THE LOST RIVERS OF LONDON The River Effra 1) Norwood
The 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.
Legend 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 VirgoFidelis 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 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.