When we moved into our house we found the end of the garden flooded at the slightest sign of a downpour. In the first summer huge cracks appeared in the path at the back when the heat rose above 22C. Eventually our neighbours told us that a river ran under the back of the gardens, either a tributary to or part of the River Effra. We absorbed that ‘fact’, gave up with some of the planting that just rotted and began to change the garden to accommodate these circumstances.
The River Effra is one of several ‘Lost Rivers’ of London. Before the massive urban sprawl, the basin of London, through which the Thames flows, was fed by several rivers. arising from springs on Sydenham Hill, one such is the Effra. On the north-side of the river the most famous is the Fleet, which gave its name to Fleet Street, home to the newspaper industry for many years and before that the Fleet prison which was a setting in many a Dickens novel.
Not long ago we spotted a manhole…
… and then another and another. What happens when intrigue sets in? Why, you ask Dr Google. Who in turn told us the local authority were marking the route of the river Effra from its source to the Thames. And there was a lot of stuff on the other rivers. Indeed books had been written on the Lost Rivers and there were talks, guided tours…
… which is why the Textiliste and I set out for Bermondsey one Sunday to follow the course of the River Neckinger and learn a bit about how it used to be used and by whom.
How come, you might ask, have these rivers been lost since they still feed the Thames? Sewers, mes amis. When London needed to control the raw sewage that its growing population was generating, when the city industrialised in the 19th century, one way to remove the crap was to turn the rivers and streams supplying the Thames into outfalls. Add in the use of water for mills, transport and production and they were channelled and then culverted and finally driven almost completely underground. While occasionally they might appear above ground they mostly disappeared from sight and only in street names did they remain ‘visible’.
Starting where it ends is sort of appropriate for the lost. The outlet of the Neckinger is near Tower Bridge in what until recently was a derelict former docks but now, like most of the River in this part of town, is upgrading to expensive river front properties and all industry, to the extent there is any dismissed down stream. The warehouses are now much sought after for their high ceilings, impressive support beams and quaint bits of industrial archaeology hanging from the outside. It’s a pleasant area with little parks and clear airey views.
But immediately we’re brought up short by a group of statues to a medical pioneer and socialist, Doctor Alfred Salter who almost certainly sacrificed his daughter to his principles.
It’s a poignant grouping, imagining the daughter waving to the father as he remembers what might have been.
Next to the park is a rough area of ancient brick work, a former palace of Edward III, who lived here long before the industrial revolution turned it into a small hell of acrid air and soiled land fractured by putrescent water courses.
How did people survive the scale of the foul and the fetid that made this area a haven for prostitutes and criminality? Even Dickens saw how bad it was setting Bill Sykes, one of his most evil villains, and his timely demise here on Jacobs island, which now like so much is ludicrously valuable soil.
Neckinger ends at St Saviours Dock the remains of which are above ground and in sight of the Thames; the above picture belies the truth which is, as it disappears round the bend it disappears from sight never to re-emerge. St Saviours was named by the monks whose monastery hereabouts disappeared courtesy of Henry VIII but until then the locals relied on the monks to corral the many streams and marshy ground into a semblance of usable land.
As we wandered south seeing the remains of the tanning and other industries that centred on this part of London we learnt the name has little to do with the Monks and religion and everything to do with the pirates who attacked the shipping as it entered the port of London and whose bodies, after the sentence of hanging till dead was carried out, were displayed to discourage others.
The area was called the ‘devol’s Neckinger’ or devil’s neckcloth, a reminder of these cruel times. Nice.
The grubby history of the area has lent itself to a variety of activities. Concordia wharf, large parts now demolished was used for many years as scenes in police dramas and Doctor Who as an post apocalyptic City.
Pop videos have been shot at various places on the route south – one pub has a blue plaque to Paul MacCartney who used it for No More Lonely Nights video.
And later we passed the shop appearing in Dexy Midnight Runners classic Come On Eileen.
You know you are following the river if only because many roads are the boundary between the Lambeth and Southwark local authorities – so many of these seemingly artificial borders are dictated by the rivers. And how do you know this is a boundary? Different dustbins!
London in the areas immediately south of the upgraded strip of river front remains a mix of the ancient and modern with some of the modern often being ghastly. A lot of small indications of a different time appear –
a plaque memorial to one of the worst death tolls in a shelter from a WW2 bomb,
a stencilled sign to an air raid shelter,
now filled in.
The towers of the Elephant and Castle were once some of the worst eyesores in amongst all. Gyratory system that often didn’t so much gyrate and gyre and gimbal.. they have now been demolished and the newer towers look fine in a bland botoxed sort of way. Even the micro brewery hut reflects today.
But the occupiers, the people who lived here, they’ve gone too, replaced by yet more gentrified souls who homogenise so much of this dolly mix city. Sometimes I worry that upgrades miss the people they are meant to help because they are least capable of accessing that help.
Ah well, you can wander these streets and find gems everywhere.
And nowadays you’ll not get lost even on the gloomiest days because around some corner the Shard or some other tower will signpost modern London’s desire to keep changing. That at least has always epitomised this area and so it stays today.
Perhaps the oddest sight, just off the Old Kent Road was Russian T34 tank.
Yup, stuck on a corner of grubby earth this tank draws film crews and the local art college who regularly repaint it,
adding the odd piece of street art too.
London, huh? Bloody odd.
We end where we should begin at the source, in the grounds of the Imperial war museum that was built as a hospital – by reformer Jeremy Bentham – his mental institute known as Bedlam. Somehow ending close to madness seems appropriate….
This is posted as part of Jo’s Monday Walks. If you love walks, and fancy ideas from everywhere, do visit Jo. You’ll be sure to find a walk that suits you.
And if you want to know more about London’s lost rivers, or follow one of the guided walks, click here for Paul Talling’s website