Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The River Effra

If the Fleet is North London's iconic lost river, then South London belongs to the Effra. It's got a brilliant name for a start. Nobody's 100% sure where the name came from - possibly from "efre" the Anglo-Saxon word for 'bank', or from "yfrid" which is the Celtic word for 'torrent'. I'm not entirely convinced by the latter, given that this six mile stream could never genuinely be described as torrential. There are a few semi-steep slopes at the Norwood end, but any lower the gradient's so shallow you'd never guess there was ever a river here. Through Brixton down to Vauxhall, the Effra's long gone.

Two centuries ago, if you'd have been standing in the rural wilds of what is now the London borough of Lambeth, a small brook would have trickled by. It ran through fields and meadows and peaceful countryside - a landscape almost impossible to imagine today. Norwood really was a wood, Brixton was only a few scattered cottages, and Kennington was just a big common where convicted criminals got hung. The Effra widened as it flowed towards the Thames, eventually broad enough for a small boat, but for most of its length think 'paddling-depth stream' and you'll not go far wrong. Then came the railways, and the onslaught of suburbia, with housing easily built on the raised terraces above the floodplain. The Effra dwindled to an unwanted sewer, covered over around the same time as the Albert Embankment was built, with its waters culverted and buried.

The original Effra wasn't simply one river, it was a series of tiny tributaries covering a broad catchment area. Most of these ran down from a long ridge of high ground running roughly from Sydenham to Crystal Palace. One of these tributaries, for example, was known as the Ambrook. It kicked off in Sydenham Hill Woods (across the valley from the Horniman Museum), where there are still ponds and occasionally-damp channels to be found in the undergrowth. A poorly-used railway once ran this way, along an artificially flat terrace leading to a bricked-up tunnel under Crescent Wood Road. The Ambrook, meanwhile, ran downhill across what is now Dulwich Golf Club, past Dulwich College towards the main Norwood trunk of the river.

I'll not be writing much about the Effra's many tributaries. It would take too long, and others have done the job too well anyway. Here for example is a fine page about the geology and geomorphology of the Effra basin, which contains far more proper detail than I'm going to write about below. And here's Edith's blog, currently following the various Effra tributaries and writing about what's there now and what was there then. The historical detail is fantastic, and again is far more useful than the skim-past I'm going to deliver here.

The Effra lives on as an urban legend, untraceable for most of its length by the uninitiated, apart from the odd major road in the Brixton area since named after it. There are occasional attempts to resurrect its memory, most notably in 1992 when a local arts group opened up an office under the banner of the "Effra Development Agency". Theirs was a tongue-in-cheek attempt to inspire a revival for the river valley, much as the unloved Docklands had recently been reborn. Posters and newspapers amplified the message, only for a short time, but long enough to lodge the river firmly back in south London consciousness.

As for raising the river back above ground, I really wouldn't recommend it. An awful lot of Victorian terraces would become uninhabitable, the centre of Brixton would switch from market to watergarden, and there's even a major cricket ground where the boundary might become a water hazard. Better that we remember where the Effra used to run, and recognise the enormous influence it's had on settlement and communications. Starting tomorrow, up Crystal Palace way.

If you're especially interested (and south Londoners tend to be rightly passionate about their own patch), the Brixton Society published a 28 page booklet about The River Effra back in 1993. It has a full history from source to mouth, plus a proper map without which I'd have got proper stuck while producing what follows. The Society's website alleges that it's available for £1.50, if indeed it's still in print, although I found a copy lurking upstairs in the Local Studies section of Brixton Library.

An approximate map of the Effra's course (my best Google map attempt)

Walking the River Effra (with Hatmandu, 2002)
Dowsing the River Effra (with Amy Sharrocks and Peter Watts, 2009)
The geography of the River Effra (especially around Dulwich) (with Martin Knight)

The River Effra
1) Norwood

Upper Norwood Recreation GroundThe chief headwaters of the Effra arose from springs in Upper Norwood, approximately where Westow Park stands today. That's just off the Crystal Palace one-way system, if you're trying to find it, between the Sainsbury's superstore at the top of the hill and the tower blocks of College Green partway down. Should you ever walk the Capital Ring you'll pass straight through, probably rapidly, before moving on to the slightly more interesting Upper Norwood Recreation Ground. A small patch of grass in the eastern corner often appears damp, if not outright wet, hinting that the river has refused to disappear completely. The drinking fountain nearby's not Effra-fuelled, alas, it's too high up. [photo]

Even in its first half mile, the valley carved by the fledgling Effra is clearly evident. It flows along a pronounced depression beyond Chevening Road, now infilled with housing and a school, but once the site of nothing more than a four-plank bridge. Traffic negotiating Hermitage Road from ridgetop to ridgetop must descend steeply, then climb again, to cross the broad valley of a vanished stream [photo]. But trace the river along Hancock Road, to a grassy verge at the end of a short cul-de-sac, and it's still possible to hear 21st century Effra waters rushing beneath an anonymous manhole cover [photo]. Allegedly, that is - I'd recommend not wasting your time listening to find out.

flood damage in Virgo Fideles wallLegend tells that Queen Elizabeth I's royal barge once sailed up the Effra as far as Hermitage Road. A quick glance at the gradient of the hill beneath this spot should be sufficient to confirm that this supposed regal voyage never took place. After exiting the grounds of Virgo Fidelis convent school, the Efrra emerged onto flatter ground through an obvious dip between Crown Dale and Central Hill [photo]. It then curved across Elder Road into what is now municipal Norwood Park, close to the multi-purpose sports court. In the early 1800s this stretch of the Effra marked the western boundary of Great Elderhole Coppice - one of the last surviving remnants of the 1400 acre Great North Wood (after which the suburb of Norwood was named).

This area has long been susceptible to flooding. A particularly heavy storm on 17 July 1890 caused the Effra to become a raging torrent, sweeping away part of the Virgo Fidelis convent wall. Repairs in the brickwork are still visible to the right of the school gates. Properties in Elder Road were also badly affected. A plaque marking the 1890 flood level is alleged to exist on the south wall of the Outdoor Relief Station at Elderwood Place [photo], although I've looked and looked (as much as any man can without trespassing) and I can't see a thing. I even asked the owner of a neighbouring cottage, and she told me she'd been living there for 30 years and had neither seen nor heard of it.

The Boat House - West Norwood High StreetThe river valley remains more than obvious here, dipping across suburban sidestreets to the east of Elder Road. At Gipsy Road's lowest point, beside the rear entrance to Lambeth's pupil referral unit, stands a mysterious green post [photo]. At pavement level it looks like a fairly ordinary lamppost, apart from the fact that it's the wrong colour, ribbed and rather thicker than usual. Look up and you'll see there's no lamp atop the column, just a pipe open to the sky, and considerably taller than the commonplace telegraph pole alongside. Because this green post is a Victorian stinkpipe, erected to provide essential ventilation for the sewer that now passes immediately beneath. One hopes that local residents don't need to keep their windows closed during hot weather as a result.

The river hugged the railway (or, chronologically speaking, the other way round) on its approach to West Norwood station. At the foot of Pilgrim Hill there's a business-like address called "The Boat House", which geographically could have been true, but I suspect is little more than a coincidence. Immediately before the station comes East Place [photo], currently little more than a row of arches where cars get mended and deals get struck. Here in June 1914 the floods struck again as the sewers bubbled up - trapping animals, inundating cellars and ruining many a Sunday roast. A more effective flood relief sewer was built later, and this protects even those asleep within West Norwood Cemetery from any unexpected deluge.

The River Effra
2) Dulwich/Herne Hill

West Norwood CemeteryThe Effra exited West Norwood through its cemetery. This is one of London's Magnificent Seven cemeteries, is West Norwood, containing some of the finest funereal monuments in the capital. Obelisks, mausoleums, catacombs, that sort of thing, all jammed together in a beautiful higgledy-piggledy configuration [photo]. Sugar magnate Henry Tate, cookery goddess Mrs Beeton, even the Charlie who launched the FA Cup, they're all buried here. As too is the Effra, now landscaped out of all existence.

After crossing several residential streets to the north, the Effra met up with an incoming tributary close to West Dulwich station. Nearby is Belair Park, which may be the only place where the river Effra can still be seen on the surface. The park's tree-lined lake certainly looks convincingly river-ish. It's long and sinuous. It has reedy banks where waterfowl bask and feed [photo]. And it lies roughly along the same north-south alignment as the original stream. It could easily be a last remaining chunk of river, or a tributary amputated for decorative effect. All that's certain is that a lake existed here in 1785 when the surrounding estate was leased from Dulwich College by John Willes, a Whitechapel corn merchant. His grand house, later named Belair, grew over the years to become a 47-room mansion. Today it's rather smaller, restored by the council and used as a restaurant [photo], but the lake still forms the ornamental centrepiece of its grounds.

Herne HillOnwards to the point where Half Moon Lane meets the eastern tip of Brockwell Park - a road junction originally known as Island Green. Victorian art critic John Ruskin grew up close by, and recorded his memories of the Effra for future generations. He was four years old when his parents leased a grand house atop Herne Hill, from which he recalled a southern descent "beautifully declining to the vale of the Effra". Later in his childhood, in the 1820s, the river was "bricked over for the benefit of Mr Biffen, chemist, and others." Aged 13 he sketched a view along Norwood Road at the foot of the hill. This was "just at the place where, from the top of the bridge, one looked up and down the streamlet, bridged now into putridly damp shade by the railway, close to Herne Hill station. This sketch was the first in which I was ever supposed to show any talent for drawing." All that flows across the foot of Herne Hill today is a relentless stream of vehicles, and the restructured traffic island opposite The Chutney restaurant is no place for any aspiring young artist. [photo]

Dulwich Road stinkpipeThe 19th century Effra ran along the eastern edge of the Brockwell Estate (now Brockwell Park), tamed to run in a channel alongside Water Lane (now Dulwich Road). That's the opposite side of the road to Brockwell Lido, whose presence today is a mere watery coincidence [photo]. South of the Prince Regent tavern a series of footbridges led across the stream into the grounds of seven detached villas, while beyond lay an expanse of market gardens. Although the river's gone, three telltale green pipes mark the progress of its replacement sewer alongside Dulwich Road [photo]. One stinkpipe stands tall in front of the Meath Estate [photo], opposite the Lido, while the other two are at the northern end beyond Chaucer Road. [photo]

Meanwhile, back on the western slopes of Brockwell Park, it's possible to trace one of the Effra's many tiny tributaries. Its course survives, somewhat artificially, as a series of three linked ornamental ponds. The highest of these was once a Victorian bathing pool, while the other two remain out of reach to all but the local waterfowl [photo]. A short stretch of potentially-genuine stream meanders down beneath the lowest cascade, on whose banks grow yellow iris, pendulous sedge and hemlock water-dropwort. Not quite how the Effra used to be, but about as close as you're ever going to get. [photo]

The River Effra
3) Brixton

Effra RoadTwo street names in south Brixton appear to provide a very obvious reminder of the river's former passage [photo]. Effra Road is one and Effra Parade the other, the pair linked by the very rivery-sounding Brixton Water Lane. But neither runs along the former route of their eponymous river, which instead meandered through former farmland between the two. In medieval times this area was part of the Manor of Heathrow (nothing airport-related, merely 70 acres of agricultural freehold). Over subsequent centuries it's possible that typically lazy London pronunciation – casual dipthongs and dropped aitches – caused the manor's name to evolve from Heathrow via Hethra to Effra. A likely story.

By the early 19th century the river valley south of Coldharbour Lane belonged not to Heathrow Manor but to Effra Farm. And it was this lowly half-mile swathe of rural meadow and market garden which, it's believed, lent its name to the entire river. Effra Road started out in 1810 as a quiet track along Effra Farm's western boundary (the former farmhouse is marked today by the Effra Road Trading Estate). Improved road access soon encouraged property development which devoured the entire farm site, with Effra Parade part of the second wave of building in the 1830s. For a glimpse of how things used to be, crouch down on the pavement outside the Happy Shopper on Effra Parade [photo]. Beneath the minimart window is a tiled panel, origin unknown, depicting a sylvan scene of the Effra from yesteryear. A river curves through open fields past some pristine farmhouses and an unlikely blue cow. It could be any imaginary river anywhere, to be honest, although let's give the artist the benefit of the doubt and believe it's Brixton's Effra.

Tiled mural, Effra Parade

Proceeding northwards comes the Effra Hall Tavern - unrelated to the old river except in location [photo]. The stream then wiggled north beneath Coldharbour Lane, once a rural thoroughfare, now at the heart of bustling Brixton. This historical legacy was exploited one summer Saturday in 1998 by a bunch of anti-car protesters calling themselves the "Effra Liberation Front". They blocked off the western end of Coldharbour Lane (and a chunk of neighbouring Brixton Road) to make their point, and five thousand people attended the street party that ensued. As for liberation, however, a few hastily-filled paddling pools were the only evidence of surface water.

Electric AvenueRomantic though it might seem to "reclaim" the Effra, Brixton's residents probably wouldn't appreciate the upheaval. Rehabilitation would require roadworks to reinstall a bridge across Coldharbour Lane [photo], the flooding of one of Brixton's famous covered market arcades [photo], a ford bisecting the eastern half of Electric Avenue [photos] and a new channel dug through the motley collection of shops beneath the station. More radical souls might however delight in the demolition of Brixton Police Station, itself first housed in a hut on a bridge above the Effra.

Between Brixton and Kennington the river ran for about a mile immediately along the eastern side of Brixton Road. The Effra here might still be visible had Baron Henry Hastings, 17th century resident at nearby Loughborough House, lived a few years longer. Parliament granted him the right to make the river navigable from Brixton to the Thames, but on his death the plans fell through. Instead this stretch of the Effra, known locally as the Shore, remained for drainage only. By the 19th century the road/river combination had become the Washway, "so called from its low and plashy state". Handsome townhouses and ornamental villas grew up on each side, some accessed by means of small wooden bridges across the lilac-banked stream. 21st century Brixton Road is rather less idyllic, but the broad strip once occupied by the pastoral Effra is still evident in front of some of the older terraces on the eastern side. [photo]

The River Effra
4) Vauxhall/Kennington

At the top of Brixton Road (at Hazard's Bridge) the Effra veered left, forming the south-western boundary of Kennington Common. Throughout the 18th century this open space was a gathering place for public speaking, and also an infamous place of execution for the county of Surrey. St Mark's church, built in imposing classical style beside the Effra in 1824, now occupies the corner of the common where the gallows were erected [photo]. The creek continued west beneath Clapham Road (at Merton Bridge), approximately where Oval tube station stands today. This old Roman Road formed the dividing line between the medieval manors of Kennington and Vauxhall.

The OvalA short distance to the north, one gentle meander unexpectedly inspired an international landmark. In the 1790s the river's natural curve was echoed by an elliptical road built around a former cabbage garden. The Kennington Oval, as this patch of green became known, was leased by the fledgling Surrey County Cricket Club in 1845. The landlord was, and still is, the Duchy of Cornwall. As for the Oval's famous gasometer, this was erected three years later on the site of the former South London Waterworks. This private utility company had drawn water from the tidal Effra via an artificial channel, supplying the local population from two small reservoirs to the north of the cricket ground. Other top-level sports have been played at the Oval over the years, including the first twenty-or-so FA Cup Finals and the first ever England v Scotland Rugby Union match. Rest assured that the Effra never crossed the pristine grass, flowing instead out beyond the southern perimeter road. [photo] [photo]

In its lower reaches, west of the Oval, the Effra originally split into two branches. A smaller stream meandered west to meet the Thames at Nine Elms, while the main river ventured a little further north. Known locally as Vauxhall Creek, it was sufficiently deep and wide to bear the passage of large barges. The creek flowed beneath Wandsworth Road at Cox's Bridge - a crossing mentioned in ecclesiastical records as early as 1340, but which is probably now buried somewhere beneath the twin prongs of Vauxhall bus station. [photo] [photo]

Vauxhall Cross

Not far now to the Thames, which the Effra entered approximately a hundred metres to the south of Vauxhall Bridge [photo]. Slightly upstream, a few wooden posts sticking out of the mud are thought to be the remains of a Bronze Age crossing - notionally the first ever 'London Bridge'. The mouth of Vauxhall Creek has been overlooked by many diverse structures since, including a defensive Civil War quadrant fort (17th C), the entertaining delights of Smith's Tea Gardens (18th C) and the Phoenix Gas Works and Belmont Candle Manufactory (19th C). Alas, by the time the windowless Nine Elms Cold Store was erected alongside in 1961, even the last few hundred yards of river had vanished beneath the refrigerated lorry park. The Effra's end is now marked only by a sewer pipe outfall [photo], occasionally disgorging rainwater into the Thames between the owl-topped towers of St George's Wharf [photo] and the spooky fortress of MI6 HQ. [photo]

» Previous rivers in this series: Fleet, Westbourne, Falcon Brook, Counters Creek, Neckinger, Hackney Brook

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