London’s Lost Rivers: A Walkers Guide by Tom Bolton
The Earl’s Sluice and the River Peck
Distance – 5½ miles (River Peck), 5½ miles (Earl’s Sluice)
Start – One Tree Hill, Honor Oak Park (River Peck); Ruskin Park, Denmark Hill (Earl’s Sluice)
Getting there – Honor Oak Park rail station (River Peck); Denmark Hill rail station (Earl’s Sluice)
End – South Dock, Rotherhithe
Getting back – Canada Water or Surrey Quays tube stations
The Earl’s Sluice and the Peck follow different routes until their final mile, where they join and flow together to the Thames. The Peck is strictly a tributary of the Earl’s Sluice, but both are around the same length. Walking either or both involves journeying through unglamorous south London, places nobody visits, least of all Londoners, and which are all the more intriguing for it.
The Peck sweeps down from wooded, once fashionable hills through Peckham into the boggy Southwark river basin. It cuts through industrial back lands to join the Earl’s Sluice. The Sluice itself flows down from Denmark Hill through Camberwell, linking a string of back streets and council estates. The Earl who once owned the sluice was probably Robert Fitzroy, 1st Earl of Gloucester and Henry I’s bastard son who lived from around 1090 until 1147. He married into the estates of the Honour of Gloucester, a scattered collection of lands which included the Manor of Camberwell.
The Earl’s Sluice is unusual among London watercourses in being named after its artificial function as a drainage channel, rather than being known as a river. Its name was settled in the late Norman period, suggesting that the stream perhaps declined in significance earlier than other, larger Thames tributaries. Nevertheless, it still required maintenance. The 1537/8 accounts of the London Bridge estate, which owned land in south London, include a record of the sale of several loads of timber to a man called Christopher Payne including one load of oak “for the earl’s sluice” which cost him 8 shillings, which may have been for embanking or for bridging the stream.
Route – River Peck
Starting point: One Tree Hill. From Honor Park Station turn right along Honor Oak Park. At a sign to ‘One Tree Hill’ turn right into the woods, and climb the steps to the top of the hill.
The Peck is said to be fed by three springs, all originating in Honor Oak. The highest stream, probably the main source, is said to rise at the top of One Tree Hill below the One Tree itself. In the days when an annual ‘beating the bounds’ ceremony traced the boundaries of the parish of Camberwell, a procession would stop on One Tree Hill to sing Psalm 104, which includes the suggestive verse “He sendeth the springs into the valleys, which run among the hills.”
Although the locations of the underground streams are difficult for the surface dweller to verify, the river certainly rises on the high watershed of which the hill is part and runs down onto the flat, marshy land around Peckham and Rotherhithe.
At the top of the hill, climb the concrete platform.
Stand on the platform for an excellent view across the river basin of the Peck, with south east London laid out in front all the way to the Thames. This was where a celebratory beacon was lit in 1988 for the 400th anniversary of the Armada, and for the Coronation in 1953 when it was quickly put out by heavy rain. The platform site had several past lives, as a World War One anti-Zeppelin gun emplacement; an East India Company telegraph beacon; and an Admiralty beacon which was used during the Napoleonic Wars.
Turn right to a large oak surrounded by railings.
One Tree Hill is immediately notable for having more trees than its name suggests. In fact, the hill is covered by a tangle of oaks, sycamores and limes. The trees are remnants of the Great North Wood, which once stretched across south London to Croydon. One Tree Hill was called Forest Hill until the modern Forest Hill station was built ¾ mile south of there. The hill was then renamed One Tree Hill and the neighbourhood Honor Oak Park, in a typical piece of Victorian rebranding. The wooded slopes of south London, with their impressive prospects across London, proved very desirable locations for the Victorian suburbs that replaced the Great North Wood in many places.
The One Tree, sitting behind its own set of railings, has also been known as The Oak of Honour since at least the 17th century. The current oak replaces a tree struck by lightning in the 1880s. Elizabeth I visited the area in 1602: “On May Day the Queen went a maying to Sir Richard Buckley’s at Lewisham, some three or four miles off Greenwich.” This has fuelled a legend that Elizabeth picnicked under the oak, whereas in reality she probably came no closer than Peckham. The tree’s name, rather than being anything to do with the queen, comes from its status as part of the Honour of Gloucester. A half-buried iron marker in front of the tree reads ‘…rwell’, marking the boundary between the old boroughs of Camberwell and Lewisham, and also between the counties of Surrey and Kent. This is now the Lewisham-Southwark boundary which closely follows the course of the buried Peck all the way to the Thames, confirmation that the river follows this route.
Walk past the oak and turn left to follow steps down the hill.
One Tree Hill was common land, and indeed a character in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Sorcerer declares “I often roll down One Tree Hill”, proving how disreputable he is. When the hill was enclosed without warning in 1896 for a golf course, locals were enraged. The following Sunday “crowds aggregating 15,000 persons” pulled down the fences and occupied the hill. The police arrived to prevent them attacking the ground keeper’s cottage and, once they had sung ‘Rule Britannia’, the crowds dispersed. The local councils bought the hill and opened it as a public park in 1905.
In Muriel Spark’s Ballad of Peckham Rye, a Gordon Highlander stationed in Peckham during the First World War, takes a Miss Frierne up One Tree Hill to satisfy her curiosity about what’s under his kilt: “she screamed so hard, she had quinsy for a week”.
Leave the woods and cross the road ahead (Brenchley Gardens). Turn right on the other side, then left into Kelvington Road.
Camberwell New Cemetery on the right opened in 1927 and includes among its graves that of Freddie Mills, former world light heavyweight champion, shot by an unknown assailant in 1965 in his car behind the club he owned off the Charing Cross Road.
The long, thin park along Brenchley Gardens is the former track-bed of the Crystal Palace High Level Railway, opened in 1865 to transport visitors to the newly relocated palace. It ran from Nunhead to the now-vanished Crystal Palace High-Level station, via an equally-vanished Honor Oak station, which was on Forest Hill Road. The line lost its raison d’être when the Crystal Palace burned down, and finally closed in 1954.
Beyond the park, fences surround the covered Honor Oak or Beechcroft Reservoir. The grassy expanse, part of which is an unlikely golf course, hides a vast construction of brick pillars and vaults, the largest of its kind when the Kent Water Company opened it in 1909. It was built using 16 million bricks, all made on-site from the excavated clay. The reservoir is fed from Hampton, 17 miles away, but also draws water from a 300 foot well underneath. It is here that the course of the Peck is hardest to detect. The presence of the reservoir has eliminated any trace of a valley, and there is no clear evidence that the reservoir is fed by the underground Peck. However, more satisfactory evidence of the river is waiting on the other side of the reservoir.
London’s Lost Rivers: A Walkers Guide by Tom Bolton. Published by Strange Attractor Press