diamond geezer

 Friday, December 02, 2016

Lost river, anyone?

The Effra is south London's most famous lost river, and once flowed from the heights of Upper Norwood to the Thames, via West Dulwich and Brixton. Its waters were culverted in Victorian times, permitting the suburbanisation of the valley, and only a few clues to its existence remain. Contours are a dead giveaway in the upper course, especially above West Norwood, and the occasional stink pipe stands as a reminder of what still lurks underground. Now Lambeth, the borough through which the majority of the Effra flowed, is seeking to mark the course of the river with intermittent pavement plaques. And what's more, they're gorgeous.

A local illustrator was asked to represent the flow of water within a circular roundel, and fourteen different designs were selected, digitised and retouched. The writing around the edge was set in Albertus, a much-loved glyphic typeface designed by former Stockwell resident Berthold Wolpe. The plaques were then forged in cast iron, the hope being that they would gradually age, and the first six were installed in a new public square outside Brixton Police Station in July. There are rather more of them today.

As far as I know there isn't a public list of where the Effra plaques have been laid, only an aspirational map as part of the Brixton Public Realm Design Study (based on the definitive map in The Brixton Society's essential publication, Lambeth's Underground River). So I decided to walk from source to mouth - it's only six miles - and to keep my eyes open, especially in the vicinity of locations which the map suggested were potential "points of celebration". I had mixed success.

The first location to explore was at the top of Upper Norwood Recreation Ground, a rolling wedge of green below Crystal Palace. Nothing. I shouldn't really have been surprised, because the upper mile of the Effra flowed through what's now the London borough of Croydon, not Lambeth. But I had more luck on the other side of Norwood Park, on Gipsy Road, where the road dips blatantly across the valley. A tall green stink pipe marks the lowest point, and immediately alongside in the pavement was one of the new plaques - small but unmistakeable, and orangey brown in patina.

Next stop West Norwood Cemetery, or more precisely Robson Road which runs along the northern perimeter. About halfway along, not far from the bus stop, I spotted another Effra plaque in the pavement. It was a little browner than the last one, indeed the writing was already quite hard to read, suggesting that these plaques are weathering a little faster than their creators intended. But as a former scholar of all things Lost River I was impressed by the positioning, beneath the wall at what I believe is the precise point where the Effra would once have flowed north out of what is now the cemetery. It's all too easy to get geographical exactitude wrong, but Lambeth council appears to have got it right.

And then my luck left me. I knew there was another plaque somewhere in West Dulwich because I'd been alerted to its existence by a tweet by local artist Priscilla Watkins. But hell no, I couldn't find it. It's difficult following an invisible river which once ran diagonally beneath a grid of streets, particularly when the plaque could be on either side of the road, maybe behind a parked car, and quite possibly covered with leaves. Lambeth's aspirational map suggested one plaque along Thurlow Park Road and another halfway up Croxted Road, along whose pastoral verge the Effra once flowed. Nothing. And when I'd walked in vain all round the centre of Herne Hill, where the river still sometimes emerges and drowns the shops, I wondered if my quest for plaques had peaked.

Not so. Another green stinkpipe rises opposite Brockwell Lido, adjacent to the Meath Estate, and a telltale replaced paving slab lies beneath. What's more I found another just up the road - a stinkpipe and a plaque - at the end of Chaucer Road. This one's by the kerb, appropriately overlooking a drain cover, alas with a six-letter word scrawled into the concrete surround before it set. Then barely 50 metres away another, this time at the junction of Brixton Water Lane and Effra Parade, then almost immediately another at the foot of Barnwell Road. I was now getting a very different view of the project, as if Lambeth were planning to install dozens of plaques along the river's length, rather than just a paltry few.

Because I know my Effra, I zigzagged through the subsequent streets and found another plaque at the corner of Mervan Road and Rattray Road, immediately alongside the rare Penfold pillarbox. The concrete around this one looked like it was almost fresh, and some had unfortunately spilled over the rim of the plaque making the lettering almost illegible. The central design was the same as that back at Effra Parade - the swirly 'fingerprint' pictured at the top of the post - but whereas that looked sharp and golden, this one looked dull and rather more mundane. Perhaps it'll take a while before all the plaques have weathered sufficiently to look distinguished, and we're some way off that yet.

I found nothing else through Brixton, even though the Effra once flowed through its heart, until I reached the new public realm at Canterbury Square. The original plans were for a large cast iron disc "to reflect the manholes and sewers used in Victorian times to culvert rivers", and raised from the ground "becoming a focal point that people can lean or sit on and of course children can play on". That ambition has summarily failed to come to fruition, and instead six small plaques have been laid across the somewhat austere piazza - running in a direction the original river might have followed. It's all somewhat understated, but Canterbury Square is currently the best place to see half a dozen different plaque designs in one go.

The Effra then flowed north, along the eastern side of Brixton Road, so I walked that. This time I found no plaques, but I did find a succession of numbered shapes spray-painted on the pavement, a couple of metres up sidestreets in precisely the locations I'd have expected plaques to appear. The numbers intrigued me. Between St John's Crescent and Cranmer Road I found a 33, 31, 30 and 29 - evidently missing a 32 somewhere, and suggesting there were still another 28 to go. I found none of those - neither a plaque nor a number - as I rounded The Oval cricket ground and finished my walk on the embankment at Vauxhall. I doubt that Lambeth will be able to embed any plaques on the private waterfront at St George's Wharf, but maybe they have big plans for a lot more inbetween.

It seems we're still at the installation phase of this project to commemorate the Effra, and maybe eventually there'll be as many a hundred plaques to find along the route. If that's so then this is an even greater project than it currently appears, combining craftsmanship and art to reconnect the population of Lambeth to their subterranean history. Imagine something similar for the Fleet, Tyburn or Westbourne, if only Westminster had the kind of council that ever did things like this.

If you're interested in taking a look for yourself then Herne Hill to Brixton seems (currently) to be the best bit. There isn't yet an official map, so I've updated my approximate Google map of the Effra with red stars to show where I found plaques, and if you know of any more please let us know.

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