If the Fleet is North London's iconic lost river, then South London belongs to the Effra. It's got a brilliant name for a start. Nobody's 100% sure where the name came from - possibly from "efre" the Anglo-Saxon word for 'bank', or from "yfrid" which is the Celtic word for 'torrent'. I'm not entirely convinced by the latter, given that this six mile stream could never genuinely be described as torrential. There are a few semi-steep slopes at the Norwood end, but any lower the gradient's so shallow you'd never guess there was ever a river here. Through Brixton down to Vauxhall, the Effra's long gone.
Two centuries ago, if you'd have been standing in the rural wilds of what is now the London borough of Lambeth, a small brook would have trickled by. It ran through fields and meadows and peaceful countryside - a landscape almost impossible to imagine today. Norwood really was a wood, Brixton was only a few scattered cottages, and Kennington was just a big common where convicted criminals got hung. The Effra widened as it flowed towards the Thames, eventually broad enough for a small boat, but for most of its length think 'paddling-depth stream' and you'll not go far wrong. Then came the railways, and the onslaught of suburbia, with housing easily built on the raised terraces above the floodplain. The Effra dwindled to an unwanted sewer, covered over around the same time as the Albert Embankment was built, with its waters culverted and buried.
The original Effra wasn't simply one river, it was a series of tiny tributaries covering a broad catchment area. Most of these ran down from a long ridge of high ground running roughly from Sydenham to Crystal Palace. One of these tributaries, for example, was known as the Ambrook. It kicked off in Sydenham Hill Woods (across the valley from the Horniman Museum), where there are still ponds and occasionally-damp channels to be found in the undergrowth. A poorly-used railway once ran thisway, along an artificially flat terrace leading to a bricked-up tunnel under Crescent Wood Road. The Ambrook, meanwhile, ran downhill across what is now Dulwich Golf Club, past Dulwich College towards the main Norwood trunk of the river.
I'll not be writing much about the Effra's many tributaries. It would take too long, and others have done the job too well anyway. Here for example is a fine page about the geology and geomorphology of the Effra basin, which contains far more proper detail than I'm going to write over the next few days. And here's Edith's blog, currently following the various Effratributaries and writing about what's there now and what was there then. The historical detail is fantastic, and again is far more useful than the skim-past I'm going to deliver here.
The Effra lives on as an urban legend, untraceable for most of its length by the uninitiated, apart from the odd major road in the Brixton area since named after it. There are occasional attempts to resurrect its memory, most notably in 1992 when a local arts group opened up an office under the banner of the "Effra Development Agency". Theirs was a tongue-in-cheek attempt to inspire a revival for the river valley, much as the unloved Docklands had recently been reborn. Posters and newspapers amplified the message, only for a short time, but long enough to lodge the river firmly back in south London consciousness.
As for raising the river back above ground, I really wouldn't recommend it. An awful lot of Victorian terraces would become uninhabitable, the centre of Brixton would switch from market to watergarden, and there's even a major cricket ground where the boundary might become a water hazard. Better that we remember where the Effra used to run, and recognise the enormous influence it's had on settlement and communications. Starting tomorrow, up Crystal Palace way.
If you're especially interested (and south Londoners tend to be rightly passionate about their own patch), the Brixton Society published a 28 page booklet about The River Effra back in 1993. It has a full history from source to mouth, plus a proper map without which I'd have got proper stuck while producing what follows. The Society's website alleges that it's available for £1.50, if indeed it's still in print, although I found a copy lurking upstairs in the Local Studies section of Brixton Library.