diamond geezer

 Thursday, October 28, 2010

THE LOST RIVERS OF LONDON
The Peck


The Peck is Peckham's lost river (obviously). It's not quite as lost as you might expect. Nor as interesting, sorry.

If reports are to be believed, the source of the Peck was on One Tree Hill in Honor Oak. That's the marvellously steep mound above St Augustine's church, the hilltop on which Queen Elizabeth I took her May Day picnic in 1602. You must know about this place by now, because this is the third time I've been here in the last six months. Tracing the river below is tricky because Beechcroft reservoir blocks the way. This is a cathedral-like vault of prime Edwardian engineering - the world's largest brick-built underground storage facility when it opened in 1909. But you'll only get to see the inside if you're a Thames Water employee, because it's long been grassed over and is now covered by a golf course.

In Peckham Rye Park, the river's much harder to miss. It wiggles across the entire park from east to west - only as a trickle in an artificial trench, but most definitely not lost at all. It's there flowing beneath a faux-rustic wooden bridge. It's there weaving through woodland between the playground and the skate park. It's there running in a grubby ditch beside the pea green toilet block. It's there curving through the Japanese Garden, and it's there dribbling down a cascade in the Ornamental Pond Garden. It's been creatively landscaped, and elevates the whole of Peckham Rye Park above the ordinary. But that's the last we'll see of the Peck, as it drains beneath a flowerbed into an anonymous pipe.

Peckham Rye Common is broad and green, still with a telltale slope down towards the western edge. On my visit the space was occupied by footballers and crows, in roughly equal numbers. Zippo's Circus had also taken root, setting up their big white top and surrounding it with articulated trailers. I listened as dramatic music played from inside, rising to an emotional crescendo which had the unseen audience applauding wildly. My journey could offer nothing more exciting than Peckham Rye, where the tip of the common intrudes between a parade of shops. Contours suggest that the Peck once flowed straight down the middle, where now the buses pull over and where flocks of pigeons crowd round the dogmess bin.

We'll not be following Peckham's main shopping street - the town's eponymous river didn't head this way. Instead it veered off towards the railway and across a mile of residential SE15. All of these houses owe their existence to an early 19th century culvert which tugged the Peck underground, creating more sanitary conditions on the surface. There's little to excite the urban walker here, unless you particularly enjoy dead pubs and relentless backstreets. I don't think I've ever taken a lost river walk where my camera's stayed so firmly in my pocket. [no photo]

It's all change at the bottom of the Old Kent Road, and not in a good way. A mountain range of tower blocks marks the start of Ilderton Road, then most of the next half mile is scarily light industrial. Tyre depots, car washes, textile wholesalers, that sort of thing... plus the real growth market around here - evangelical churches. It doesn't cost much to take over half a warehouse, or an entire chapel that Anglicanism abandoned, then fill it to the rafters with heartfelt praise. Within a very small area you'll find the Universal Church of God, the River of Life Centre, Reconcilers Evangelical Ministries and God's Church of Peace (amongst many others), each competing for their share of Peckham's Afro-Caribbean congregation. Try catching the P12 bus down Ilderton Road at turfing-out time on a Sunday afternoon and you'll be battling for space with scores of smart ladies in bright flowing dresses and wrapped millinery.

Surrey Canal Road has a lost waterway connection, but that'd be a canal, not our river, so I'll save that for another time. The Peck had a few more hundred yards to travel, before joining up with the Earl's Sluice roughly where I said it did yesterday. Fingers crossed tomorrow I'll convince you that the final mile down to the Thames is actually worth writing about.

» A very approximate map of the Earl's Sluice and Peck's course (my best Google map attempt)
» Londonist follows the Peck (with far more photos)


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