The Effra is a lost river, gone but not forgotten, hidden below the streets of south London. Its identity is still entwined with the neighbourhoods under which it flows.

The Effra drains a wide basin of land surrounded by a ring of high ground linking Streatham, Norwood and Dulwich, fed by smaller tributaries along most of its course.

Speculation over the origins and meaning of its evocative name has led to plenty of stories, but no real evidence. The name could be derived from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘efre’, meaning ‘bank’. Others have traced the name to the lost Hethra Farm in Brixton, pronounced with a south London accent. In fact, the earliest recorded usage is only in 1810, when the Effra Road was built. Between Brixton and Kennington the Effra was also known as The Shore, The Washway or, when it had became less picturesque, The Sewer.

The diversion of the Effra into London’s new sewer system began in the early 19th century at the northern end of the river, in Vauxhall and Kennington. Later, sewers were built along the full length of the Effra, from its Upper Norwood source to the Thames, and the character of the neighbourhoods along its course changed quickly from rural to suburban. Today, walking the course of the Effra through Brixton reminds us of what was here long before anyone lived in SW2.

The River Effra Walk is taken from Tom Bolton’s book: London’s Lost Rivers: A Walker’s Guide

Route:

  • 1.

    Herne Hill Junction

    All the water collected in the Effra basin squeezes out through the narrow gap in the ridge at Herne Hill, and makes its way across the flat lands beyond to the Thames. The road junction at Herne Hill was known as Island Green during the 18th century, a name which reflects the amount of water in the narrow valley.

    The name has recently been resurrected by Transport for London for the traffic island which has controversially slices the corner off Brockwell Park
  • 2.

    Prince Regent Pub

    Prince Regent, 69 Dulwich Rd, SE24 0NJ
    Various tributaries are thought to have joined the Effra at Brockwell Park. One came from Herne Hill, crossing Dulwich Road near the Prince Regent pub. Another ran from Leigham Vale along the Norwood Road side of the park, joining the main stream near the Island Green corner. The most easily traced is a tributary that entered the park from Tulse Hill. Its valley is still clearly visible cutting north-south through the park.
    An old lady reported that in 1891 it still flowed through her garden on Tulse Hill. Until 1960 it flowed out of the park above ground, at the exit onto Brixton Water Lane, where it disappeared into a tunnel. However other sections are still visible and a detour along the path to the left leads to a small chain of ponds, one of which is now a seasonal padding pool.
  • 3.

    Brixton Water Lane

    Brixton Water Lane refers to the presence of the river, as does Effra Parade next to Dalberg Road, which was previously called Water Lane.
  • 4.

    The Effra Hall Tavern

    Effra Hall Tavern, 38 Kellett Rd, Brixton, London

    The Effra Hall Tavern is at the junction with Kellett Road, and St. Matthew’s Church can be spotted at the end of the street, the second of the Effra evangelists. The Effra continued straight ahead under the building line and across Coldharbour Lane.

    We detour round to the right to pick up its course again. In 1998, Reclaim the Streets became The Effra Liberation Front for a day, blocking off Coldharbour Lane at the junction with Brixton Road, and holding a street party complete with paddling pools which attracted five thousand people.
  • 5.

    No. 14 Dover Mansions

    Dover Mansions, Canterbury Crescent, London, SW9 7QF

    The Effra crosses Coldharbour Lane beyond the Dogstar, dives under the market, and runs under Atlantic Road by the junction with Electric Avenue. Cross Coldharbour Lane and continue along Atlantic Road. This is the heart of Brixton Market where Electric Avenue to the left, was built in 1890 as the one of the first streets in the country with electric lighting.

    Ian Nairn described it as “electric all right, and high voltage too… a magic cave of people and goods”, as true now as it was in 1966. Turn first right along Pope’s Road. At a T-junction, turn left along Canterbury Crescent. No. 14 Dover Mansions, on the left, carries a plaque to Henry Havelock Ellis, “pioneer in the scientific study of sex”. He published Sexual Inversion, the first serious study of homosexuality, and developed the concepts of narcissism and autoeroticism.
  • 6.

    Central Brixton Police Station

    Brixton Police Station

    The earliest version of Brixton Police Station, built during the second half of the 19th century, was a shanty-like construction which stood on a bridge over the Effra, which still flows directly underneath. From here we follow the Effra’s course as it flows in a straight line for 1¼ miles along the Brixton Road to Kennington, through territory that is both North Brixton and South Lambeth.

    In the early 1800s this stretch of the road was also known as Brixton Causeway. The river ran along the right-hand side of the road, separated from the street by a handrail. Houses on the other side were connected across the water by small wooden bridges. Before Brixton was fully developed, this was a semi-rural route. The road was lined with thatched farmhouses, barns and straw yards, while the river bank was lined in spring with lilac, hawthorn and laburnum.
  • 7.

    Max Roach Park

    Max Roach Park is named after the legendary American jazz drummer, who opened it himself in 1986. The park was partly created by demolishing Victorian housing on Villa Road, along the northern edge of the park. The remaining houses on the street were squatted during the heat wave summer of 1976 by a group who barricaded the road in protest at the demolitions.

    At a time when five thousand people lived in squats in Lambeth alone, it became home to two hundred assorted political activists, who equipped the road out with tunnels, drawbridges, barbed wire barricades, a vegetarian café, and a primal scream commune. In 2010 a local, Edward Stone, recalled a post-war incident at his father’s factory near here on Brixton Road, when a lorry delivering timber fell through the drive into a hole, at the bottom of which the River Effra could be seen.
  • 8.

    Jamm

    261 Brixton Road, SW9 6LH

    Jamm, on the right after Loughborough Road, was previously Ye Olde White Horse. A World War II bomb which fell outside the pub apparently left a crater in the road that temporarily released the Effra from its sewer. Further along, from the Groveway to Camberwell New Road ahead, was known as The Washway, undoubtedly washing a great deal of effluent out of the area.

    When the Effra was above ground, the area on the right bank of the river all the way from Brixton to Kennington was known for market gardens and nurseries which grew food for the capital, including the asparagus grown across south London, for which Battersea was most famous.
  • 9.

    Christ Church

    After Groveway, Hillyard Road leads to Hackford Road, where Vincent van Gogh lodged at No. 87 in 1873/4. He was working at the time for an art dealer in Covent Garden, an unsuccessful experiment which ended when he was sacked for his poor attitude towards customers. Further along, the multi-domed Christ Church was built at the turn of the century and is a portion of Byzantium transposed to unexotic North Brixton.

    As we approach the end of Brixton Road, the long low red-brick building at No. 37 is the National Theatre’s vast Costume and Props Store. Opposite, the side wall of the Italian Chiesa del Redentore church carries a famous, faded advert which begs us to ‘For your throat’s sake smoke Craven A.’
  • 10.

    St Mark’s Church

    St Mark’s Church, 337 Kennington Park Rd, SE11 4PW
    Just short of the church, the Effra turned to the left under Hazard’s Bridge, which carried the Brixton Road over the river. St. Mark’s Kennington, the last of the Commissioners’ Churches on the Effra, was built on the site of the Surrey county gallows where nine leaders of the failed 1745 Jacobite rebellion were executed.
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