Sunday, 10 September 2017

London Walks: From the Globe to the Mayflower: Bankside, Bermondsey, and Rotherhithe

Recently, I took a walk along the South Bank of the Thames, on the Thames Path. Starting my walk at Blackfriars Station, I quickly passed along Bankside, past the Tate Modern, and soon arrived at the replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. The original Globe was not located here, but somewhere near here. I did not come to see the Globe, however, but a house next to it. 

I had recently read The House by the Thames and the People Who Lived There by Gillian Tindall, a fascinating account of Bankside and its people since medieval times. I have passed the house in question many times before but never took any notice of it. It isn’t a palace, or even a mansion, but a modest residence that has been here since the early 18th century. After reading Tindall’s book, however, I just had to have a look.

What I was most interested in was this plaque on the front of the house:

None of this was true, as Tindall explains in her book. Wren did live for a time in a house nearby that no longer exists. As for Catherine of Aragon, no evidence exists that she slept here, with or without Henry. The house did not exist in 1502. An inn, perhaps, but as Tindall points out, 16th century princesses didn't stay in common inns. 

The claims about Wren and Catherine were fabricated by a mid-twentieth owner of the house, Ludwig Malcolm Munthe. He put up the plaque, perhaps to attract tourists or just to make himself feel important. Despite Tindall’s exposure, the plaque remains to mislead those who bother to read it. Munthe’s fabrication may have had a good result, however. Tindall argues that its faux history may have helped save the house from demolition in the late 1940s, the fate of many nearby old buildings.

Moving on, I passed The Clink, a museum named for the Bishop of Winchester’s prison that existed here from the 12th century to 1781. The Bishop’s Palace was next door, but only part of its foundations remain. A little further on is the Golden Hind, a replica of the ship that Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the world in/on 1577-1580.

Resisting tours, I plowed on past London bridge and the HMS Belfast, a WWII light cruiser, one of only three surviving ships that formed part of the bombardment fleet on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

One of these days I plan to tour it, but not on this occasion. I soon came to City Hall, which looked like it was about to take off into hyperspace, in stark contrast to the extremely earthbound Tower of London across the river.

Just past these monuments to the past, I arrived at iconic Tower Bridge, which looks medieval, but dates from the 1890s, when neo-gothic was the rage.

I recalled the story that the developers of Lake Havasu City, AZ, who bought the previous London Bridge in the 1970s, actually thought Tower Bridge was London Bridge, and were disappointed to learn they had bought a rather dull neoclassical construction. Maybe the story is apocryphal, but many tourists no doubt think of Tower Bridge as London Bridge. Souvenir shops are full of models of the former, but not the latter.

Passing under Tower Bridge, I entered Bermondsey and the Pool of London. The Docklands proper begin here, and for centuries until the 1960s this area would have been chock full of ships coming and going from all points of the globe. The advent of giant container ships ended that world. Just past the Bridge one comes to Butler’s Wharf, a huge Victorian warehouse that has been converted into upscale apartments and restaurants.

At the end of Butler’s Wharf I came to a muddy inlet of warehouses: St. Savior’s Dock, New Concordia Wharf, and Jacob’s Island Pier. 

Readers of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist may recall that it is at Jacob's Island that the villainous Bill Sykes meets his well-deserved end, falling from a roof into the mud, which is still very evident at low tide. Dickens called this area “the filthiest, strangest, and most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London.”

After crossing the inlet on a metal pedestrian bridge, I went through and under a building on the waterfront. For a few blocks here, the Thames Path meanders along Bermondsey Wall West. Here, warehouses that have been converted into luxury apartments, generally obscure the river from view. I passed by the location of a huge new sewer tunnel project, which also obscures the river from view, but which we will be thankful for.

The path soon rejoins the river again at Bermondsey Wall East, near the Angel Pub. I was sorely tempted to enter for a pint, but I resisted and sat for a while on a bench, looking across to Wapping and Execution Dock, where the notorious alleged pirate Captain Kidd was hanged in 1701. A short distance past the Angel I walked through a narrow passage between warehouses (now apartments) linked by overhead bridges (now bedecked with flowering plants). 

Just past these warehouses I entered the historic heart of Rotherhithe and arrived at the quaint Mayflower Pub.

The pub, which dates in part from the 17th century, was later renamed for the famous ship that carried the Pilgrim Fathers (and Mothers/Kids) to Massachusetts in 1620. The ship was from here in Rotherhithe, and several of its owners are buried in St. Mary’s Churchyard across the street. Among them is Christopher Jones, who captained the Mayflower on its voyage to “discover the New World.” At least this is what the plaque on the pub’s front claims.

The plaque reminded me of Munthe’s plaque on the House by the Thames at Bankside. Jones may have voyaged to the “New World” but lots of others had “discovered” it before him. I went inside and discovered the Mayflower pub, enjoying an ale and a delicious lunch scallops and black pudding on avocado. The part about the ales is certainly true.

Leaving the Mayflower while I could still walk, I soon arrived at the Brunel Museum.

The building was originally an engine house designed by Marc Isambard Brunel, the engineer who designed the Thames Tunnel. Completed in 1843, it was the first tunnel ever built under a navigable river. It connects Rotherhithe with Wapping on the north bank of the river and is @1300 feet (396m) in length. The engine house contained pumps to pump water from the tunnel during construction. 

Today, the museum highlights the careers and engineering projects of Marc Brunel and his more famous son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who completed the tunnel after his father’s death. The Thames Tunnel is used today by London Overground trains.

The Brunel Museum is a charitable project, and I would have liked to visit it, but I was running out of time. I made my way to the nearby Rotherhithe Overground Station and so to home. I plan to come back and see more of the fascinating Docklands area.


  1. Cheers from a Wren (Wrenn, curiously, for two generations because of a great aunt's shame over great grandpa Wren's farming profession and drinking habits it sounds like) Interesting walk and story. I long to get to London, a place I have yet to visit!