diamond geezer

 Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Earl's Sluice

South of the Thames, lost rivers are always harder to find. The land's flatter, the contours less distinct, and any former watercourse more completely eradicated. Take, for example, these two conjoined streams flowing north from sort-of-Peckham towards Rotherhithe-ish. To the west was the Earl's Sluice, and to the east was the Peck (I'm sure you can spot the suburb-naming connection there). Neither is especially well documented. Wikipedia's take on the Peck, for example, stretches to less than 50 words and an irrelevant photo. My apologies, therefore, because these latest watery jaunts are going to be less precise than usual. But I'll do my best.

First I'm going to follow the Earl's Sluice from its source to its confluence with the Peck. The river's named after the Duke of Gloucester, allegedly, who was Lord of the manor round here in the time of Henry I. Its headwaters were on Denmark Hill (yes, there's a clue in the word 'hill'), close to the twin healthcare behemoths of the Maudsley and King's College Hospitals. But there's nothing in Ruskin Park today to hint that a river ever started here, apart from a mild slope and an ornamental lake. The closest water feature to the source is the park's paddling pool, currently drained for the winter (and ideal for teaching your toddler how to ride a bike). The river flowed north, where the electricity substation now is (and where 71 residential units and a mixed office development soon will be). A series of backstreets follow, some pleasantly terracey, others the sort of social housing where a teenager named Edvin might be stabbed to death. We're in Camberwell here, a settlement named after its groundwater. The original "Camber Well" provided liquid sustenance for ancient residents of Peckham and Dulwich, and was recently uncovered in Noreen's back garden in nearby Grove Park. There's tons more here, if you're interested (and I was).

From Camberwell Green we head north along Camberwell Road as far as the park entrance, at which point the Earl's Sluice dog-legged abruptly right. Burgess Park didn't exist in those days - it's a surprisingly recent intervention, created since the war by filling in a canal and demolishing umpteen streets. The most charming bits of the park are the bits they didn't destroy, like the old lime kiln and the ornate Passmore Edwards Library. There's also a more recent Arts Centre, plus an undulating cycle track where I watched a lone fox sunbathing in broad daylight. But the Earl's Sluice missed all of that and ran instead along Albany Road, where the park rubs up against the monstrous slab blocks of the Aylesbury Estate. There's one single clue to the river's burial, which is a green stinkpipe emerging from the pavement at the junction with Bagshot Street.

Next up, Monopoly's bargain basement - the Old Kent Road. It's a brief crossing, straight into the Southernwood Retail Park (where Currys and Argos no doubt each pay considerably more than £2 rent). More interesting is Rolls Road, whose Victorian brick wall sort-of follows the old river. This gappy barrier was formerly the southern perimeter of the Bricklayers Arms Goods Depot - the last remnants of a misguided early Victorian attempt to create a major London rail terminus far from the centre of town. The station complex is now covered by boxy housing, but a couple of buildings survive as the local stables and a still-functioning forge. And then somewhere along the Rotherhithe New Road, close to Millwall's Den, is the point where the Earl's Sluice joined up with its partner the Peck. Tomorrow I'll guide you back here via river number two.

» A very approximate map of the Earl's Sluice and Peck's course (my best Google map attempt)

» Previous rivers in this series: Fleet, Westbourne, Falcon Brook, Counters Creek, Neckinger, Hackney Brook, Effra, Walbrook, Pudding Mill, Stamford Brook

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