THE LOST RIVERS OF LONDON The River Effra 2) Dulwich/Herne Hill
The 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.
Onwards 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 restructuredtraffic island opposite The Chutney restaurant is no place for any aspiring young artist. [photo]
The 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 BrockwellLido, 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 BrockwellPark, 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]