There’s nothing like a good olde urban legend to get the imagination going, and anyone who’s lucky enough to live in the Greatest City on Earth (that’s London folks), is absolutely spoilt for choice. We’re surrounded by world famous landmarks and hidden history, but our rich heritage sometimes blurs the thin line between myth and fact.

Take the River Effra for example: I first heard of it shortly after moving to Upper Norwood 20 years ago. Although my house sits just off Gipsy Hill miles from the nearest floodplain, I couldn’t help noticing that parts of the local area had a persistent drainage problem. Roads would frequently turn into mini rivers, even after relatively modest downpours, and parts of nearby parks and commons would sometimes become too boggy to venture across. Whenever council officials were asked to deal with a flooding/water-logging problem, the response was almost always “Sorry, there’s not much we can do guv, it’s the hidden River Effra you see…”

The what? Where’s it hiding? Why is it hiding? Come out you pesky River Effra…if you even exist!

Read all about it

For years, I, and many other thousands living in this part of south east London, had to co-exist with this subterranean menace (a menace in the sense it occasionally sticks its head back above ground) never knowing for sure if the Effra was a real entity. Until, that is, author Jon Newman published his excellent and revealing book River Effra: South London’s Secret Spine in 2016.

Our metropolis is criss-crossed with streams and rivers, such as the Fleet, Lea, Tyburn, Wandle, Peck, Ravensbourne, Falcon Brook, Westbourne and, er…something called the River Thames. Many of these rivers are now only partially visible above ground because over the centuries they’ve either been built over or re-channelled and incorporated into great Victorian engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s pioneering sewerage system.

The River Effra, which – along with its tributaries – runs between Crystal Palace and West Norwood through parts of Dulwich, Brixton and Kennington, eventually emptying into the Thames at Vauxhall Creek. It’s almost unique amongst the capital’s smaller rivers because it “disappeared” totally about 150 years ago. The reasons for this are fully explained in Jon’s book, but what’s possibly most interesting about the Effra story, from a local’s point of view, is the separation between myth and fact.

Fact or myth?

According to legend, Queen Elizabeth I sailed up it on her royal barge on at least two occasions during her reign – once to visit her mate Sir Walter Raleigh, who lived just off Brixton Hill, another to stay with the famous actor Sir Edward Alleyn, founder of Dulwich College and Alleyn’s School.

If the story had been true, it would undoubtedly be the river’s greatest claim to fame - but disappointingly Jon’s expert verdict is it’s pish, posh, and indeed…tosh.

“Although there is actually a historical point to this,” Jon explained to me. “The Queen Elizabeth story clearly derives from the fact that Edward Alleyn had a fireplace at Dulwich College constructed from some of the salvaged timbers of Elizabeth’s old state barge after she died. You can see how wonderful real facts can get distorted into this bizarre and geographically impossible notion that a barge could sail up Brixton Hill.”

Yeah, well, thanks for that Jon. Now you’ll be telling me Santa doesn’t exist and reindeers can’t possibly land on the roofs of every child in the world on Christmas Eve…but we’ll let that go for now.

The important thing to remember is that, although “lost”, the River Effra isn’t a fairytale or figment of the imagination. Next time you’re walking along Gipsy Road or Rosendale Road, see if you can spot one of the cute iron plaques announcing, “The hidden River Effra is beneath your feet”. Across the borough, culverts and pipes carry most of the water out of harm’s way, and LoT’s “living roof” is typical of many modest initiatives helping to absorb excessive rainwater in a mainly hard-surfaced urban environment (you can hear more about the living roof in the LoT podcast).

An occasional troublemaker

But every now and again the underground river still bursts its invisible banks. One of the most devastating floods occurred in June 1914 when a heavy rainstorm forced hundreds of people from their homes in Wood Street (now Dunelm Grove) Norwood. And as recently as 2007 the Effra overflowed and caused damage and disruption to normal life in Norwood, West Dulwich and beyond.

Jon Newman’s fascination with the Effra began in 1987 when he became Manager of the Lambeth archives. It’s a role he still job shares, and in 2015 he curated an exhibition about the river, a show called Water Lambeth, at Morley College. “A lot of people were really complimentary about the exhibition,” says Jon, “and after about the eighth person said, ‘why don’t you write a book about this?’…I wrote a book!”

Sales of John’s book are already in the thousands (I was loaned a copy whilst visiting friends in Spain of all places) and its surprise success has led to a new venture – guided River Effra walks. In fact, Jon’s promised to host a special walk/talk for Library of Things members in the New Year, so keep your eyes peeled for that!

“I didn’t anticipate just how much interest there would be in a local river,” Jon admits. “The mystery surrounding it clearly tantalises a lot of people...that it’s still down there amongst us and popping up now and again to trouble us.”

Written by Chris Twomey

Image: David Western, photographer