THE LOST RIVERS OF LONDON The River Effra 3) Brixton
Two street names in south Brixton appear to provide a very obvious reminder of the river's former passage [photo]. Effra Road is one and Effra Parade the other, the pair linked by the very rivery-sounding Brixton Water Lane. But neither runs along the former route of their eponymous river, which instead meandered through former farmland between the two. In medieval times this area was part of the Manor of Heathrow (nothing airport-related, merely 70 acres of agricultural freehold). Over subsequent centuries it's possible that typically lazy London pronunciation – casual dipthongs and dropped aitches – caused the manor's name to evolve from Heathrow via Hethra to Effra. A likely story.
By the early 19th century the river valley south of Coldharbour Lane belonged not to Heathrow Manor but to Effra Farm. And it was this lowly half-mile swathe of rural meadow and market garden which, it's believed, lent its name to the entire river. Effra Road started out in 1810 as a quiet track along Effra Farm's western boundary (the former farmhouse is marked today by the Effra Road Trading Estate). Improved road access soon encouraged property development which devoured the entire farm site, with Effra Parade part of the second wave of building in the 1830s. For a glimpse of how things used to be, crouch down on the pavement outside the Happy Shopper on Effra Parade[photo]. Beneath the minimart window is a tiled panel, origin unknown, depicting a sylvan scene of the Effra from yesteryear. A river curves through open fields past some pristine farmhouses and an unlikely blue cow. It could be any imaginary river anywhere, to be honest, although let's give the artist the benefit of the doubt and believe it's Brixton's Effra.
Proceeding northwards comes the Effra Hall Tavern - unrelated to the old river except in location [photo]. The stream then wiggled north beneath Coldharbour Lane, once a rural thoroughfare, now at the heart of bustling Brixton. This historical legacy was exploited one summer Saturday in 1998 by a bunch of anti-car protesters calling themselves the "Effra Liberation Front". They blocked off the western end of Coldharbour Lane (and a chunk of neighbouring Brixton Road) to make their point, and five thousand people attended the street party that ensued. As for liberation, however, a few hastily-filled paddling pools were the only evidence of surface water.
Romantic though it might seem to "reclaim" the Effra, Brixton's residents probably wouldn't appreciate the upheaval. Rehabilitation would require roadworks to reinstall a bridge across Coldharbour Lane [photo], the flooding of one of Brixton's famous covered market arcades[photo], a ford bisecting the eastern half of Electric Avenue[photos] and a new channel dug through the motley collection of shops beneath the station. More radical souls might however delight in the demolition of Brixton Police Station, itself first housed in a hut on a bridge above the Effra.
Between Brixton and Kennington the river ran for about a mile immediately along the eastern side of Brixton Road. The Effra here might still be visible had Baron Henry Hastings, 17th century resident at nearby LoughboroughHouse, lived a few years longer. Parliament granted him the right to make the river navigable from Brixton to the Thames, but on his death the plans fell through. Instead this stretch of the Effra, known locally as the Shore, remained for drainage only. By the 19th century the road/river combination had become the Washway, "so called from its low and plashy state". Handsome townhouses and ornamental villas grew up on each side, some accessed by means of small wooden bridges across the lilac-banked stream. 21st century Brixton Road is rather less idyllic, but the broad strip once occupied by the pastoral Effra is still evident in front of some of the older terraces on the eastern side. [photo]