Changing London

Tracing the River Peck’s course: From Royal tree to the Thames

Peckham Rye common is one of southeast London’s most popular expanses of greenery. Some play organised games on the marked out sports pitches, joggers run round the edge of the field and families enjoy picnics on the grass when the weather allows. One of my favourite London cafes – Cafe G – is across the road from the common and commands wonderful views of this open space, while there are also several pleasant pubs with beer gardens on the fringes.

For many years Peckham Fair was held on the Rye, until it was shut down in 1827. It once boasted of a “Grand Collection of Living Wild Beasts and Birds” including “The Pelican, that suckles the young with her Heart’s blood”, The noble Vulture Cock, brought from Archangell”, “Two fierce snd surprising hyenas”, “The he-Panther, from Turkey, allowed by the curious to be one of the greatest rarities ever seen in England, on which are thousands of spots, and no two of a likeness”, and “An Ethiopian Tobo Savage, having all the actions of the human species.”

Peckham Rye common

And the common has over the years attracted some well known-visitors. William Blake is said to have walked to Peckham Rye from his home in Soho, and upon his return told his father that he had seen: “….a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars.”

On hot days you may wish there is somewhere that you could cool down and, until the late 1980s, this was possible in the form of Peckham Lido. It opened in 1923, but was closed due to lack of use. Most of the old lido is buried under bushes and grass – the only visible trace of this facility is a blue-painted crumbling concrete fountain. There has been a resurgence of interest in open air swimming pools in London in recent years and campaigners are hoping this one can also be re-opened.

Crumbling concrete fountain, once part of Peckham Lido

At the other end of the common, there was a prisoner-of-war camp during the Second World War which housed captured Italian soldiers (later German ones and Europeans refugees). They grew vegetables and were ordered to raise pigs and chickens. After the war, one of the four huts was used by a children’s club (it is the only hut that remains standing) – the others were used for changing rooms and storage until they were demolished in 2009.

Hut originally used for prisoners-of-war

And as if the common itself wasn’t enough, it borders onto Peckham Rye Park which was laid out in 1893 and officially opened the following year after London County Council bought Homestall Farm and other adjacent land. One of the original features was an ‘Ornamental English Garden’, which was later named the Sexby Garden after Colonel J. J. Sexby, the local authority’s first Chief Officer of parks. A series of geometrically-arranged pergolas lead, passed shrubs and plants, to the centre-piece of a small pond containing a fountain. In 1908 a Japanese Garden was added to the Sexby Garden.

Lake in Peckham Rye Park

There is a small pleasant lake in the park, but what I find more fascinating are the traces of a stream. The latter is actually the River Peck and although it amounts to only a small trickle in places, it is remarkable that it can be seen at all in that for the majority of its five and a half mile course from a spot near Honor Oak to the Thames at Rotherhithe, it flows underground and is hidden from view. Indeed, it flows under the neighbouring Peckham Rye common but can’t be seen (although people have claimed it can be heard). The name ‘Peckham Rye’ actually means “village by the river peck.”

River Peck flowing through Peckham Rye Park

River Peck’s beginning

Although the precise location can’t be seen, the River Peck is said to be fed by three springs, the main source being at One Tree Hill – a woody high-point not far from Honor Oak Park station. It once formed part of the Great North Wood, which at its peak stretched as far as Croydon. And if you can manage the steep steps that sweep past St Augustine’s Church (consecrated in 1872, with a tower added 16 years later, and is now a Grade II listed building), the views of the City of London in the distance are extremely rewarding.

This wonderful spot could today be in private hands if events of the late 19th century had turned out differently. In the autumn of 1896 the neighbouring golf course, which had rented the land, unexpectedly fenced off One Tree Hill. Objectors formed a committee and held their first meetings at Peckham Rye, but the process was too slow for some and in October 1897, a 15,000 strong crowd singing Rule Britannia pulled down part of the fence. Six days later between 50,000 and 100,000 protestors fought with mountain police at the site.

The situation was only bought to a conclusion when the Borough Council of Camberwell acquired One Tree Hill for £6,100 by using a compulsory purchase order and it opened as a public recreation ground in 1905.

There is a structure at the top of One Tree Hill which is crumbling but looks like it was once a bandstand. While it may have been used for that purpose at one point, it was actually built in 1916 as an emplacement for mounting a Royal naval gun for defending London against German Zepplin raids and was stationed by two watches of 10 men. In 1988, to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the Spanish Armada, a celebratory beacon was erected here. This followed a similar installation in 1953 to mark the Queen’s coronation.

‘Bandstand’ at One Tree Hill

Nearby, there is a fenced-off tree – known as the Oak of Honour since at least the 17th century – where it is said that Queen Elizabeth I may have rested and picnicked under its predecessor on May Day in 1602 (it lasted until 1888 when it was struck by lightening and was replaced in 1905). Even though the Royal probably went no further than Peckham, this is the tree which influenced One Tree Hill’s current name (it was previously called Forest Hill, before the station of that name was completed three quarters of a mile away).

An annual ‘beating the bounds’ ceremony used to be held at the top of One Tree Hill as it marked the boundary between the boroughs of Camberwell and Lewisham, and Kent and Surrey (today the boundary is between Lewisham and Southwark). The proceedings included chanting Psalm, with its verse: “He sendeth the springs into the valleys, which run among the hills.”

Hidden river

After walking along some residential streets (passing Honor Oak Reservoir behind some railings in the distance) from the bottom of One Tree Hill, it is not until you reach Peckham Rye Park that the River Peck makes an appearance. But then before it reaches the common it disappears under a manhole cover and does not reappear until close to the Thames.

The final leg of the walk tracing the Peck down to its source is one of least scenic hikes I’ve ever been on. Unless you’re a fan of post war housing developments, you need to take a pretty dull preamble through residential streets and past a range of warehouses, self storage centres and car repair centres and evangelical churches. The route is crossed by numerous railway lines (one of which is traversed by a fully enclosed pipe carrying the River Peck on the tracks) and at times when you walk under the great stone-built viaducts it is actually pretty eerie because there is little development around.

Football fans may be interested to know that the river passes in front of Millwall Football Club’s current ground, the New Den. As I’ve written previously, the team was founded on the Isle of Dogs in 1885 and took over the open field where cattle grazed in 1901 – now Millwall Park – and needed to steam-roll the water-logged land to enable the playing surface to be suitable for the first match, against Aston Villa. Millwall was born out of a group of players from C & E Morton confectionary factory, which had two sites on the island. The club moved across the river to New Cross, south London in 1910, before re-locating to its current home in South Bermondsey in 1993.

There are some pleasant surprises before reaching the Thames, one of which is Clifton Crescent, an attractive row of mid 19th century Regency style terraced homes, which come across as quite unexpected given the shabbiness of some of the neighbouring properties. On nearby Queen’s Road, there are some even older houses, dating back to the 18th century when Peckham was merely a rural village outside London and surrounded by market gardens.

Clifton Crescent

Early 18th century home on Queen’s Road

Even when Peckham began its development into a smart Victorian suburb in the 1840s it was still considered a village, as the Topographical Dictionary of England, which was published around that time noted: “This pleasant and populous village…. is well lighted with gas, and included numerous detached mansions and elegant villas inhabited by opulent families.”

Before the Peck reaches the Thames it merges with the Earl’s Sluice, which flows down from Denmark Hill through Camberwell (strictly speaking the Peck is a tributary of the Sluice). The area around the old Surrey Commercial Docks, which included Greenland Dock and South Dock, is a little more interesting in that the basins that have not been filled in are used for water sports and are surrounded by upmarket modern apartments, a real contrast to the social housing found earlier on along the river’s course.

Two outlets from the Peck are visible if the tide is out (you climb down St George’s Stairs to reach the shoreline). The complete course of the river may only be five and a half miles, but in walking the route you experience many of London’s contrasts from pleasant parks and leafy wooded areas to post war housing and upmarket riverside apartments. It’s not the most picturesque amble, yet there is plenty of fascinating history to discover along the way.

Several books have been published about London’s lost or hidden rivers in recent years, the most recent being a colourful pictorial guide by David Fathers. But a volume by Tom Bolton several years ago is also recommended if you want a detailed guide to the routes.

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