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)

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