Deptford, the destruction of history and detritus of global trade

The London Borough of Deptford isn’t on anyone’s tourist top ten of London. It’s hard to imagine that, of the millions of tourists who visit London every year, more than a handful have heard of it. The majority of London’s seven million residents, at least those who don’t live in Deptford, would struggle to pinpoint it on a map. Feeling underwhelmed as I walked the streets, it was easy to understand why it’s one of London’s less loved boroughs.

Deptford struggles with high levels of poverty and crime, including a significant level of gang-related crime, and has definitely seen better days. Given this, it is almost impossible to understand why a couple years ago the New York Times enthusiastically encourage Americans to visit the area. The NYT described Deptford as “a boisterous concoction of blue-collar aesthetics and intermittent hipsterism“.

Canary Wharf from Deptford, London, England

Canary Wharf from Deptford, London, England

Canary Wharf from Deptford, London, England

Canary Wharf from Deptford, London, England

I’m not really sure what this means, but it sounds like the sort of soundbite typically reserved for areas like New York’s East Village. It certainly doesn’t describe the Deptford I encountered.

Deptford is now going through a painful process of gentrification, it also has a lot of historical associations. Chosen by King Henry VIII in 1513 as the site of the Royal Naval Dockyard, it is known as the birthplace of the Royal Navy. Queen Elizabeth I knighted Sir Francis Drake here in 1581, following his circumnavigation of the globe in the Golden Hind. This event is commemorated by a gateway above the Drake Steps, reputed to be where he famously laid his cloak at the feet of the Queen.

Drake Stairs, Deptford Strand, London, England

Drake Stairs, Deptford Strand, London, England

Canary Wharf from Deptford Strand, London, England

Canary Wharf from Deptford Strand, London, England

Tug on the Thames, Deptford, London, England

Tug on the Thames, Deptford, London, England

The Russian Tsar, Peter the Great, stayed in this area when he came to inspect the dockyards in 1698. The dockyards reached their zenith in the 18th and early 19th Centuries as British military and economic power spread around the globe. After the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Deptford’s docks declined in importance. As the docks declined, so to did Deptford; little of this grand history remains today, many of the centuries old buildings destroyed in acts of historical vandalism.

A planned new development of apartments would destroy what remains of the Royal Navy Dockyards. Consigning this history, and tourism potential, to the scrapheap seems poor reward for an area which played an important role in London’s history. There is an alternative vision, supported by local groups: preserve the dock as a heritage site and build a working replica of a 17th Century ship. The decision has been taken out of local hands, now resting with London’s clown-like Mayor, Boris Johnson. Preserving 500 years of history or a 40-story block of flats. Which way will Boris jump?

Old swing bridge, Greenland Dock, Deptford, London, England

Old swing bridge, Greenland Dock, Deptford, London, England

Former hydraulics, Greenland Dock, Deptford, London, England

Former hydraulics, Greenland Dock, Deptford, London, England

Ship rope moorings, Deptford Strand, London, England

Ship rope moorings, Deptford Strand, London, England

Walking from the much better known Greenwich, and leaving the magnificent Cutty Sark behind, I walked back towards the City of London. It is a lovely walk, offering spectacular views of Canary Wharf and the river. The entire route is littered with the detritus of Britain’s global maritime trade, creating some interesting ‘modern art’ forms along the river.

These leftovers are evocative reminders of Britain’s industrial heyday, but you really have to work hard to imagine the area as it would have been – teeming with life and full of ships carrying cargo from around the world. Inland, there are a series of wharfs and docks where ships would load and unload their bounty from around the world.

Canary Wharf from Deptford, London, England

Canary Wharf from Deptford, London, England

Anchor, Deptford, London, England

Anchor, Deptford, London, England

Abandoned crane, Deptford, London, England

Abandoned crane, Deptford, London, England

Today, those docks which remain are little more than water features surrounded by apartments, but they provide an insight into the history of this area. On the border between Deptford and Rotherhithe lies the huge Greenland Dock. This was once known as Surrey Dock, but was renamed Greenland Dock when it became the centre of trade for whaling ships. After the decline of the whaling trade, the area was known for timber imported from Russia, Finland and Sweden.

Ship rope moorings, Deptford Strand, London, England

Ship rope moorings, Deptford Strand, London, England

Abandoned crane, Deptford, London, England

Abandoned crane, Deptford, London, England

Old wharves and River Thames, London, England

Old wharves and River Thames, London, England

My route eventually reached Rotherhithe, close to Tower Bridge. Rotherhithe is a fascinating and historic district where I found myself wandering aimlessly and bumping into some extraordinary history…but that’s for next time.

Wife swapping and summoning angels, the supernatural John Dee

Blue skies and sunshine have been hard to come by in London recently, and the weather forecast is relentlessly grim. When the sun does shine, there is a limited window of opportunity to enjoy it. During these short winter days a cold but sunny day is special. The light lasts longer into the afternoon; a sign of things to come, that the worst of winter is behind us.

I decided I’d walk along the Thames from Barnes Bridge to Kew Bridge. The tide was high and parts of the path were flooded and impassable. This proved lucky, I came off the river at Mortlake and discovered the lovely Church of St. Mary the Virgin. The stonework of the church tower looked old, the cemetery was atmospheric, but the supernatural connections of a person buried here makes St. Mary’s special.

Chiswick Bridge from the Thames Path, London, England

Chiswick Bridge from the Thames Path, London, England

St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

Plaque to John Dee, St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

Plaque to John Dee, St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

Inside the church is a plaque to John Dee. The name was familiar, but I couldn’t remember why. With access to a computer, it dawned on me that a modern opera, Dr. Dee, recently celebrated his life. The work of Blur frontman, Damian Albarn, and future head of the National Theatre, Rufus Norris, it premiered in 2012. This isn’t the first time Dee’s featured on stage, Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest is thought to be based on him. A fitting portrayal since Dee is credited with summoning the storm that smashed the Spanish Armada. He’s also fictionalised in Peter Ackroyd’s novel, The House of Doctor Dee.

A trusted adviser to Queen Elizabeth I and her court, Dee was a mathematician, alchemist, astronomer, mystic, astrologer, geographer and occultist. He was rumoured to be a spy and he famously owned one of the largest libraries in Europe. He was a student of the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus, a pre-Christian writer/prophet, possibly a contemporary of Moses, who influenced many early Christian thinkers. This is the sort of discovery that happens when the Thames floods.

Portrait of John Dee

Portrait of John Dee

John Dee's 'Seal of God' in the British Museum © Vassil

John Dee’s ‘Seal of God’ in the British Museum © Vassil

John Dee had an extraordinary life. During the reign of Mary Tudor, he was imprisoned for for attempting to murder the Queen through black magic. He was lucky to keep his head. Considered an intellectual giant in his time, at the age of twenty he lectured at the University of Paris on algebra. He was deeply religious, but in a superstitious era, when people grasped at anything to make sense of the mysteries of the physical world, his ‘knowledge’ of astrology and the supernatural made him invaluable to Elizabeth I. He chose her coronation date to ensure it was auspicious.

John Dee demonstrating an experiment at Court, © The Wellcome Trust

John Dee demonstrating an experiment at Court, © The Wellcome Trust

His study of astronomy made him an ‘expert’ in navigation, at a time when Europeans were   starting to explore the New World. Dee had made friends with legendary map maker, Gerardus Mercator, while in Belgium. It seems he stole some of Mercator’s maps and on his return to Britain published a book, General and Rare Memorials pertayning to the Perfect Arte of Navigation. This proposed English expansion around the world – a blueprint for empire. Established as the foremost expert on navigation, he trained many of England’s merchant adventurers before they set sail for the New World.

To a modern mind, Dee’s mysticism took him in bizarre directions, including communing with angels, by which he believed it possible to understand the divine fabric of the world. He seems to have believed a confidence trickster, the ‘spirit medium’ Edward Kelley, who claimed to be able to hold ‘spiritual conferences’ with angels in Enochian, the angel language. The angels dictated several books to Kelley and the ‘spiritual conferences’ were taken seriously – both men were invited to the court of the King of Poland.

St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

Gravestone, St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

Gravestone, St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

In 1587, Kelley told Dee that an angel had ordered both men to share everything in common, including Dee’s much younger wife. If that doesn’t set alarm bells ringing, I don’t know what does? Dee believed this to be a divine order and complied. History doesn’t record how Mrs. Dee felt about this divinely inspired arrangement. We do know that she died of plague in 1604, there is no evidence to suggest this was divine vengeance.

Today, Dee would be seen as a deluded religious fantasist, but that is the benefit of living in an age of science. In his own time he was considered one of Europe’s foremost scholars, taken seriously by Kings, Queens and religious authorities. He was, after all, a contemporary of Nostradamus. Sadly Dee’s grave has been lost over time, but he was buried at St. Mary the Virgin in 1609. The church itself was constructed in 1543 on the instruction of King Henry VIII and makes for happy wandering.

St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

In another coincidence, just over the road from the church I came across a memorial to the the Lower Dutch House, part of the Mortlake Tapestry Works. The Tapestry Works were established in the 1620s on the site where John Dee’s house had stood and, as so often in English history, it attracted highly skilled immigrant Flemish tapestry workers. The tapestries made here were famous and very valuable.

The Lower Dutch House, Mortlake Tapestry Works, London, England

The Lower Dutch House, Mortlake Tapestry Works, London, England

Chiswick Bridge from the Thames Path, London, England

Chiswick Bridge from the Thames Path, London, England

Back on the river, the tide was going out and I could continue on my merry way to Kew Bridge…