Peckham Society News Summer 2020 Issue 161

Our area has had a fascinating prehistory. Peckham evolved between two rivers which flow into the River Thames: the Ravensbourne (and its tributary the Quaggy) to the east and the Effra to the west. The River Peck rose in the Great North Wood at One Tree Hill, ran northwards along the west side of Peckham Rye and Common, through gravels and then reappeared at Earle’s Sluice near (today’s) Spa Road railway junction, entering the Thames just south of Greenland Dock. All these tributaries have now been incorporated into the main Thames Water sewerage system.

But going back to even earlier times:

  • During the Cretaceous period, over 65 million years ago, the London Basin area was formed from a layer of porous chalk that accumulated on the bed of a warm sea. Over time it filled with other rock types.
  • The sands, gravels and London clay were laid down during the Eocene period, 34 million years ago. One characteristic of London clay is that it is easy to tunnel through: there are few Underground lines south of the river where the clay is thinner. Clay also provided the material for the classic yellow ‘London Stock’ brick.
  • From about 2.4 million years ago a succession of ice ages covered much of Britain with ice. The most recent ended only 11,500 years ago. The ice did not reach the London basin though the ground was often frozen. Debris from the melting waters scoured the landscape creating deep hollows in the clay. Most of these hollows filled with sands or gravels but the Rockingham Anomaly (or ‘pingo’) near the Newington Causeway, a large depression nearly 300m wide and over 19m deep, is mostly filled with peat. The area is boggy and the foundations of housing and roads have had to take this into consideration. The glacial lake (Bermondsey Lake) north east of the Old Kent Road provided a home to hunter/gatherers. Britain was connected to Europe by a land bridge, Doggerland, and the River Thames was a tributary of the River Rhine. It was flooded by rising sea levels in about 6,500BC.
  • The final geological phase is recent alluvial deposits, mainly of sand, silt and clay, of river valleys caused by wind or water action.

Humans then made their mark on the landscape. Britain has only been continuously occupied from about 12,000 years ago. Excavations at the Cantium Retail Park site on the Old Kent Road uncovered more than 1,780 worked flints indicating a production centre for flint tools dating from the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods (c.8,500BC-2,000 BC). In 1969 a very good example of a Neolithic polished flint axe head, was found in white clay near Consort Road at a depth of two feet. According to the British Museum it is the only example to have been found in this part of the country. Evidence of ploughing and a tip of an ard (primitive plough) have been found on the sand and gravel eyots in the north of Southwark. Later deposits at the Cantium Retail Park have revealed Roman stoneware and traces of the Roman road, Watling Street.

The southern limit of the Thames flood plain runs on an east west line parallel to Queen’s Road, Peckham High Street and Peckham Road. The Lewisham floods of August 1968 were caused by extreme rainfall and flooding of the rivers Ravensbourne and Quaggy. Peckham Rye Common was also flooded to a depth of at least a metre. Gill and I moved into 178 Peckham Rye a year later. We inherited some curtains in our sitting room and even though they had been cleaned you could still see the line where the flood had occurred. The Thames barrier has been operational against tidal surges since 1982 preventing such flooding and the loss of life as occurred in the East Coast floods of 1953.

Following extensive surface water flooding in in Dulwich in 2004, Southwark Council brought in Dutch engineers to advise on a flood alleviation scheme in 2015. The scheme included the construction of polders (raised banks) about a metre high to divert flood water from Dulwich Park, north-west beneath Gallery Road, across the playing fields to be held in an underground reservoir, just south of Turney Road. Water would be released into storm drains when the weather was dryer.

A similar scheme, the ‘Lost River Peck Flood Alleviation Scheme’, has been devised for Peckham Rye Park and Common. It includes landscaping, constructing mounds and ditches around the perimeter of the park and common. The flooding would be diverted north beneath East Dulwich Road to be dispersed at the lido triangle of the common. Studies have shown that about 200 businesses and homes could be affected if this scheme is not completed.

After very heavy rain the ‘lost’ River Peck reappears along the edge of Peckham Rye.

Peter Frost