Friday, April 30, 2010

The River Neckinger

The Neckinger is Southwark's lost river. It earned its name from a macabre installation near its mouth at St Saviour's Dock where was erected a gibbet for the execution of convicted pirates. This became known as the Devil's Neckerchief, a nickname soon echoed by the river flowing out into the Thames. The Neckinger's headwaters rose two miles away on Lambeth Marsh, round the back of what is now Waterloo station. From here it flowed in a grand curve away from the Thames round to Elephant and Castle, then on to Bermondsey through the grounds of the former Abbey. The entire course is unusually flat, with not even the slightest hill at its source, which has led some to suggest that the Neckinger might possibly have been the leftover remains of an oxbow lake. That's probably wishful thinking by geeky geographers, but it might help to explain why the river was linked to the Thames at both ends via artificial channels. Of the three western conduits nothing survives, but a substantial chunk of manmade waterway still lives on downstream of Tower Bridge. Urban expansion swallowed the Neckinger faster than most other inner London rivers, so be warned that much of what I'm about to write is potentially inaccurate supposition. But I'll try to guide you along its two mile length as best I can.

An approximate map of the Neckinger's course

The River Neckinger (part 1)
Lambeth Marsh

Geraldine Mary Harmsworth ParkLambeth Marsh, across the Thames from the Palace of Westminster, remained mostly fields until the end of the 18th century. A raised road ran through the centre along which houses and businesses prospered, but the surrounding meadows flooded with predictable regularity. Only in the late Georgian era were the market gardens sold off piecemeal for development, and the arrival or Waterloo station in 1848 sealed the area's fate as yet another swathe of urban London. Drainage to the south had been provided by the Neckinger, whose reputed source was a pond on Lambeth Road at the edge of St George's Fields. A public house was established here called the Dog and Duck, named after two neighbouring ponds whose outlines allegedly resembled the beasts in question. Close by was established the Bethlem Royal Hospital, an infamous asylum whose buildings are currently home to the Imperial War Museum [photo] [photo]. There are no pubs or ponds in Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park today. Instead the northwest corner of the park is covered by flowering bulbs planted in memory of "Rita, the lady with the little dog". Here too little wannabe soldiers run amok on the grass, at least until their parents drag them inside the museum for a look at the big guns.

There's no sign either of the three artificial millstreams dug to feed water between the Thames and the Neckinger here in the heart of Lambeth. One started under Waterloo Bridge [photo] (not that the bridge was there at the time), then progressed inland through the auditoria of the National Film Theatre (ditto). Past the IMAX and the rail terminus along Waterloo Road, then past the end of Lower Marsh (which did actually exist at the time) to join the other channels near the Ambulance Station on Great Morley Street. A second ditch left the Thames between Blackfriars Bridge and the Tate Modern [photo], following the orange lampposts down Suffolk Street to the cabbies' haunt on the corner of Surrey Row. And the third ditch started between Coin Street and the Oxo Tower [photo], running due south down Hatfields past the Young Vic.

It's amazing how many lost rivers live on as modern boundaries. This third artificial channel, the central of the trio, can be traced today by following the boundary between the boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark. Sure there have been a few administrative tweaks over the years, but council tax rates in the neighbourhood are ultimately dependent on the location of a Georgian ditch. This dividing line continues past the Neckinger's source-pond at the end of King Edward Walk, then hugs the appropriately named Brook Drive round to the east. Today's boundary may finally veer off before this elegant terrace reaches its end, but the Neckinger once continued to the very heart of the Elephant.

The River Neckinger (part 2)
Elephant & Castle

Elephant & CastleIt's hard to imagine Elephant and Castle as a rural riverside backwater. But 250 years ago, then known as Newington Butts, this was a quiet lane on the edge of St George's Fields forded by a small stream. The Neckinger flowed in from the west through the 'Fishmongers Almshouses' - soon to be demolished to make way for Spurgeon's Tabernacle (now a firmly evangelical hotspot) [photo]. It crossed a small village green, long since buried between E&C's two mega-roundabouts. And then it passed east between a row of cottages, now the site of the much derided pinky-red shopping centre. The transformation here is dramatic. The only flow now is of people, bustling around the double-decker mall in search of nothing very expensive [photo]. Here the less-than-affluent folk of Walworth come to buy stuff no rejuvenated hub would ever sell, be that substandard market millinery or a polystyrene tub of goat stew. Outside the front entrance a turreted elephant stands guard, positioned almost directly on the line of the old stream. And high above rises the nearly-complete Strata tower, its trademark turbines relatively well concealed from the streets below [photo].

Next along the Neckinger valley comes the Heygate Estate. If you thought the shopping centre was grim, this similarly-dated architectural project beats all. A series of residential "barrier blocks" surround the site, each ridiculously long and crammed with stacked-box accommodation [photo]. The various parts of the site are linked by elevated walkways, while ground level is reserved for the parking of cars. No wonder Southwark Council took a long deep look at their creation and decided the the only way forward was to demolish all 25 acres. Tenants started being moved out two years ago, and the Heygate now resembles a ghost estate inhabited by a last few lonely souls [photo gallery]. Every abandoned window is being blow-torched shut, and every quarter-mile balcony sealed off at either end [photo]. And yet there's still full access to the walkways and stairwells, not just for the remaining 5% of residents but for any urban adventurer who fancies poking around abandoned concrete purgatory [photo]. But hurry, if you think you're brave enough, because it won't be too long before proper demolition begins and this inhuman jungle is reborn as aspirational Heygate Boulevard.

The River Neckinger (part 3)

Bermondsey SquareThe Neckinger followed the line of the New Kent Road before passing just to the north of the Bricklayers Arms gyratory and passing into Bermondsey. It ran immediately behind Tower Bridge Road, in an area once the preserve of large scale industry. Hartley's built their jam factory on the former riverbank in Rothsay Street, employing more than 2000 locals to squish sugary fruit into glass jars. It'll not surprise you to hear that their plant is now a gated residential development called The Jam Factory, retaining the Hartley name only in white bricks across one wall and down a chimney [photo]. Another pocket of ultra-modernity can be found just downstream at Bermondsey Square. Look one way and it's a bijou plaza with its own hotel, micro-cinema and pavement cafe [photo]. Look another and it's a glittering bikeshed surrounded by mysterious multi-coloured icosahedrons [photo]. But look south and one defiant corner of Georgian terrace remains... and that's still the side of the Square where anyone with taste would prefer to live.

At St Mary Magdalen church [photo], the Neckinger turned right. Despite being more than 300 years old this isn't Bermondsey's oldest place of worship, not by a long chalk. Nearby stood Bermondsey Abbey, a Cluniac priory dating back to the Norman invasion, and at one time second in importance only to Westminster across the Thames. Bermondsey Square marks the site of the monks' inner courtyard, while the main church building straddled modern Abbey Street to the east [photo]. The top end of the nave is marked by a commemorative plaque on the wall of a block of council flats overlooking Tower Bridge Road [photo]. Much of Bermondsey Abbey survived Henry VIII's dissolution, only to have its stone plundered for the construction of other local buildings over succeeding centuries. Today no trace remains, bar parts of a gatehouse along the western end of Grange Walk (lovely street, Grange Walk). As for the Neckinger, the stream was reputedly navigable all the way from the Abbey down to the Thames. Nearly there, only half a mile to go.

The River Neckinger (part 4)
Neckinger Mills

Neckinger MillsWhere there's a river, there's often a mill. The Neckinger had several, mostly on the tidal stretch close to its mouth, with some dating back to Tudor times. Only one survives, although it's a rather more recent 19th century building resembling more the dark satanic mills of the Industrial North. Neckinger Mills were originally owned by papermaker Matthias Koops - reputedly the inventor of recycled paper. In 1805 he sold up and handed the keys over to the Bevington family, who continued their leather-making activities on site until 1950. Their tannery was typical of Bermondsey's light industry, all long since swept away (along with the river that powered them). The mill buildings live on as office space with "character features", and half the ground floor is currently available for rent at very non-Victorian rates. [photo]

Neckinger SE1The river's name lives on in several guises nearby. To the south is the Neckinger Estate, home to more than 300 fairly anonymous post-war apartments. The road alongside goes by the unusual single-word name of "Neckinger", and runs down to the elegant old Town Hall on the corner of Bermondsey Spa Gardens [photo]. The river was once fed by a chalybeate spring here, to which fashionable Londoners flocked in the late 1700s to drink the waters. The only fashionable waters here today are those thrown into the gutter by runners on the London Marathon, who would have crossed the Neckinger close to the modern Bermondsey Spa development on Jamaica Road [photo]. Close by there's even a Neckinger Street, now reduced to a stubby sideroad on the Arnold Estate and lacking even a nameplate to remind passers-by of its watery past. [photo]

The River Neckinger (part 5)
Jacob's Island

Mill Street, Jacob's IslandAnd finally, quite the most complicated ending of any of London's lost rivers. A series of tidal ditches ran towards the Thames, dug courtesy of the monks upriver at Bermondsey Abbey, and forming a roughly rectangular grid. Originally the surrounding land was taken up with orchards and market gardens, but by the late 17th century a dense commercial area of factories, warehouses and mills had grown up. The area became known as Jacob's Island, a 'rookery' where the poorest folk lived side by side with polluting waste in slum conditions. By Victorian times the lower Neckinger was nicknamed "The Venice of Drains" and "The Capital of Cholera". Dickens immortalised the place as the final refuge of Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist ("dirt-besmeared walls and decaying foundations; every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot, and garbage; all these ornament the banks of Folly Ditch"). If you'd like to know more about Jacob's Island, Howard has the definitive webpage.

The old slums have been wiped away, more than once, and the latest development on Jacob's Island is a gated community called Providence Square. Even the central water feature is pristine, supporting waterfowl and lush vegetation rather than puddles of pathogenic bacteria [photo]. Dickens might still recognise a few of the surrounding wharves along Mill Street, whose lofty brick fa├žades tower above the uglier modern infill alongside [photo] [photo]. Where dockers laboured and urchins crawled, now Ocado delivers and suited businessmen pop out for a fag. Beyond the line of wharves is the Neckinger's original outfall [photo], later diverted to feed a Thamesside watermill. This stumpy inlet is St Saviour's Dock, first widened by the medieval monks of Bermondsey Abbey for convenient off-river mooring [photo] [photo]. Today a hydraulic cable swing bridge crosses the mouth [photo], close to a cluster of riverfront houseboats which dip in and out of the mud twice a day [photo]. The ancient Neckinger marks the eastern tip of London's South Bank, beyond Shad Thames, beyond the Design Museum, beyond which tourists rarely venture. [photo]

www.flickr.com: my Neckinger gallery
30 photos altogether

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