hilltop on which Queen Elizabeth I took her May Day picnic in 1602. You must know about this place by now, because this is the third time I've been here in the last six months. Tracing the river below is tricky because Beechcroft reservoir blocks the way. This is a cathedral-like vault of prime Edwardian engineering - the world's largest brick-built underground storage facility when it opened in 1909. But you'll only get to see the inside if you're a Thames Water employee, because it's long been grassed over and is now covered by a golf course.
In Peckham Rye Park, the river's much harder to miss. It wiggles across the entire park from east to west - only as a trickle in an artificial trench, but most definitely not lost at all. It's there flowing beneath a faux-rustic wooden bridge. It's there weaving through woodland between the playground and the skate park. It's there running in a grubby ditch beside the pea green toilet block. It's there curving through the Japanese Garden, and it's there dribbling down a cascade in the Ornamental Pond Garden. It's been creatively landscaped, and elevates the whole of Peckham Rye Park above the ordinary. But that's the last we'll see of the Peck, as it drains beneath a flowerbed into an anonymous pipe.
Peckham Rye Common is broad and green, still with a telltale slope down towards the western edge. On my visit the space was occupied by footballers and crows, in roughly equal numbers. Zippo's Circus had also taken root, setting up their big white top and surrounding it with articulated trailers. I listened as dramatic music played from inside, rising to an emotional crescendo which had the unseen audience applauding wildly. My journey could offer nothing more exciting than Peckham Rye, where the tip of the common intrudes between a parade of shops. Contours suggest that the Peck once flowed straight down the middle, where now the buses pull over and where flocks of pigeons crowd round the dogmess bin.
We'll not be following Peckham's main shopping street - the town's eponymous river didn't head this way. Instead it veered off towards the railway and across a mile of residential SE15. All of these houses owe their existence to an early 19th century culvert which tugged the Peck underground, creating more sanitary conditions on the surface. There's little to excite the urban walker here, unless you particularly enjoy dead pubs and relentless backstreets. I don't think I've ever taken a lost river walk where my camera's stayed so firmly in my pocket. [no photo]
It's all change at the bottom of the Old Kent Road, and not in a good way. A mountain range of tower blocks marks the start of Ilderton Road, then most of the next half mile is scarily light industrial. Tyre depots, car washes, textile wholesalers, that sort of thing... plus the real growth market around here - evangelical churches. It doesn't cost much to take over half a warehouse, or an entire chapel that Anglicanism abandoned, then fill it to the rafters with heartfelt praise. Within a very small area you'll find the Universal Church of God, the River of Life Centre, Reconcilers Evangelical Ministries and God's Church of Peace (amongst many others), each competing for their share of Peckham's Afro-Caribbean congregation. Try catching the P12 bus down Ilderton Road at turfing-out time on a Sunday afternoon and you'll be battling for space with scores of smart ladies in bright flowing dresses and wrapped millinery.
Surrey Canal Road has a lost waterway connection, but that'd be a canal, not our river, so I'll save that for another time. The Peck had a few more hundred yards to travel, before joining up with the Earl's Sluice roughly where I said it did above. Fingers crossed tomorrow I'll convince you that the final mile down to the Thames is actually worth writing about.
THE LOST RIVERS OF LONDON
Southeast London's two lost rivers, the Earl's Sluice and the Peck, merged somewhere in the vicinity of South Bermondsey station. It's no coincidence that this station lies on the border between Southwark and Lewisham. If you trace the borough boundary from the Old Kent Road up Ilderton Road you're following the route of the Peck, near enough. And if you carry on along that same boundary to the east, you're following the final mile of both rivers down to the Thames, pretty much. Indeed, these rivers once marked the county boundary between Surrey and Kent, which is impressively significant for a minor river that no longer exists.
For the best view of the area, head up to the elevated platforms at South Bermondsey. The footpath from the street is ridiculously long (all the better for corralling football supporters), and the curving narrow platform almost longer still. From the tip you can even peer down through a gap in the stands at The Den and watch Millwall play, so long as the ball's in one specific tiny patch of pitch. [photo]
My river walk continued down the embankment, outside the stadium, on one of the gloomiest streets I've ever encountered in central London. That's Bolina Road, a bendy backwater which burrows its way beneath as many as five railway viaducts in quick succession. The first cuts you off from the outside world. The second, and loftiest, is blessed by a pile of boulders and abandoned tyres at its base [photo]. The gap between here and the third feels scarily oppressive, as if some ne'erdowell might leap out at any moment and your body might not be found for months. The fourth is low enough to slice off the entire top deck of a bus, although its precise height is unclear because the official road sign's long since vanished. And the fifth is so narrow that cars wishing to pass have to honk their horns lest they meet a car, bike or even pedestrian coming the other way. I moved on fast.
It's hard to imagine the Hawkestone Estate as riverside fields (and worrying to imagine which council committee thought 'Regeneration Road' was a good name for one of its new streets). Another railway bars progress before long, this time the East London line, with a welcome footbridge at the point where the spur to Clapham Junction will one day divert. A thick white pipe crosses the tracks close by, reputedly the sewer-borne remains of our lost river, flirting anonymously with the open air. There's one last inferred sighting at the top of Rotherhithe New Road, where a green stinkpipe rises from the triangular traffic island. 200 years ago the view round here was rather more peaceful, with the Earl's Sluice rolling by beneath an arched bridge.
One last push to the Thames, along a stretch which last saw the light of day as the "Black Ditch". On Chilton Grove there's conclusive evidence of the river's burial - the Earl Pumping Station. It's housed in a boxy brick structure which could easily be a 1930s library, but instead houses some non-cutting-edge Thames Water pipework. You might expect the river to have flowed along the line of the South Dock [photo], but cartographical evidence suggests its replacement sewer follows Plough Way. A memorial stone inlaid in the pavement wall, past Baltic Quay, confirms that the former Kent/Surrey boundary passed this way. It makes sense - those are indeed the Surrey Docks just to the north on the non-Kent side of the divide. [photo]
The final few yards in Helsinki Square are marked by what looks like a filled-in dock, lined by 21st century trees, leading to St George's Stairs [photo]. At low tide a pebbly beach is revealed alongside a pair of rotting wooden piers [photo]. Don't be tempted down the steps - a bold yellow Thames Water sign warns of a "sewer outlet 30 metres out from this board". Stay on the riverside promenade, turn left, and you'll find a preserved brick wall from a bridge over Earl's Creek. It was shifted here in 1988, and includes yet another boundary stone to admire. Surrey/Kent, Rotherhithe/Deptford, Southwark/Lewisham... not a bad tally for the former Earl's Sluice/Peck.
» A very approximate map of the Earl's Sluice and Peck's course (my best Google map attempt)
» Previous rivers in this series: Fleet, Westbourne, Falcon Brook, Counters Creek, Neckinger, Hackney Brook, Effra, Walbrook, Pudding Mill, Stamford Brook