Rotherhithe, strange tales of whales and Pilgrim Fathers

Puritans. Very determined people the Puritans. Best remembered for their zealous dedication to strict and rigid Protestantism, and utter opposition to the ‘heresy’ of the Catholic Church; history has passed down to us an image of forbidding black clothing, ridiculous hats and dour humourlessness. The average Puritan wasn’t exactly renowned for his or her joie de vivre. These are the people behind the Salem Witch Trials, and we all know how that went.

So it was with some mirth that, as I wandered the history soaked streets of Rotherhithe, I came across a pub called The Mayflower, named for the ‘Pilgrim ship’ which left England in 1620 for North America. Were they transported back to modern-day London, I’m sure the assorted gang of Puritans who left England’s shores on the Mayflower, would be furious to discover themselves commemorated by something as immoral as a pub.

Statue of a Pilgrim Father, Rotherhithe, London, England

Statue of a Pilgrim Father, Rotherhithe, London, England

The Mayflower Pub, Rotherhithe, London, England

The Mayflower Pub, Rotherhithe, London, England

The Mayflower Pub, Rotherhithe, London, England

The Mayflower Pub, Rotherhithe, London, England

A little investigation over a pint of Pale Ale led to the discovery that the Mayflower started its journey from this very spot. The arrival of the Mayflower in New England is a significant moment in Western history; imbuing this area with an historical importance that would be hard to guess at walking down the street. The Puritans left England fleeing what they saw as religious persecution; the authorities saw them as troublemakers, probably traitors, and were presumably glad to see the Mayflower disappear down the Thames.

Boats on the Thames, Rotherhithe, London, England

Boats on the Thames, Rotherhithe, London, England

Boats on the Thames, Rotherhithe, London, England

Boats on the Thames, Rotherhithe, London, England

Sixty-five people boarded the Mayflower in Rotherhithe in July 1620. Amongst them some of the people now known as the Pilgrim Fathers, the founders of New England. The ship was tiny, cramped and suffered three months of delays before sailing into terrible weather crossing the Atlantic. The bravery and determination of the men, women and children on board cannot be underestimated. I tipped my glass to their bravery, and left the pub to stroll on the foreshore of the River Thames where the Mayflower was anchored.

The foreshore by the Mayflower Pub, Rotherhithe, London, England

The foreshore by the Mayflower Pub, Rotherhithe, London, England

The foreshore by the Mayflower Pub, Rotherhithe, London, England

The foreshore by the Mayflower Pub, Rotherhithe, London, England

Leaving the Mayflower behind, I set out to investigate a couple of nearby churches. Close to the pub is St. Mary’s Church, which claims strong associations with the Pilgrim Fathers. The current church dates from 1715, but there has been a church on this site from the 13th Century. There is a drawing of the former church dating from 1623, and it is likely that the Pilgrim Fathers worshipped there before sailing. The church was locked, but luckily one of the most interesting things about the church can be found in the graveyard.

St. Mary's Church, Rotherhithe, London, England

St. Mary’s Church, Rotherhithe, London, England

St. Mary's Church, Rotherhithe, London, England

St. Mary’s Church, Rotherhithe, London, England

Here lie the remains of Prince Lee Boo from the Pacific island of Palau. How a member of royalty from a Pacific island came to be buried in Rotherhithe is the story of the expansion of global trade in the 18th Century. In 1783, the English ship, Antelope, was shipwrecked near Palau and the surviving members of crew formed an alliance with the local king, Abba Thulle. The crew built a new boat and Abba Thulle decided to send this son, Prince Lee Boo, with them when they left for England.

Why did Lee Boo end up in Rotherhithe? The ship’s captain, Captain Wilson, came from Rotherhithe and Lee Boo lived with him when he arrived in England. He attended school and services at St. Mary’s. Sadly he died, as so many people did, from smallpox.

Grave of Prince Lee Boo, St. Mary's Church, Rotherhithe, London, England

Grave of Prince Lee Boo, St. Mary’s Church, Rotherhithe, London, England

Grave of Prince Lee Boo, St. Mary's Church, Rotherhithe, London, England

Grave of Prince Lee Boo, St. Mary’s Church, Rotherhithe, London, England

As I walked through St. Mary’s graveyard I passed St. Mary’s Free School. Founded in 1613 by two local sea captains, it was intended to educate the children of seafarers. It has two lovely statues on the outside, making it an interesting local landmark.

St. Mary Free School, Rotherhithe, London, England

St. Mary Free School, Rotherhithe, London, England

From here, glinting gold in the distance, I could see a church spire. This was the Norwegian Church in London, suitably located at 1 Olav’s Square. Although the current St. Olva’s Church dates from 1927, there has been a Norwegian Church in London since the 17th Century. Thanks to trade with Nordic countries there are several Nordic churches in London, and Rotherhithe, with its history of seafaring, is where most are located. The shining spire? A golden Viking Longboat.

St. Olav's Church, Rotherhithe, London, England

St. Olav’s Church, Rotherhithe, London, England

This area has very strong Nordic connections, and still has many residents of Nordic origins. This made it the obvious place for the Norwegian Government-in-Exile to establish itself during World War II.

Swing bridge at Surrey Dock, Rotherhithe, London, England

Swing bridge at Surrey Dock, Rotherhithe, London, England

The Ship and Whale pub, Rotherhithe, London, England

The Ship and Whale pub, Rotherhithe, London, England

Cementing the Nordic connections, a short walk from St. Olav’s is the enormous Greenland Dock, which was the centre of Britain’s trade with Nordic countries. Timber was a major import, but Greenland Dock is famous for its role in whaling. This is where Whalers, ships that hunted whales in the North Sea and Atlantic, came to off-load blubber, whale oil and whale bone. All of which were important commodities in the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries. Unsurprisingly, there are several whale-themed pubs in the area.

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.

The Isle of Dogs and a walk under the River Thames

I’m not sure what seems more improbable, an island of dogs or being able to walk under the Thames. Then again, East London is full of surprises. Starting next to the historic and enormous (and closed) Hawksmoor designed St. Anne’s Church, my route passed through Limehouse’s narrow streets to the corporate glass and steel towers of Canary Wharf; arriving at the Cutty Sark in Greenwich via the Thames Path and the marvellous Greenwich Foot Tunnel.

St. Anne's Church, Limehouse, London, England

St. Anne’s Church, Limehouse, London, England

St. Anne's Church, Limehouse, London, England

St. Anne’s Church, Limehouse, London, England

No one really knows the origin of the name ‘Isle of Dogs’ – the great bulge in the River Thames. Theories, however, abound: royal hunting dogs were kept here; a corruption of the name ‘Isle of Ducks’; dead dogs washed up here; a nickname because people who lived here led a ‘dog’s life’. None of which make it sound particularly appealing. While the meaning is lost, the name was in common use by the 16th Century and has stuck.

Its almost unimaginable today, but this was a rural area until the 19th Century. Known as Stepney Marsh, it was a wetland criss-crossed by waterways, accessible only by bridge or boat. The marsh was drained in the 17th Century, becoming an important agricultural area providing food for London. This all changed in the 19th Century. It was transformed from cattle pasture into London’s most industrialised area, teeming with people and activity.

Dunstan's Wharf, Limehouse, London, England

Dunstan’s Wharf, Limehouse, London, England

Sailmakers House, Limehouse, London, England

Sailmakers House, Limehouse, London, England

Doorway, Limehouse, London, England

Doorway, Limehouse, London, England

Mid-19th Century, this area was the powerhouse of trade and communication with the British Empire. A relationship born witness to by the series of docks and wharfs dotted all over this area, all of which serviced the massive maritime ambitions of the British nation. Trade and Empire can still be recognised in names: West India Dock, Ontario Way, Cuba, Tobago and Malabar Streets. Today those connections are maintained by the international workforce involved in international finance at Canary Wharf.

Canary Wharf, Isle of Dogs, London, England

Canary Wharf, Isle of Dogs, London, England

Canary Wharf, Isle of Dogs, London, England

Canary Wharf, Isle of Dogs, London, England

View of the River Thames from the Isle of Dogs, London, England

View of the River Thames from the Isle of Dogs, London, England

The streets here were lined with wharves and hundreds of warehouses, built to house goods arriving or departing to every corner of the globe; it was the engine of Britain’s economy. That status made the Isle of Dogs a target in World War II. Starting on 7th September 1940, and continuing for seventy six consecutive nights, this area was bombed with heavy explosives and incendiaries. The Blitz had come to London.

Heinkel bomber over Isle of Dogs © Wikipedia Commons

Heinkel bomber over Isle of Dogs © Wikipedia Commons

The Blitz intended to destroy Britain’s the economy and the nation’s ability to fight. The warehouses and wharves burned for days on end, as did their contents. One bombing raid set fire to 380,000 tonnes of timber at Surrey Docks. By the time The Blitz ended a third of the Isle of Dogs’ warehouses, and tens of thousands of homes, had been destroyed. Bombs from World War II continue to be unearthed even today.

Ironically, the end of the war was even more destructive for local communities. The end of Empire and shifting global trade made the docks obsolete. Britain was bankrupt and rebuilding was little more than a pipe dream. This area remained – and still is in parts – a severely deprived area. Even the Docklands development of the 1980s, which bequeathed us Canary Wharf, did little to solve entrenched poverty.

Dry dock for SS Great Eastern, Isle of Dogs, London, England

Dry dock for SS Great Eastern, Isle of Dogs, London, England

Along the Thames Path occasional signs impart bits of forgotten history. One stated I was stood on the site where the Great Eastern was built. The SS Great Eastern was the brainchild of legendary engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. When it launched in 1858 SS Great Eastern was by far the largest ship ever built, capable of sailing to Australia without refuelling. Sadly, the SS Great Eastern was a commercial failure, ending its days in ignominy as a floating advertisement for a department store.

Leaving Canary Wharf behind, I arrived at the most exciting section of my walk. A small glass-topped dome marks the entrance to one of London’s hidden wonders: the Greenwich Foot Tunnel. Descending the iron stairs, you walk the 370 metres through a tiled tunnel less than 3 metres in diameter underneath the River Thames. A few fun-filled minutes later you emerge next to the Cutty Sark in Greenwich. The northern end of the tunnel has a section of steel reinforcing it where it was damaged by bombs in 1940.

Greenwich Foot Tunnel, London, England

Greenwich Foot Tunnel, London, England

Greenwich Foot Tunnel, London, England

Greenwich Foot Tunnel, London, England

Greenwich Foot Tunnel, London, England

Greenwich Foot Tunnel, London, England

It’s thrilling to walk through the tunnel. It has been used for all sorts of filming, events and ridiculous activities – bizarrely, it forms part National Cycle Route 1 (from Inverness in Scotland to Dover on the English Channel). More ridiculous, a marathon was run in the tunnel to mark it’s centenary. It takes 58 laps to run a full marathon in the tunnel, and there’s not much scenery en route. One hundred runners took part, and British marathon legend, Hugh Jones, won the race in a very credible 2 hours 45 minutes.

Rather him than me.

The Cutty Sark, Greenwich, London, England

The Cutty Sark, Greenwich, London, England

The Cutty Sark, Greenwich, London, England

The Cutty Sark, Greenwich, London, England

Tales from the riverbank, memories of the English Civil War

These memories, I might add, are not my own, although the long winter days can make you feel several hundred years old. The English Civil War erupted in the late summer of 1642, following two years of protracted negotiations and disagreements between King Charles I and Parliament. London didn’t see much fighting during the conflict, and remained firmly in the hands of Parliamentary forces throughout the war.

London didn’t see much fighting that is, except for two critically important battles fought in West London at the very beginning of the war. Had these battles proved decisive for the King, London would have been captured and, without the huge support of London’s population, Parliament might not have triumphed over Charles I. The simple truth was, without London’s wealth and manufacturing, the Royalists couldn’t hope to win the war…not that anyone realised it at the time.

The River Thames near Richmond Locks, London, England

The River Thames near Richmond Locks, London, England

Boat on the River Thames, London, England

Boat on the River Thames, London, England

It is difficult to imagine today as you walk down the tranquil River Thames from Kew to Richmond, but there was vicious fighting here in November 1642. Parliamentary gunboats sailed along the river and bombarded Royalist forces massing at the stronghold of Syon House, which was damaged by artillery fire. A short distance from where I was walking on the Thames, the main battle was fought at Brentford (literally a crossing over the River Brent), an important entry point into London.

Syon House from the River Thames, London, England

Syon House from the River Thames, London, England

Syon House from the River Thames, London, England

Syon House from the River Thames, London, England

The River Thames near Brentford, London, England

The River Thames near Brentford, London, England

I was heading to Richmond Locks, where I planned to cross the Thames and loop back to Kew on the north bank of the river. A route which would take me through the grounds of Syon House and past the site of the Battle of Brentford. First though, I hoped to be able to get a sight of the Kew Observatory. Also known as the King’s Observatory, it was completed in 1769 at the request of King George III so he could witness the transit of Venus across the sun. At the time, this area was still considered countryside, and light pollution wasn’t the problem it is today.

Sadly this monument to the human fascination with the heavens isn’t open to the public. Worse, its in the middle of a private golf course, at the entrance to which are lots of forbidding signs about how plebs (sorry, non-members) aren’t permitted to enter. This means you have to trespass and risk being hit by flying golf balls, or turn back. Wishing the Parliamentary army was still around to sort out the golf club, I headed back to the river and continued along my way. I did find this photo though, from the London Bytes blog…

Kew Observatory, London, England

Kew Observatory, London, England

The River Thames near Richmond Lock, London, England

The River Thames near Richmond Lock, London, England

Crossing the river I was soon on the north bank heading east and passing through the grounds of Syon House. Closed for the winter, I had to make do with the view from outside the fence, and, as time was getting on, I pressed on to Isleworth. On the first half of my walk the lovely riverside location of the 14th Century All Saints Church in Isleworth had been illuminated by the sun. I now walked down Church Street, past some lovely Georgian houses and The London Apprentice pub, to the church itself.

All Saints Church in Isleworth, London, England

All Saints Church in Isleworth, London, England

All Saints Church in Isleworth, London, England

All Saints Church in Isleworth, London, England

The row of houses opposite The London Apprentice were once home to Arthur Penty (1875–1937), an architect and writer on guild socialism and distributism. Much more exciting though, it was also the home of the actor, William Hartnell, best known as the first Doctor Who from 1963–1966. He lived opposite The London Apprentice from the 1920s.

Arthur Penty's house in Isleworth, London, England

Arthur Penty’s house in Isleworth, London, England

All Saints Church in Isleworth, London, England

All Saints Church in Isleworth, London, England

All Saints is a bit of a disappointment. The church was gutted by fire in May 1943 and only the tower remains from the original. You may be thinking “May 1943? Did the Luftwaffe bomb the church?”, but the fire was the result of arson by two local schoolboys. Their crime spree saw another nearby church burnt down before they were caught. The replacement building is the product of 1960s Utopian architectural thinking, and is incredibly ugly. The sun was going down, so I pressed on through Syon Park, finally arriving at the site of the Battle of Brentford (1642).

Brentford was fortified with two regiments of Parliamentary soldiers, and was attacked by Royalist cavalry and Dragoons. As you walk down a busy road, passing through some fairly deprived areas, towards the site of the battle, its hard to conjure an image of charging cavalry, musket shot and thundering canon. Thundering trucks, yes, but this nondescript place offers up few hints of its history.

Site of the Battle of Brentford, London, England

Site of the Battle of Brentford, London, England

Site of the Battle of Brentford, London, England

Site of the Battle of Brentford, London, England

Although the Battle of Brentford was won by the Royalists, led by Prince Rupert, it wasn’t decisive, and the following day the two main armies clashed at Turnham Green. Again the battle was inconclusive, but Charles I decided to retreat to Oxford and spent the winter there. This was a disastrous decision for his hopes of winning the war. He would never come close to capturing London again, and his failure at Brentford and Turnham Green over the weekend of 12 and 13 November, 1642, would result in the loss of his kingdom and his head.

Tales from the riverbank, a walk around Kew

I love walking the River Thames, especially in west London where the city starts to fade away and things become a bit greener. At Putney the concrete paving of the Thames Path National Trail turns into a muddy track, and the grinding urban landscape gives way to become almost rustic. There are more trees than buildings, dog walkers in Wellington boots outnumber people tapping away on their mobile devices. In a crowded city the river offers a sense of space, the vast sky becomes visible.

The River Thames and Strand-on-the-Green from Kew Bridge, London, England

The River Thames and Strand-on-the-Green from Kew Bridge, London, England

Rowers on the River Thames from Chiswick Bridge, London, England

Rowers on the River Thames from Chiswick Bridge, London, England

You never quite leave the city behind, wandering off the river path will bring you abruptly back into an urban environment, but between Kew and Richmond there is a wealth of green space linked by the river. Kew is known as the home of the Royal Botanical Gardens, the magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Site dedicated to all things plant, but Kew itself is a lovely place.

Walking up river on a cold, sunny winter’s day is wonderful; sunny days have been in short supply and because it was mid-week the Thames Path was largely empty. The cyclists and joggers who take to the path in their hundreds at weekends, were safely tucked away in office buildings, leaving it in the care of a few dog walkers and my good self. Passing under Chiswick Bridge along the tree-lined path the occasional rowing boat passes, and the only reminder that you’re in a city of eight million is the buzzing airplanes overhead.

Thames Path sign, London, England

Thames Path sign, London, England

Thames Path near Kew, London, England

Thames Path near Kew, London, England

River Thames near Kew, London, England

River Thames near Kew, London, England

Ducking under a railway bridge, trains thundering overhead, you soon spot Oliver’s Island. This small wooded island in the middle of the Thames is rumoured to have been a secret base from which Oliver Cromwell led operations during the English Civil War. There’s no truth to the story, but the name has stuck. Once past the island you find yourself at Kew Bridge, with the option of going into Kew or crossing the river to Strand-on-the-Green along the north bank.

River Thames and railway bridge, Kew, London, England

River Thames and railway bridge, Kew, London, England

Oliver's Island, Kew, London, England

Oliver’s Island, Kew, London, England

River Thames, Kew, London, England

River Thames, Kew, London, England

Nestling in a bend of the river, Kew retains a distinctly village-like feel – albeit a very well heeled village. In part the village feel exists because Kew retains that most traditional of village landmarks, a ‘green’. Kew Green’s grassy public space is a large area surrounded by elegant Georgian houses. It is home to a cricket pitch and in the centre of the space is the splendid looking Church of St. Anne.

St. Anne’s was built in 1714 on land given to the Church by Queen Anne. Its a grand-looking building sitting amidst Kew Green, if you could climb the tower you’d be able to see the Royal Botanical Gardens just beyond the Green. Unsurprisingly, there are a number of people buried here who are associated with the Botanical Gardens, including Sir William Hooker, Director of the Gardens, and his son, botanist and explorer, Sir Joseph Hooker.

St. Anne's Church, Kew, London, England

St. Anne’s Church, Kew, London, England

St. Anne's Church, Kew, London, England

St. Anne’s Church, Kew, London, England

Headstone, St. Anne's Church, Kew, London, England

Headstone, St. Anne’s Church, Kew, London, England

Kew is almost as strongly associated with artists as it is botanists; its no surprise that the cemetery’s most famous resident is the wonderful landscape artist, Thomas Gainsborough, who lived nearby. It is also the burial place of German neoclassical artist and fellow member of the Royal Academy, Johann Zoffany. Zoffany lived at Strand-on-the-Green and enjoyed the patronage of King George III and Queen Charlotte, giving him access to the highest society.

Johann Zoffany's tomb, St. Anne's Church, Kew, London, England

Johann Zoffany’s tomb, St. Anne’s Church, Kew, London, England

River Thames, Kew, London, England

River Thames, Kew, London, England

Zoffany was, alarmingly, unique amongst contemporary artists. William Dalrymple, the historian and writer, has described him as “the first and last Royal Academician to have become a cannibal.” I’m sure that’s not how he’d prefer to be remembered, but sadly its true. Zoffany was returning to Europe from India when he was shipwrecked off the Andaman Islands. The desperate, and desperately hungry, survivors held a lottery in which the loser was turned into dinner.

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

The river is tidal at Kew – and for a few more miles up river. The tide was high the day I was there, it doesn’t affect walkers too much but is a recurring issue for people living on the banks. The houses which dramatically line the river at Strand-on-the-Green are regularly inundated with water. Walking past them on a footpath still wet from when the river most recently came over the bank, their vulnerability to flooding is clear. Many doorways are set high in the wall for just such an occasion.

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

While messing around by the river I discovered the Musical Museum, home to a collection of mechanical musical instruments, including a giant Wurlitzer. The museum was closed, but there’s no way I can resist the appeal of a giant Wurlitzer…

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…

Benedict Arnold’s final resting place, a church with artistic pretensions

Sitting picturesquely on the banks of the River Thames, I must have walked past St. Mary’s Church, Battersea, dozens of times without once realising that it’s history matches it’s splendid Georgian architecture. This has been a site of Christian worship for over a thousand years, and although there was probably nothing wrong with the Medieval church that stood on this site, the wealthy citizens of Battersea insisted on rebuilding the church in the 1770s. It was then that it acquired the graceful 130 foot spire, which still dramatically rises above the River Thames.

St. Mary's Church, Battersea, London, England

St. Mary’s Church, Battersea, London, England

St. Mary's Church, Battersea, London, England

St. Mary’s Church, Battersea, London, England

Portico, St. Mary's Church, Battersea, London, England

Portico, St. Mary’s Church, Battersea, London, England

As with most churches in Britain these days, St. Mary’s is only occasionally open, for services and a weekly nursery. The rest of the time, having the doors open would probably result in the theft of everything valuable. It was only by chance that, walking past on my way to Hammersmith, I discovered the church open and I was able to sneak inside for a look around. Fortune was on my side, because inside I met the vicar, Canon Simon Butler, who had a couple of minutes to spare to point out some of the history.

I’d already spotted a stained glass window dedicated to the pantomime villain of the American War of Independence, Benedict Arnold. This church is the burial site of one of the most notorious names in American history. I couldn’t quite believe that this fact had escaped my attention all this time. At the time of the American War of Independence (1775 – 1783), Arnold was considered a defector and traitor by Americans, a patriot by the British. He’s still reviled as a traitor in the United States, but is largely forgotten in the country where he lived out the rest of his life.

St. Mary's Church, Battersea, London, England

St. Mary’s Church, Battersea, London, England

St. Mary's Church, Battersea, London, England

St. Mary’s Church, Battersea, London, England

Gravestone, St. Mary's Church, Battersea, London, England

Gravestone, St. Mary’s Church, Battersea, London, England

The inscription on the window reads, “The two nations whom he served, in turn in the years of their enmity, have united in this memorial as a token of their enduring friendship.” It is decorated with the flags of the two nations from both periods in history. For those who still bare a grudge against Arnold, he was originally buried in the crypt, but when the crypt was converted into a usable room his remains became mixed up with those of all the others buried there. His remains now reside in a mass grave, unmarked and unidentified.

St. Mary's Church, Battersea, London, England

St. Mary’s Church, Battersea, London, England

St. Mary's Church, Battersea, London, England

St. Mary’s Church, Battersea, London, England

Benedict Arnold window, St. Mary's Church, Battersea, London, England

Benedict Arnold window, St. Mary’s Church, Battersea, London, England

You might think one famous name enough for any church, but St. Mary’s has a host of famous connections. Walking around the church, three other stained glass windows are dedicated to eminent people associated with the church. One belongs to the poet and artist William Blake (1757 – 1827). Largely regarded as mad, or at least eccentric, by contemporaries for his views, including free love; he is, today, recognised as one of the most important poets of his age. Blake was married at St. Mary’s in 1782.

William Blake window, St. Mary's Church, Battersea, London, England

William Blake window, St. Mary’s Church, Battersea, London, England

J.M.W. Turner window, St. Mary's Church, Battersea, London, England

J.M.W. Turner window, St. Mary’s Church, Battersea, London, England

William Curtis window, St. Mary's Church, Battersea, London, England

William Curtis window, St. Mary’s Church, Battersea, London, England

One of the other windows is dedicated to the artist, J. M. W. Turner (1775 – 1851), who painted river scenes on the Thames from the vestry window of St. Mary’s. He also sketched St. Mary’s from across the river, a picture which can be seen on the Tate website. The final window is dedicated to William Curtis (1746 – 99), a long forgotten botanist and entomologist, who collected many samples from the churchyard and surrounding area. The church has even more illustrious connections yet though…

There was probably a church on this site in 800 AD, a typical Anglo Saxon church. The church is recorded in the Doomsday Book of 1086, where it was noted that King WIlliam (the Conqueror) had given the church and its lands to Westminster Abbey. The church was remodelled and added to over the years, growing significantly in size, until its eventual rebuilding in the 1770s.

St. Mary's Church, Battersea, London, England

St. Mary’s Church, Battersea, London, England

After Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, the church passed into the hands of the St. John family. That is, until the ownership of Battersea Manor was bought by Earl Spencer in 1763. Today, Charles Spencer, the 9th Earl Spencer and the brother of Diana, Princess of Wales, is still its patron. It was his ancestor who gave the permission to build the current church to better represent the aspirations of the increasingly wealthy inhabitants of newly fashionable Battersea.

Gravestone, St. Mary's Church, Battersea, London, England

Gravestone, St. Mary’s Church, Battersea, London, England

By the 1760s, Battersea was considered a fashionable country retreat from the crowded streets of London – not that you’d guess that today. In 1766, Battersea Bridge was opened, meaning access to the area was much easier, and there was an influx of wealthy residents. There are still plenty of examples of the houses of that period in the Battersea area, and today it is still a very well-healed area of London. This stretch of the River Thames is tidal, when I was there the tide was out, allowing me to wander around on the temporary ‘beach’ created on the river bank.

St. Mary’s reopened in 1777, unusually for London, the church was given a portico, which ironically gives it a similar feel to churches in New England. Today it is a Grade I listed building, which has been somewhat overshadowed by a new block of apartments made from steel and glass – such is London’s regard for its historic treasures.

Peace Pagodas and Power Stations, the Thames at Battersea

London is home to many iconic buildings. St. Paul’s Cathedral, Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, the Gherkin, the Shard, the Walkie Talkie. The list, from ancient to new and shiny, goes on and on. I’d be prepared to bet that, for a sizeable number of Londoners and visitors alike, the giant 1930s designed and built Battersea Power Station, would make their top ten of London’s architectural icons.

Battersea Power Station, London, England

Battersea Power Station, London, England

Every time I pass the now decommissioned power station, I can’t help but marvel at the simple elegance of its design and its monumental proportions. The architecture is even more wonderful for being an industrial building: a blast from a long forgotten past, when we cared about the aesthetic of our industrial heritage. The interior of the building has a wealth of Art Deco fixtures and fittings, although it isn’t possible to go inside any more due to the dangerous condition the building has been allowed to fall into.

Chelsea Bridge, Battersea, London, England

Chelsea Bridge, Battersea, London, England

River Thames opposite Battersea Park, London, England

River Thames opposite Battersea Park, London, England

Egyptian-themed bench, Chelsea Embankment, London, England

Egyptian-themed bench, Chelsea Embankment, London, England

Stood overlooking the River Thames, next to Chelsea Bridge and a short distance from the lovely Victorian-era Battersea Park, Battersea Power Station holds the remarkable claim to be the largest brick-built building in Europe. The Thames-side location allowed the river to be used for cooling water, and for coal to be delivered more efficiently. It is a crying shame that it has been allowed to become derelict, thanks mainly to the ineptitude of government and vagaries of private capital.

Ever since it closed in 1975, there have been a series of attempts to develop the site. It seems, finally, a solution has been found. The building will be preserved, but all around it over 3500 apartments will be built. I’ve seen the architect drawings, and I can’t help but compare the contemporary vision for architectural heritage unfavourably. The vision that led to Battersea Power Station being build as an industrial Art Deco delight, is light-years ahead of the 21st Century vision for the site with its identikit glass and metal boxes.

Victorian-era lamppost opposite Battersea Park, London, England

Victorian-era lamppost opposite Battersea Park, London, England

Albert Bridge, Battersea, London, England

Albert Bridge, Battersea, London, England

Albert Bridge, Battersea, London, England

Albert Bridge, Battersea, London, England

The power station is a cultural icon for more than its architecture. It featured in The Beatles’ 1965 film, Help! More hilariously, it was used on the cover of Pink Floyd’s 1977 album, Animals. Legend has it that they tied their signature giant inflatable pig to one of the chimneys, only for it to escape and float into the path of passenger airplanes trying to land at Heathrow. A giant flying pig is probably not what you want to see if you’re a pilot. Its best viewed from the north bank of the Thames or from Chelsea Bridge, followed by a stroll through one of my favourite parks.

River Thames from the Albert Bridge, Battersea, London, England

River Thames from the Albert Bridge, Battersea, London, England

Battersea Park, London, England

Battersea Park, London, England

Battersea Park sits on the River Thames between the utilitarian Chelsea Bridge and the ornate, ‘wedding cake’ structure that is Albert Bridge. Albert Bridge is close to (the now closed) Chelsea Barracks, soldiers had to break step when marching over it to stop it being damaged. Prior to the park being constructed in the 1850s, this area was known as Battersea Fields. A large open area of fertile marshland, it was renowned for being market gardens which supplied London with melons, vegetables – including the famous Battersea asparagus – and lavender. In fact, the lavender was grown all the way from here to modern day Lavender Hill.

Being close to town, but still considered fairly rural and isolated, this area was also popular amongst aristocrats, who came here to settle their differences with a duel. The Duke of Wellington is said to have fought a duel with the Earl of Winchilsea here in 1829. Both men fired to miss and Wellington received a written apology. Throughout this period, Battersea Fields had a very unsavoury reputation for crime, including an illegal Sunday market featuring stolen goods. It was also home to a notorious public house, the Red House.

River Thames, Battersea Park, London, England

River Thames, Battersea Park, London, England

Festival Gardens, Battersea Park, London, England

Festival Gardens, Battersea Park, London, England

This was the backdrop to an Act of Parliament, which made a compulsory purchase of the land to construct Battersea Park possible. The park was opened by Queen Victoria. Today it is a classic Victorian Royal Park, a mixture of lakes, woods, open spaces and a wonderful riverside walk, which has good views over the river. There is an area known as the Festival Gardens, designed for the Festival of Britain in 1951, an attempt to renew national pride after World War II. Along the riverside walk can be found one of the more unexpected sights the park has to offer.

Peace Pagoda, Battersea Park, London, England

Peace Pagoda, Battersea Park, London, England

Peace Pagoda, Battersea Park, London, England

Peace Pagoda, Battersea Park, London, England

Although a Peace Pagoda seems to be a bit of an oddity in a London park, spotting its graceful spire amongst the trees of Battersea Park, it looks like it has always been there. In reality, it was constructed in 1985. It was offered to London by the Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist Order from Japan, during a period of Cold War tension and fears of nuclear attack, as a symbol of peace and harmony in the world. Today, the Buddha statues look on as dog walkers and joggers go past, and the River Thames flows endlessly to the sea.

Albert Bridge sign, Battersea Park, London, England

Albert Bridge sign, Battersea Park, London, England

Prince Albert pub, Battersea Park, London, England

Prince Albert pub, Battersea Park, London, England

The view from Boris Towers: London, a city unfinished

Peter Ackroyd’s London, The Biography, is fascinating. One of his themes is London as ever changing, ever evolving, constantly being rebuilt on the ruins of London past. Retrospectively its possible to see this evolution – Roman and Medieval London can still be found in parts of today’s city. No one worried about ‘heritage’, things were just ripped down and rebuilt.

Every age – Anglo-Saxon, Norman, Tudor, Victorian, Georgian, right up until the shiny glass temples to international finance that currently dominate the skyline – has left its imprint on the ancient heart of the city. In the case of St. Helen’s and St. Andrew Undershaft (no sniggering), it is literally possible to see 12th century churches overshadowed by a building affectionately known as the ‘erotic gherkin’ – a giant phallus of glass and steel designed by Norman Foster (Freud would have had a field-day).

The view of the City of London from City Hall, Erotic Gherkin on the right, London, England

The view of the City of London from City Hall, Erotic Gherkin on the right, London, England

If there is a greater contrast in building style, purpose, materials and ethics anywhere in the world, I don’t know where it is. One truism, however, is that all these buildings are designed to inspire awe and wonder, and to communicate power.

Several new buildings have sprung up in the City of London recently (all have ridiculous names, the better to ingratiate themselves with the public): ‘The Cheese Grater’, ‘The Walkie-Talkie’ and ‘The Pinnacle’. ‘The Shard’, in Southwark, is the wrong side of the river to be part of the City. These buildings are transforming the cityscape, although, given London’s history, probably not forever.

London's City Hall, London, England

London’s City Hall, London, England

London's City Hall reflected in a sculpture, London, England

London’s City Hall reflected in a sculpture, London, England

Tower Bridge reflected in London's City Hall, London, England

Tower Bridge reflected in London’s City Hall, London, England

It was with some trepidation that I entered another modern glass edifice, London City Hall, home to the Mayor of London and the London Assembly, to take the view from the top. Mayor Boris Johnson (a man many would accuse of having his own erotic gherkin) wasn’t at home, so it was possible to take the view unmolested…and, it has to be said, what a view.

The view of Tower Bridge and the East End from City Hall, London, England

The view of Tower Bridge and the East End from City Hall, London, England

The sunbathers and Tower Bridge from City Hall, London, England

The sunbathers and Tower Bridge from City Hall, London, England

Emerging onto the viewing platform, there was a giant crane somewhere in Southwark going about its business of changing the cityscape. Move anti-clockwise and Tower Bridge comes into focus, with views all the way to Canary Wharf. Then, directly over the River Thames, the Tower of London appears dwarfed by the modern city which has grown up around it. Move slightly to the west and the truly extraordinary sight of the City of London – a work in progress – is illuminated from on high.

The City of London and Tower of London from City Hall, London, England

The City of London and Tower of London from City Hall, London, England

The view of Tower Bridge and Canary Wharf from City Hall, London, England

The view of Tower Bridge and Canary Wharf from City Hall, London, England

The view is fabulous, its probably worth becoming Mayor for that reason alone. Its not just the view though. Despite the unfortunate nickname of ‘The Glass Gonad’ (bestowed upon the building by Mayor Boris), City Hall has been designed to surprise. It does have an unusual shape, more reminiscent of a motorbike helmet than a gonad, but inside it has a beautiful helix-shaped staircase similar to that of the Reichstag building in Berlin.

Helix-shaped staircase in London's City Hall, London, England

Helix-shaped staircase in London’s City Hall, London, England

Helix-shaped staircase in London's City Hall, London, England

Helix-shaped staircase in London’s City Hall, London, England

Descending this glass temple of temporal power, its possible to stroll under and then over Tower Bridge – possibly London’s most famous landmark – before arriving on the north bank of the River Thames where the Tower of London sits.

These two structures reflect Ackroyd’s general point about the city’s evolution. Tower Bridge was opened in 1894 and casts its shadow over the Tower of London, construction of which started over eight hundred years earlier in 1066. Both are now overshadowed by the 21st century City Hall. London will be a nice city once they finish it, not that that is likely to happen anytime soon.

Tower Bridge, London, England

Tower Bridge, London, England

Tower Bridge, London, England

Tower Bridge, London, England

The Tower of London, London, England

The Tower of London, London, England

The Tower of London, London, England

The Tower of London, London, England

A walk along the lower reaches of the “Dark River”

Prior to the Roman Occupation, the British and Irish Isles were populated by Celtic tribes. The Roman Empire never made it to Ireland and they eventually settled on Hadrian’s Wall for containment and trade, instead of conquest and occupation, in Scotland. England’s Celtic population was absorbed into the Roman Empire, and successive waves of migration from Continental Europe saw much of its culture disappear.

Celtic history continues to live on through language (not to mention the gene pool). The River Thames derives its name from the original Celtic: Tamesas, meaning ‘dark’.

Canary Wharf and River Thames, London, England

Canary Wharf and River Thames, London, England

A walk from Limehouse Basin to Tower Bridge along the river through the Wapping district, is to walk through London’s history: a history built on the tides of the Thames. From Roman-times, this area has been central to England’s (and later Britain’s) maritime trade. It became home to all the trades that kept the merchant fleet afloat: sailers, sail makers and maritime instrument makers all congregated here. Huge warehouses containing goods of all descriptions lined the banks of the Thames.

Globe Wharf, now luxury apartments, River Thames, London, England

Globe Wharf, now luxury apartments, River Thames, London, England

Thames Tunnel Mills, River Thames, London, England

Thames Tunnel Mills, River Thames, London, England

Pubs, gambling dens and brothels proliferated, and the area had a very unsavoury reputation – the Prospect of Whitby, a pub overlooking the river, was once known as the Devil’s Tavern because of its violent reputation. The area attracted thieves, smugglers, pirates and lowlifes of all sorts. Its not surprising that there was a ‘hanging dock’ over the river, where criminals would receive “a short drop and a sudden stop”.

The Prospect of Whitby, Wapping, River Thames, London, England

The Prospect of Whitby, Wapping, River Thames, London, England

Phoenix Wharf, Wapping, River Thames, London, England

Phoenix Wharf, Wapping, River Thames, London, England

Here, amidst the chaos of narrow, crowded and frequently dangerous streets, travellers and exotic goods from around the world would arrive into one of the world’s truly international cities. Passengers and cargo alike, would be disgorged into the teeming streets and congested alleyways that formed Wapping.

As if to offset this seedy world, the area also has plenty of churches – and there were numerous nineteenth century Christian Missions active in this area. One of the most famous churches is St. John the Baptist. Constructed in 1617, it was demolished in the 1750s to make way for a new church. It stands, incongruously, next to the Turk’s Head pub: as so often, virtue and vice go hand-in-hand.

St. John's Church, Wapping, London, England

St. John’s Church, Wapping, London, England

Old school near St. John's Church, Wapping, London, England

Old school near St. John’s Church, Wapping, London, England

The cemetery is the burial place of Thomas Rainsborough, a colonel in Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army during the English Civil War. Rainsborough was a leader of the Leveller movement, and their spokesman at the Putney Debates. During the debates, Rainsborough argued for universal suffrage for all men, regardless of their wealth or status. It was a radical position in 1647, and one that brought him into conflict with Cromwell.

Rainsborough was buried in 1648 following a procession of thousands of Levellers through the Wapping area. His tomb contained an inscription declaring that Rainsborough had made, “Kings, Lords, Commons, Judges shake, Cities and Committees quake”. The latter presumably a reference to the Putney Debates.

Plaque to Thomas Gainsborough, St. John's cemetery, Wapping, London, England

Plaque to Thomas Gainsborough, St. John’s cemetery, Wapping, London, England

Cemetery at St. John's Church, Wapping, London, England

Cemetery at St. John’s Church, Wapping, London, England

Cemetery at St. John's Church, Wapping, London, England

Cemetery at St. John’s Church, Wapping, London, England

This part of the Thames was an economic thread to the rest of the world. From the sixteenth century onwards the river teemed with boats of all shapes and sizes. Traditionally, ships docked at wharves constructed on the river. However, the expansion of Empire, and the huge growth in global trade, led to the construction of London Docks and St. Catherine’s Dock in the first half of the nineteenth century. Most of the old wharves are now apartments.

Aberdeen Wharf, Wapping, River Thames, London, England

Aberdeen Wharf, Wapping, River Thames, London, England

Old Wharf, Wapping, River Thames, London, England

Old Wharf, Wapping, River Thames, London, England

In the late nineteenth century the area shed its notorious reputation for poverty and crime. Yet, in the early twentieth century the area was economically depressed. Things got worse with the world-wide depression of the 1930s. This was the working class East End, home to significant immigrant communities, including a large Jewish community. In the 1930s, the scene was set for ugly confrontations between Oswald Mosley’s pro-Hitler, proto-fascist ‘Blackshirts’, and anti-fascist groups. This struggle culminated on 4th October, 1936 when Jewish, Socialist and Communist groups joined with Trade Unionists and Irish dockers to block a march by Mosley’s British Union of Fascists through the East End. The ensuing bloody confrontation became known as the Battle of Cable Street.

Mural commemorating the Battle of Cable Street, London, England

Mural commemorating the Battle of Cable Street, London, England

The Second World War brought wholesale destruction to Wapping from German bombing. In 1945, Wapping was devastated. It remained run-down and derelict until the 1980s, when, not coincidentally, two things happened: Margret Thatcher’s government set up a Development Corporation to regenerate the area; and Rupert Murdoch moved News International (owner of four British newspapers) to a new headquarters in Wapping. Murdoch’s move was designed to crush the power of the printing unions. As if mimicking the conflict of the 1930s, fierce battles were waged in the streets of Wapping between strikers and police. After a year of strikes and dispute the unions lost.

Nineteenth century warehouse now luxury apartments, Wapping, River Thames, London, England

Nineteenth century warehouse now luxury apartments, Wapping, River Thames, London, England

Today Wapping is a Thatcherite dream come true. Within sight of Tower Bridge, regeneration had pumped money into the area: former warehouses to the Empire are now ‘luxury’ apartments occupied by bankers and finance executives; glitzy restaurants have mushroomed. You don’t have to look too far to find entrenched poverty amidst the new-found glamour, but that was never part of the Thatcherite narrative.

House boats near Tower Bridge, River Thames, London, England

House boats near Tower Bridge, River Thames, London, England

Tower Bridge, London, England

Tower Bridge, London, England

If there is one area of London that charts the city’s history, it must be this stretch of the River Thames…and that’s even before mentioning Tower Bridge.