Caught by the River

Far from the halogen gleam

4th June 2014


Words by Andrew Rumsey.
Originally published on his blog Down In The Effra.

Like the soil sometimes spews odd bones, coins and curios for those who dig the same patch regularly, sunken stories also surface for the patient localist.

Nowhere is better to detect them than the great Victorian cemeteries that necklace the neighbourhoods of South London. Human stories both charming and terrible abound in these places, building up like the loamy layers of leaves rotting around the headstones.

The most alluring are those where fact and myth overlap, like the lady of leisure who, never having shifted from her chaise longue during life, insisted on being buried likewise. Within her massive coffin in the catacombs of West Norwood, she reclines on it still, hoping not to be disturbed.

During my ten-year tenure as Vicar of Gipsy Hill, I hung around for hours in this cemetery: Charlie Watts in a cassock, waiting for the intense moment of performance. Keith Lucas (aka Nick Cash of Kilburn & the High Roads and melodic punk rockers 999) was the attendant there who, as we waited for the hearses to waft up the hill, would share fantastic scraps from his cracked back catalogue.

Undertaker’s tales are best shared staring out from the chapel step, faces set on a drizzly day. Here, in a conspiracy of whispers, Keith once related how, under West Norwood cemetery, runs a stretch of the River Effra, down which Queen Elizabeth is said to have sailed to visit Sir Walter Raleigh at Brixton. Long entombed beneath the tarmac, far from the halogen gleam, The Effra rises again in times of flood and the grass grows greener along her course.

In the mid-nineteenth century, two coffins were found floating in the Thames – one of which was revealed to have come from West Norwood. When returned to its resting place, however, the grave was found to be undisturbed, leading to the only possible conclusion: namely, that the grave had been dug too close to the path of The Effra and must have subsided into its oily depths. Bumping and gliding underneath the city, it had emerged into the Thames at Vauxhall, where, one presumes, it would have happily bobbed out into the North Sea. Since checked to be watertight by the Friends of West Norwood Cemetery, this gift for a lyric was turned without delay into the tune The Effras have hawked around South London for the last seven years.

Idle out the back at West Norwood is the magnificently-named Cremulator, a grisly machine like a giant Moulinex, which ground bones from the furnace down to a fine tilth. Its cogs and crank now rust in peace; fond contents long since flung off Brighton Pier or dusted round a rose bush.

Time-capsuled into the clay, though, the remainder awaits discovery: ready for days when the grey ash will blaze and their story sings again.

Listen to Down in the Effra by The Effras.