Walking the River Effra

A guided route, based on a walk in 2002, following the route of London’s lost River Effra.

This is an attempt to follow the route of the Effa river as close as possible – the river itself was once comparable to the Fleet north of the Thames, although sources differ over the upper part of its course, and it seems to have had various branches in the Norwood area. One thing that walking the route does, however, is let the folds of the landscape speak for themselves: the best source is the river itself.

The Effra was already being used as a sewer by the 17th century, although the upper reaches were still clear in the second half of the 19th. Even today, a stretch is perhaps visible – as the following walk reveals.

The walk begins at one of the likely sources of the river: somewhere in Upper Norwood Recreation Ground. This was acquired by Croydon Council in 1890 from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners for about £6,500; two new roads, Eversley and Chevening, were constructed. The site offered a view of the Crystal Palace towers and included one of the head waters of the Effra, running north-west.

Walk along Chevening Road westward to Hermitage Road. According to legend Queen Elizabeth I came up the river in her barge to where Hermitage Road now stands – though it is extremely unlikely that the river was actually broad enough here, so near to the source.

The area north of Hermitage Road is known as Norwood New Town – apparently a bridge made of four planks used to run across the Effra stream somewhere here. Walk up Hermitage Road and on the left past Ryefield Road is a small cul-de-sac: walk down here and at the end is a drain in the road with water rushing loudly underneath. Could this be the lost call of the Effra?

The river ran through the grounds of what is now the Virgo Fidelis convent school – not open to the public, of course. But the river makes itself known just the other side. Walk up Hermitage Road and turn left: the dip of the river valley is very distinctive where Elder Road meets Central Hill. The brick wall of the convent was swept away on 17 July 1890 when the river and West Norwood flooded – damage is still visible in the convent wall.

Heading north up Elder Road, on the south side of the old relieving office (on the left hand side of the road) a stone tablet indicates the level that the flood reached in 1890.

On the right is Norwood Park: once upon a time there were thatched cottages here, whose inhabitants had to cross the stream by little wooden bridges to get to the road. There used to be iron gratings in the fields where small boys would drop paper boats. At the end of Windsor Grove, there used to be two large ponds known as ‘The Reservoir’. Meanwhile, to the west, in the 20th century the bed of a tributary could still be seen at the back of the tennis courts at the bottom of Cheviot Road, which is likely to have belonged to a tributary of the main river.

Walking further up Elder Road into Norwood High Street, East Place, on the right just before the railway line, is another flood site: on 14 June 1914 the former river overflowed from the brick sewer imprisoning it and the ground floors of many West Norwood houses flooded – it is even claimed that some people’s Sunday joints were washed out of their ovens. Animals were also trapped in the floods in East Place in the 1920s.

The river bends right here and heads through West Norwood Cemetery somewhere. In 1935 the sewer was enlarged to help avoid the repeated floodings, and deep shafts were sunk in Norwood High Street, Chestnut Road and Rosendale Road. Again the landscape in this area suggests at least a rough course for the river.

From Norwood the river is generally agreed to have followed Croxted Road up to Brockwell Park: turn right into Robson Road past the cemetery, up Rosendale Road, into Carson Road on the right and then across to Croxted Road to get a rough idea of where the river ran. Evidence from flooding cellars suggests that the course of the river may actually have been west of Rosendale Road rather than Croxted Road.

Before heading north, though, a detour: cross Croxted Road at the crossroads going past West Dulwich station, and turn north up Gallery Road. On the left is Belair Park, which contains an ornamental pond which some say is part of the Effra visible still. Some say it was a tributary of the main river. There was also a millpond in this area. A cast-iron chimney opposite Dulwich Picture Gallery is believed to vent the tributary here.

Here you can either retrace your steps to Croxted Road – if you believe Belair’s pond to be a tributary – or continue north and cut back across to Herne Hill via Burbage Road, named after Shakespeare’s actor contemporary. Another actor, Edward Alleyn, founded nearby Dulwich College.

Another tributary is said to supply Dulwich Park Lake, flowing down from the woods of Sydenham Hill, alongside Cox’s Walk and under Dulwich Common. A local resident reports that in wet weather this rises above the drains and flows along the road around Dulwich Park by Frank Dixon Way.

The 19th century painter and critic John Ruskin, who grew up in Herne Hill, said that his first sketch showing any artistic merit was at the foot of Herne Hill, showing a bridge over the Effra.

Again the precise channel of the river is under dispute, or at least there may have been tributaries meeting here, coming from Knights Hill in the south and along Half Moon Lane to the east, marking the edge of Joseph Bazalgette’s sewer network in south London. As with Belair, there is an ornamental pond (late Victorian) in Brockwell Park said to connect to the Effra, perhaps as yet another tributary. A woman at 32 Tulse Hill in 1891 described a stream that had flowed across the end of her garden, and said that the banks could still be seen in Leander Road.

Opinions and tributaries rejoin to the north of Brockwell Park: the name of Effra Parade gives a helpful clue – though for the walk it is probably more helpful to take the next road on the right, Barnwell Road, then head northward again up Rattray Road. At the top, turn left and join Effra Road going up into central Brixton – though an unexplained rise along the west side of Dulwich Road suggests that perhaps one ought rather to follow this and Brixton Water Lane, thence all the way up Effra Road.

Along Brixton Road, the course of the Effra is more certain, and wider. Its average size was said to have been 12 feet wide and 6 feet deep. Bridges gave access to the houses on Brixton Road, with the river flowing on the east side. A bomb fell at the corner of Angell Road and Brixton Road during the Blitz, uncovering the Effra sewer. It’s hard to imagine now, but a 1784 painting shows St Martin’s Farm with the river passing by – the site is where Loughborough Road now branches off. As well as Queen Elizabeth, Canute is said to have sailed up the river as far as Brixton – and King James I gave permission for the river to be opened up for navigation in this area.

At the top of Brixton Road, turn left and head across to the Oval, following its left-hand side. This is Kennington, once an area of marshland. Brixton Road originally crossed the river at Hazard’s Bridge, marked on a plan of Vauxhall manor from 1636. The Effra divided the manors of Kennington and Vauxhall.

This area was built over between 1837 and 1857. St Marks’s Kennington paid ¬£322 towards the costs. The raised banks of Oval cricket ground were built with earth excavated during the enclosing of the Effra, which nevertheless showed itself again and was apparently responsible for ‘a small inundation’ at the Oval in the 1950s. South London Waterworks (founded 1805) used water from Vauxhall Creek, the name of the river (or a tributary) along this stretch, though it soon accumulated rubbish; the Oval gasholder is on the site of one of the reservoirs.

Heading west, the river is believed to have had two entries into the Thames (shown on a 1795 map): one just south of Vauxhall Bridge, the other nearer to Nine Elms Lane. In 1340 the Abbot of Westminster had to repair Cox’s Bridge (Cokesbrugge) over the Effra near present day Vauxhall Cross (Kennington Lane/Wandsworth Road/South Lambeth Road). There was another bridge over the creek on Clapham Road (Merton Bridge – the responsibility of Merton Abbey). In 1504 another Abbot of Westminster paid rent for a wharf at Cox’s Bridge – in the 17th century maintenance of the bridge caused a dispute. The lower river was a sewer by the 17th century, labelled as such on the 1636 plan.

The Fort at Vauxhall erected to defend London during the Civil War was alongside the Effra – as shown in a drawing (though this is perhaps a forgery of the mid-19th century). A gardener ‘recently deceased’ in 1895 recalled the Effra at Lawn Lane ‘wide and deep enough to bear large barges’.

Lawn Lane is still there: follow the back streets south-west of the Oval, across to Parry Street, and brave the traffic across to Vauxhall Cross. Peer into the Thames here – and you can see a sewer outflow which may be the last remains of the Effra’s mouth.

Further reading

  • Barton, Nicholas – The Lost Rivers of London (1962,1992)
  • Coulter, John – Norwood Past (1996)
  • Foord, Alfred Stanley – Springs, Streams and Spas of London (1910)
  • Trench, Richard & Hillman, Ellis – London under London (1984,1993)
  • Wilson, J B – The Story of Norwood (1973,1990)

Exploring the Falcon Brook

This is an attempt to rediscover the route of one of south London’s lost rivers, the Falcon Brook, based on a walk undertaken in 2002.

A direct walk along the Falcon Brook’s course is a little difficult all in one go, as south of Balham it consists of two main branches.

One of these has its sources on Tooting Graveney common, probably one on each of the east and west sides. A tributary coming in from the east soon afterwards, with its own source somewhere near Conifer Gardens on Streatham High Road, was known as the Woodbourne. Another name, given to this branch or perhaps another, was Streatbourne, which is said to have been used in Roman times. More recently, the Woodbourne, as with other ‘lost’ rivers, has shown its presence: in 1967 a local newspaper carried a story with the headline ‘Sunken streams delay Tesco’s’.

To follow the route from Streatham Hill station, head south a little and turn west into Woodbourne Avenue, naturally. Cross Tooting Bec Common past the Lido and follow the stream north westward along the line of Doctor Johnson Avenue. In the 19th century these were the grounds of Bedford Hill House. William Cubitt, Lord Mayor of London in 1861, landscaped them around the brook, creating an ornamental lake. The name of Hillbury Road here allides to the artificial moumd he created.

Left into Elmbourne Road and then right takes you to ‘Streathbourne Road’ heading just north of Tooting Bec station, which seems to follow the route of this lower branch. In 1865 the Metropolitan Board of Works approved spending £30,000 to cover over and redirect the brook here. From the shallow stream valley this area was known as the ‘holloways’. A farm here alongside the brook was owned by Sir Peter Daniel, a Sheriff of the City of London in 1683 and MP for Southwark in 1685. Clay was dug along the banks in that period for making bricks and tiles, and gravel pits were dug here. Balham High Road here, incidentally, follows the Roman Road Stane Street from Chichester.

To continue along this southern course, the stream follows Rowfant Road, but is now crossed by the railway, so it is easier to walk up Balham High Road and turn into Chestnut Grove, and thence across to Ravenslea Road. Turn right up Mayford Road, then right into Birchlands Avenue and meet the other course just south of Nightingale Road.

The other main branch also begins just east of the main Streatham Road, but slightly further north, where it is Streatham Hill. Walking north from Streatham Hill station, the stream’s source is somewhere near Downton Avenue on the east side. Head west on Telford Avenue – in 1986 a brick conduit could still be seen alongside Telford Park Lawn Tennis Club. The area flooded in 1914.

The stream then runs along the top of Tooting Bec Common. Three large elm trees used to marke the course here alongside Emmanuel Road. At Cavendish Road, the brook heads north, with two very short tributaries joining from the south and south east in the common. Cavendish Road was once called Dragmire Lane.

This eastern branch was once known as the Hydeburn and there is a reference to it as early as 693AD. Balham House once stood near here on Balham High Road, built in 1787 and rebuilt in 1880 before being demolished to become the Duchess Theatre in 1898. The stream was covered as a sewer in 1866. It is believed that the waters can be heard near where Weir Road meets Cavendish Road.

Turn left off Cavendish Road into Dinsmore Road (though a Hazelbourne Road slightly further north may be telling), and walk alomg Oldridge Road and Calbourne Road to connect up with the other route. Thomas Cromwell owned the land in this area until his execution in 1540, when Henry VIII took it over. After two years the king sold it to a local carpenter.

From the meeting point of the branches, turn north off Nightingale Road into Rusham Road and Montholme Roads, then follow Northcote Road and all the way to Battersea Rise – this is the stream’s route. At Battersea Rise there used to be three ponds – not to mention the lavender fields remembered by Lavender Hill (continue up St John’s Road) – they were still there in the 1830s.

Here is the first reference on this route to the Falcon’s name: the Falcon Inn, on Falcon Road just next to Clapham Junction station. The inn was mentioned as the Faulkeon in 1765, when Sir Oliver St John settled here. His family crest has a falcon rising, suggesting how the brook got its name. The 1871 Ordnance Survey map shows a horse trough outside the inn. In the early 17th century, this area was still largely wooded.

Continue up Falcon Roadn as far as the bend where Ingrave Street comes off to the west. Battersea was once an island of sorts. It has been suggested that the Falcon divided here – the eastward branch supposedly ran through Falcon Park, then alongside what is now the main railway line to Victoria, connecting with the Nine Elms Ditch and entering the Thames just beyond Battersea Power Station.

Meanwhile, the surer course westward ran along Ingrave Street, through York Gardens and across York Road. There were mills here on the lower stretches, and York Bridge is marked on 19th century maps. A pumping station here handles storm water. This branch was also known as the York Ditch or York Sewer. Turn up Cotton Row to the Thames and there is the faintest suggestion of a former creek here, which is perhaps the mouth of the lost Falcon Brook.

Further reading

  • Barton, Nicholas – The Lost Rivers of London (1962,1992)
  • Foord, Alfred Stanley – Springs, Streams and Spas of London (1910)
  • Trench, Richard & Hillman, Ellis – London under London (1984,1993)

Further sources consulted at Wandsworth Local History Service, Battersea Library. With thanks to Henry Braun.