diamond geezer

 Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The River Neckinger

The Neckinger is Southwark's lost river. It earned its name from a macabre installation near its mouth at St Saviour's Dock where was erected a gibbet for the execution of convicted pirates. This became known as the Devil's Neckerchief, a nickname soon echoed by the river flowing out into the Thames. The Neckinger's headwaters rose two miles away on Lambeth Marsh, round the back of what is now Waterloo station. From here it flowed in a grand curve away from the Thames round to Elephant and Castle, then on to Bermondsey through the grounds of the former Abbey. The entire course is unusually flat, with not even the slightest hill at its source, which has led some to suggest that the Neckinger might possibly have been the leftover remains of an oxbow lake. That's probably wishful thinking by geeky geographers, but it might help to explain why the river was linked to the Thames at both ends via artificial channels. Of the three western conduits nothing survives, but a substantial chunk of manmade waterway still lives on downstream of Tower Bridge. Urban expansion swallowed the Neckinger faster than most other inner London rivers, so be warned that much of what I'm about to write is potentially inaccurate supposition. But I'll try to guide you along its two mile length as best I can.

An approximate map of the Neckinger's course

The River Neckinger (part 1)
Lambeth Marsh

Geraldine Mary Harmsworth ParkLambeth Marsh, across the Thames from the Palace of Westminster, remained mostly fields until the end of the 18th century. A raised road ran through the centre along which houses and businesses prospered, but the surrounding meadows flooded with predictable regularity. Only in the late Georgian era were the market gardens sold off piecemeal for development, and the arrival or Waterloo station in 1848 sealed the area's fate as yet another swathe of urban London. Drainage to the south had been provided by the Neckinger, whose reputed source was a pond on Lambeth Road at the edge of St George's Fields. A public house was established here called the Dog and Duck, named after two neighbouring ponds whose outlines allegedly resembled the beasts in question. Close by was established the Bethlem Royal Hospital, an infamous asylum whose buildings are currently home to the Imperial War Museum [photo] [photo]. There are no pubs or ponds in Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park today. Instead the northwest corner of the park is covered by flowering bulbs planted in memory of "Rita, the lady with the little dog". Here too little wannabe soldiers run amok on the grass, at least until their parents drag them inside the museum for a look at the big guns.

There's no sign either of the three artificial millstreams dug to feed water between the Thames and the Neckinger here in the heart of Lambeth. One started under Waterloo Bridge [photo] (not that the bridge was there at the time), then progressed inland through the auditoria of the National Film Theatre (ditto). Past the IMAX and the rail terminus along Waterloo Road, then past the end of Lower Marsh (which did actually exist at the time) to join the other channels near the Ambulance Station on Great Morley Street. A second ditch left the Thames between Blackfriars Bridge and the Tate Modern [photo], following the orange lampposts down Suffolk Street to the cabbies' haunt on the corner of Surrey Row. And the third ditch started between Coin Street and the Oxo Tower [photo], running due south down Hatfields past the Young Vic.

It's amazing how many lost rivers live on as modern boundaries. This third artificial channel, the central of the trio, can be traced today by following the boundary between the boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark. Sure there have been a few administrative tweaks over the years, but council tax rates in the neighbourhood are ultimately dependent on the location of a Georgian ditch. This dividing line continues past the Neckinger's source-pond at the end of King Edward Walk, then hugs the appropriately named Brook Drive round to the east. Today's boundary may finally veer off before this elegant terrace reaches its end, but the Neckinger once continued to the very heart of the Elephant.

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