Last Monday (Easter Monday Bank holiday) I didn’t have walk booked in, so just by way of a change, decided to go on a walk; the difference being that I wasn’t planning on saying anything to anyone apart from myself. It was also threatening to be the most clement day of the year. Quite remarkably I’d never been to the Thames Barrier (central London’s flood defence), so struck upon the idea of walking from Tower Bridge to the Thames Barrier along the river Thames; a walk of about 11 miles.
I parked my bike by the Tower of London and headed down past St Katharine Docks, up the stairs by Dead Man’s Hole and across Tower Bridge to the south side of the Thames. The old riverside warehouses, wharfs and docks of Shad Thames have been turned in to flats, apartments, shops and restaurants, but as you wander through you can still very much imagine the area as it was when Charles Dickens described it as “the filthiest, strangest and most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London”. Because the tide was out, the river bed at St Saviour’s Dock was a field of silty mud, much as it was when Bill Sykes fell in to it an died in this very place, in Dickens’ ‘Oliver Twist’. St Saviour’s Dock marks the place where the River Neckinger (a subterranean river) meets the Thames, dividing the surrounding areas in to Shad Thames and Jacob’s Island. The name ‘Neckinger’ apparently derives from “Devil’s Neckinger” or “Neckerchief”, a reference to the noose used to hang the pirates at the mouth of the dock, an area notorious in the 18th century for moored vessels being attacked and robbed.
Continuing towards Rotherhithe I came across a tableau of bronze statues; an elder gentleman seated on a bench, a woman resting on a spade to his left, their gaze drawn towards a young girl leaning on the riverside wall on which perches a bronze cat. The ensemble is called ‘Dr Salter’s Daydream’ and references Dr Alfred Salter and his wife Ada who towards the end of the Victorian period dedicated their lives to caring for London’s poor through social work or in the case of Dr Salter (an early pioneer of the NHS), free medical care for the poor of Bermondsey. It would seem that their tireless dedication to their chosen cause ultimately cost them their only child Joyce, who died in 1910 of Scarlet Fever.
After passing through narrow walkways that combine modern housing with converted warehouses I found myself in what felt rather like a rural country churchyard. It is in fact what could be called ‘historic Rotherhithe’, dominated by St Mary’s Church. There are a number of beautiful, if not slightly dilapidated Georgian buildings surrounding the church, some of which are obviously being restored. A little café nestled inside the old Watch Tower, it’s customers basking in the sun in the adjoining park. My guess is that the main draw to this particular enclave on the river is The Mayflower, a sure fire hit of a pub with Londoners and tourists a like (assuming they can find it). In 1620 a group of Protestants (known as the Pilgrim Fathers) set sail from Rotherhithe to Plymouth to pick up more passengers before embarking on a journey to the New World. The original mid 16th century pub, which the crew and passengers of The Mayflower would have known had variously been called ‘The Shippe’ and ‘The Spread Eagle’. The name of the famous ship passed to the pub in 1957 after it had been restored following a direct hit from a doodlebug in World War II. I’d never actually been in to The Mayflower, so took the liberty of stopping for a quick drink. I can imagine that American tourists (especially those with ancestors who were aboard the original ship) start salivating upon entering the cramped and atmospheric boozer positively festooned with all sorts of paraphernalia. They even sell American stamps.
After leaving the pub, I immediately found myself outside The Brunel Museum, marking the southern side of the Thames Tunnel. The Brunel’s are quite a famous family, you could perhaps say, an engineering dynasty. Opened in 1843, the Thames Tunnel was the first tunnel to be built underneath a river anywhere in the world. On its first public day of opening, it is said that 50,000 people each paid a penny to walk beneath the river. Three months later, half the population of London had descended the steps to marvel at what was being described as ‘the 8th wonder of the world’. The museum itself with its prominent chimney resides in the Engine House, built by Sir Marc Brunel to house the engines that drove the pumps that in turn kept the Thames Tunnel dry. As well as a permanent exhibition about the construction of the tunnel, there is, as you would expect, much information about Marc Brunel and his son, the extravagantly named, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The Brunel Museum hosts regular concerts, gigs, events, guided walks and trips down in to the tunnel, so keep an eye on their website to see what’s occurring.
Continuing eastwards, the imposing financial structures sprouting out of Canary Wharf dominate the skyline. The site was a hugely important dockland area that was basically obliterated during World War II. If you do happen to find yourself in that area, then you should definitely pop in to the Docklands Museum, which as part of the Museum of London will give you a fascinating insight in to the area before it became a purpose built finance district. Canary Wharf is situated on the north end of an area known as the Isle Of Dogs and due to the huge curve of the river at this point, the imposing array of financial buildings seemed to follow me for most of the remainder of the day, like the eyes of portrait painting following you across a room.
I passed the Surrey Docks farm, one of London’s numerous city farms, built on the site of an 18th century shipyard. Outside in a display case they had a great collection of porcelain and ceramics found on the Thames foreshore next to the farm. This stretch of the river is littered with the occasional remnants of an industrial and shipping past, as well as the odd canon towards Deptford on the site of the old Tudor docks where Sir Francis Drake was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I for circumnavigating the world and stealing lots of loot from the Spanish. I also noticed references to the 17th century diarist and Naval administrator Samuel Pepys and fellow diarist and enthusiastic gardener John Evelyn, remembered in Pepys Park and Evelyn Street.
At this point I had to go off piste through the council blocks of Deptford and what the writer Russell Hoban would have described as ‘low budget drinking clubs’ as a vast swathe of riverside land is being developed or at least turned in to a building site. Before I knew it, I was approaching the throngs of bank holidayers swarming like seagulls around the base of the Cutty Sark. The transition from Deptford to Greenwich was really quite startling, as if someone had flung back a curtain and pushed me in to the midst of what my mother might call ‘Paddy’s Market’, full of ice creams, tourists and Morris Dancers.
Here, I shall end 'Part 1' of this minor stroll along the Thames from Tower Bridge to the Thames Barrier, and resume again, beginning in Greenwich in 'Part 2'.
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Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.