Spring walks in London: river Effra

Time Out traces the route of south London's lost river Effra – with the aid of an artist, a dowsing rod and a few leaps of faith. But what really lies below?

  • Start Gipsy Hill rail station
    End Vauxhall
    Duration 3 hours

    I’m lost in a council estate in Stockwell in a snowstorm and my only way of getting out is a woman who claims to be following the course of an invisible river by conversing with the spirits through the use of an oversized Allen key. No, it’s not your average Sunday afternoon stroll in south London.

    Click for map

    The river is the Effra, the women is Vicky Sweetlove and the Allen key is a dowsing rod, which Sweetlove is using to guide a small band of ramblers – including Amy Sharrocks, the artist behind the enterprise – on a walk along the course of south London’s best known secret river. The Effra once flowed from Norwood to Vauxhall but was covered and turned into a sewer in the 1850s, vanishing from the maps. Sharrocks is fascinated by the fingerprints London’s lost rivers have left on the urban landscape, and she is tracing the courses of seven of them – the Neckinger, Peck, Tyburn, Fleet, Effra, Walbrook and Westbourne – for a series of curated walks that will take place in the summer. Maps will be downloadable from a website so Londoners can walk in their watery wake at their leisure.

    After a short walk from Gipsy Hill station we arrive at Hermitage Road, West Norwood, a location that Sweetlove pinpointed as the Effra’s source when she used a pendulum to dowse the river by map – she expects to get different results when she dowses the course from the ground. As she goes about her business, head down and stopping occasionally to engage in silent conversation with her rod, it’s difficult to get Sweetlove to explain how dowsing works. She mutters something about ‘spirits’, but doesn’t elaborate, focusing instead on the rod, which will turn eerily in her palm to face the direction the river is said to be flowing. I am sceptical, but choose to believe for the sake of art and because I don’t want to spoil a good walk.

    New_12 WF effra53.jpg
    Vicky's predowsed map

    Sweetlove’s starting point is the only grave in the churchyard of the Church of the Faithful Virgin (1). It is too good to be true, but good all the same. From here we begin our 12km trek across south London. One of the things about buried rivers, is that when you think you’re near one, you see their shadow everywhere.

    I travelled to West Norwood along Croxted Road, which I had believed to be built over the course of the Effra (this is the route given by Nicholas Barton’s ‘The Lost Rivers of London’). And so, correspondingly, I noted internally and slightly smugly that Croxted Road looks just like a river valley, if you know that’s what you’re looking for.

    But Sweetlove takes us on another route entirely, through Norwood Park and then along Elder Road – look out for the stone tablet on the left-hand side of the road indicating the high-water mark of a flood in 1890 – which becomes Norwood High Street and Norwood Road, rather than diverting across West Norwood Cemetery towards Croxted Road, as Barton maintains. But the river does seem to exist here: there’s a building inexplicably called The Boathouse (2) on Norwood High Street, a drinking fountain by Norwood Cemetery and, most compellingly, the evocative street names: Ullswater Road, Deerbrook Road, Brockwell Park Gardens. Even Olley’s (3), the fish-and-chip shop in Herne Hill (65-67 Norwood Road, SE24 9AA), takes on a new significance when your mind is appropriately tuned.

    New_12 WF effra25.jpg

    According to Barton’s book, the river then flowed up Dulwich Road towards Brixton Water Lane and along Effra and Brixton Roads to Kennington Oval. But the rod says otherwise, taking us along Railton and Atlantic Roads – past Effra Parade, the first and only direct allusion to the river on our walk – and then across the Brixton Road into Stockwell.

    Here we get bogged down, turning left and right down anonymous streets. Does the rod know where it’s going? Has it got us lost? A snowstorm descends, and we’re freezing in a large estate, cold and adrift, before Sweetlove suddenly sweeps down one more turning and into Stockwell (‘Stock-WELL,’ we all say, ‘of course!’). The rest is easy: straight along South Lambeth Road to Vauxhall, where the Effra can be seen at low tide in the form of a storm drain emptying into the Thames by the MI6 building. It’s been a long walk, exhausting but strangely exhilarating. As Sharrocks says later: ‘I felt we walked rather like the river must have run – downhill at the beginning, slow and meandering in the flat marshes of Lambeth, then South Lambeth Road was a huge rush to the Thames.’

    London’s hidden rivers, they never really disappear.


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