Lost Rivers of London 4: The Peck (and Earl’s Sluice)

Lost Rivers of London 4: The Peck and the Earl’s Sluice.

An epic 12 mile, two-river walk for the mid-point of the London’s Lost Rivers series of walks. The general idea is to programme the various Lost River walks in Tom Bolton’s book over seven annual outings to make the 100 or so miles covered more manageable. This July we met in Peckham Rye Park to follow the course of the Peck to an indistinct spot where it joins the Earl’s Sluice and then flows into the Thames via Surrey Quays, then to follow the Earl’s Sluice back to its source.

This was the first time we’d walked a river’s length in reverse – it was simply to reduce the already lengthy journey. The book suggests choosing either / or but we knew we wanted to do both! As it turned out, there was nearly no trace of the Earl’s Sluice either in it’s watery form or by its impact on the landscape.

The source of the Peck is an elevated wooded spot with an excellent view of the valley the water course takes. A concrete platform at the hill’s peak is revealed to be a First World War anti-Zeppelin gun placement, an East India Company telegraph beacon and an Admiralty beacon used during the Napoleonic wars – indeed the dais reveals traces of more recent fires too. Another nearby landmark: an oak tree that may or may not have had a royal stand near it (I always find it fascinating to see what info people feel is recording on plaques). We also discover some exceptionally solid looking iron boundary markers: ‘Camberwell’ with the first few letters covered by an advancing soil line.

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Reservoir Temple (credit: John Clarkson)

Following the valley and looking for river clues of any sort puts us in a heightened awareness state – suddenly everything is worth looking at and we note the abundance of exotic tree species in this part of south London: fig trees seem especially common. At the foot of the hill we enter the park and the Peck (as in Peckham) is revealed. It’s a trickle rather than a river, and surely only on view at all here for aesthetic purposes, and we don’t see it again on our journey. A rustic bridge in the park makes best use of the river’s fleeting presence.

It is next possible to detect the river on a stretch of meadow : an unmown grassy island ahead signals two iron manhole covers, one of which (‘Silent Knight’) reveals the sound of the river’s flow. For this you need to be lying on the grass with your ear to the plate – it’s actually very soothing and as the day warms up, approaching noon, it is tempting to stay in the meadow for a while.

The Peck

‘A Grate Day Out’ (credit: Rob Gilbert)

 

Several other local history elements punctuate the next few miles through Peckham before there is another river clue. Already the book (published in 2011) is slightly out of date, as you would expect with a dynamic cityscape. We have to double back after being promised a street bearing the most overhead viaducts in London, each more oppressive looking than the last. There’s moment of horror when it seems that a row of early C18 houses mentioned in the book may have been demolished to make way for a gigantic housing development – but no, they are safe around the corner just visible above the hoarding. Being turned into apartments can be a good sign: the spec means the developer will have to do good job of restoring the buildings.

We also find more of the super solid boundary markers: looks like we walked the length of Camberwell.

Bounders

The Water Margin

It’s an industrial landscape alright: viaducts are plentiful and their arches form the basis of a sub economy of small businesses and – in one district – evangelical churches. I want to find the River of Life Centre but like the best lost rivers it remains unseen. Best name: Christ Apostolic Church Surrey Docks District. …something defining the character of the area by embracing the docks in the name. Nothing references the Peck itself other than Peckham itself, which means simply ‘village by the Peck’. Various sauce and Pickle factories of old once occupied the railway arches.

One last glimpse of the river’s existence as it bridges a railway line, a seemingly colour-coded light blue conduit this one beneath ground level. We’ve seen this before when the Westbourne is piped through Sloan Square tube and the gauge looks similar: members of the group spot it before I officially am able to ID it in the book. We’re learning! At some point though, the river became the Earl’s Sluice.

Gradually there are more and more references to Quays, Wharfs and Docks, variously in Churches, Cafés and Newsagents and we approach our designated rest area: the Wobbly Wobbly Pub, floating in Greenland Dock. Sadly it seems this pirate ship of a pub closed just a few days earlier, so its a challenge for our various apps to find the nearest open pub on land. All our nearby options have a Whale or Moby Dick theme and provide a clue to what exactly Greenland was exporting.

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First Prise (credit: John Clarkson)

We join another contingent of our group and – after refreshments – head out to the source of the Earl’s Sluice – the only river on our longer seven year itinerary named after a river’s artificial use as a drain channel. It provides proof that the Lost River walks are not about sight seeing (though there are many intriguing encounters) – the river is only evidenced by a return visit to the blue conduit and indeed around a third of the route is along the very noisy Albany Road. After a long period of sirens and relentless traffic we abandon the option of walking ‘quite near to’ the invisible river and go to nearby Burgess park for ice creams and a more tranquil setting.

So, no ‘Earl’s Sluice Bakery’ on this stretch, but there’s plenty to keep us occupied: tall green stink pipes, a completely unexpected urban stables, David Bowie’s 1960s rehearsal space provides the single moment of glam and most amazing of all, a dramatic sun halo arcing round the sun high in the summer sky. ‘What are you all looking at?’ asks a woman of our sky-searching group. I offer her my sun glasses to take a look. Its a great spot – would we have seen it if we weren’t so environmentally alert in our hunt for clues?

Earl's Sluice

Halo Spaceboy (credit: Rob Gilbert)

The sluice is finally visible in Ruskin Park, where it has its origin and we have our end, sun scorched and exhausted from a day’s unglamorous touring. This is home territory for one of our group so it is short work to head to the nearest pub once we’ve witnessed the pool and speculative discussion about 2019’s final lost river walk – current mood suggests we make it a short one ;o)

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Mudlarking

Last week I went Mudlarking for the first time. I’d known about this curious riverside activity for a while but had never got further than thinking: ‘I wonder how they get down there’, and following one of them on Twitter.

Maybe twenty years of living in a city without a river has made me treat real ones (rivers not cities) with near mythological reverence – I deliberately seek out the courses of ‘lost’ rivers when visiting London and even finding the Thames from London Bridge usually involves several wrong turns, elevation miscues and back alley shuffling. From one point on my most recent ‘lost Thames’ re-orientation, I saw a sealed-off set of concrete steps leading down to the river bank itself; once I reached the walkway I found there was no easy way in.

Soooo… how did people find their way down to the riverbank? I decided now was the time to find out. I kept an eye open for entry points while walking and – hardly a mystery – it turned out there were several openable gates that reveal steps leading down to the river. A few people were using the steps as extra seating and then – at river level – there were the Mudlarkers themselves. Instantly it felt like entering another world – one which was happily unfolding on its own terms independently of anything else going on at surface level. I saw five or six people there, each with their own Mudlarking motives. One elderly pair had collected a selection of (yellow) brick pebbles which they were juggling to carry while another woman washed off her find in a trickle of water coming from a Bankside outlet pipe. Further on. a man lay on his side, gently scraping away from a plateau of mud that rose from the surrounding shale. A huge wooden sign mounted on the river wall reads BANKSIDE, completely covered in dripping river greenery and criss-crossed with chains weighted with stones.

 

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Thameslink

I made my way slowly through this new landscape, gazing no more than a few feet in front of me. Not sure what I was looking for. I’d read recently about someone regularly finding bullets and even a (live?) wartime grenade so I fixed on looking for some UXB ordnance. There were plenty of shattered pottery fragments amongst the pebbles, much of it clearly C18 and C19th, and some rough looking, mustardy glazed C17 candidates. Some have the occasional tantalising piece of text or image – unsolvable jigsaws. There were any amount of shattered clay pipe stems and bowls. Animal bones and teeth. It seemed bizarre that stuff so old, even rubbish, is all still here, churning for centuries, the uncurated museum of human detritus.

People in this shoreside realm seemed content to exist independently – people don’t come here to socialise. No-one challenged me or even seemed to notice I was there. After I’d covered 100 yards (in nearly 30 minutes) an older gentleman asked if I’d had any luck? Maybe my exceptionally slow shuffle suggested I was an expert. ‘Just browsing,’ I responded, nonsensically. I doubt my lovely yellow brick pebbles would have registered as significant finds with him.

BanksideCorrected

 Silt puffins

Most of the things I collected on the short walk I threw back – I’d gathered them for the experience. A few I keep: the yellow brick pebbles and a small selection of tiles pieces and pipe sections, confident this haul would compare closely with those of most first-timers. But I felt thrilled with my finds, far more valuable than any of the tat on sale in the Tate Modern gift shop (where I was now emerging). The nature of the tides means there is new stock in twice a day and I feel certain I’ll return for further browsing the next time I manage to find the Thames.

 

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Away haul away