The Leaning Tower of Rotherhithe

It stands in supreme isolation, alone along this little stretch of the river, like a mouth with but a single tooth. How many travellers along the Thames must have wondered about this funny, narrow little building in Rotherhithe? In fact, the Leaning Tower of Rotherhithe – as it is apparently known locally – was one of several buildings in the area owned by Braithwaite & Dean, a barge company. They were a lighterage firm – lighters being flat-bottomed barges – and their lightermen moved goods between ships and quays (not to be confused with watermen, who carried passengers). This building was their office – and already tilting back in those days – where lightermen would pull up in their boats to collect their wages.

Once this whole stretch of the riverside was covered with buildings, mostly related to shipping, with a few public houses thrown in for good measure. You can see a Museum of London photograph of the area (commissioned by the Port of London Authority as part of their ten-mile panoramic documentation of the river) from 1937 here. The buildings to the west of our leaning tower were purchased in 1939 by Bermondsey Council, who planned to demolish them to build a garden. The Blitz then finished off any work that they had begun to this end.

To the east of the building stood what has been described as ‘a once absurdly picturesque row of largely wooden tenements…seedy in the extreme but vibrantly populated in the 1950s by a bohemian set of artists and writers’. Lord Snowdon lived along this row in a former coal store and is said to have met with Princess Margaret here, as well as hosting celebrities such as Marlene Dietrich and Noel Coward (who entertained him on the piano in his studio flat). In around 1960 he lent his room to John Betjeman (as you do) when his house burnt down.

Betjeman described his time here as ‘the most restful few months I had ever spent in London’, during which he enjoyed the ‘tremendous view’, including that of ‘the wharves and Georgian brick buildings of Wapping’ across the way. He moved the bed to the river-side of the room, going ‘to sleep to the solacing sounds of water’. At low tide he would listen to the sound of the waves rippling over the pebbles below, and described how at high tide ‘after a tug had passed the water made a plopping sound right against my bedroom wall as thought I were in a ship’s hold’. Until the Thames Barrier was built this whole area was of course subject to the risk of flooding; Braithwaite & Dean’s offices were flooded in 1953.

The remains of Edward III’s manor house nearby.

Despite a campaign by both Betjeman and Snowdon, the rather romantic-sounding row of buildings to the east was also pulled down by the local council after being condemned as a health hazard during the 1960s. It’s not known exactly why this particular structure was allowed to remain. It is not of any particular architectural value, though perhaps it was its brickwork that saved it, as many of the other buildings were wooden so arguably less sound structures. The King’s Stairs Gardens were then created here, and contain the remains of what is thought to be King Edward III’s manor house, circa 1353, uncovered by a Museum of London dig in the 1980s. Braithwaite & Dean stayed on in the leaning tower until the early 1990s, and it is now a (very) private residence.

The house is located at the very end of Fulford Street (you can’t miss it!), roughly equidistant between Bermondsey tube station and Rotherhithe overground station. The photograph taken from across the river was shot (with a zoom lens) from Wapping’s Waterside Gardens.

Advertisements

Thames archaeology walks

Not content with being a river that has inspired artists and writers and other creative types across the ages, the Thames is also an amazing archaeological site – when the tide rolls back and allows its treasures to be revealed. In fact, at low tide it becomes London’s longest open-air archaeological site. As I am also a huge Thames-phile, doing a Thames archaeology walk has been on my to-do list for some time now, so last weekend I took the opportunity to go on the Thames Discovery Programme’s Rotherhithe Winter Walk.

Elliott Wragg led us on this ramble from Rotherhithe to Bermondsey – an area that was long associated with ships and ship building. And sure enough, we were immediately able to locate a number of nautical remnants, such as anchors, rudders, and ship timbers that have been re-used to form a slipway. Sadly, due to rapidly increasing erosion more and more of these items are being revealed – good for archaeology, not such a good portent for the environment.

Elliott also taught us how to ‘read’ the various areas along the river bed. When you look closely you realise that certain areas have a preponderance of say, glass, where there would have once been a glass foundry (or maybe just a pub!), or pieces of old leather and shoes where a shoe factory was based. You can also find a large number of bricks along the foreshore in this area that are actually the remains of bomb damage from the Second World War, when the dock areas were heavily hit.

Thames Discovery also have a Putney Winter Walk coming up on Saturday 11th February, which will explore the Putney foreshore (free but donations welcome). If a spot of mudlarking (i.e. hunting for treasures along the river bed) takes your fancy, you may prefer the Thames Explorer Trust’s Millennium Bridge Walks (suitable for families and £8 for adults, £5 children), where the hunt is on for pipes and pottery (dates are currently scheduled for March and April). Alternatively, London Walks run Thames Beachcombing sessions (also guided by an archaeologist), on weekends when the tide permits (dates are currently scheduled up until the end of April, places are £8).

The Thames foreshore was almost deserted apart from our group on this fine (but admittedly rather crisp!) winter morning. In the nineteenth century the Thames was London’s premiere playground, with people piling onto boats for cruises and parties. I think it’s time we re-claimed the Thames, so come summer let the river become your own walking trail, beach  – and archaeological site. In the meantime, there are always these walks to consider:

Putney Winter Walk:
http://www.thamesdiscovery.org/events/putney-winter-walk 

Millennium Bridge Walks:
http://www.thamesdiscovery.org/events/millennium-bridge-walks

London Walks Thames Beachcombing:
http://www.walks.com/London_Walks_Home/Thames_Beachcombing_/default.aspx#20695 

Behind-the-scenes Tower Bridge tour

Ever wanted to see behind-the-scenes at Tower Bridge – you know, all those things mere mortals normally never get to see – and learn about how it all works? If so, the new year has rung in a real treat for you, as the good people at the bridge are opening it up for special engineering tours in January and March 2012.

Visitors will be able to see normally restricted areas, such as the bridge control room, the huge bascule chambers underneath the river bed, and the machinery room where the hydraulics that power the lifting of the bridge are found. And one lucky person will win a competition to raise the bridge at a future date (me, please).

I’m advised that the January tours have already sold out, so be quick for the March dates, which will run every Saturday and Sunday throughout the month. The tours, which will also include the normally accessible areas of the bridge, last 1.5 hours and cost £30. To arrange you must email enquiries@towerbridge.org.uk, stating your name/s, full contact and address details and preferred dates.

The Londonphile is already booked in for the 4th March, so you’ll be hearing all about it after then…

http://www.towerbridge.org.uk/TBE/EN/NewsAndEvents/Engineering+Tour.htm

Drake’s steps

One of the things that never ceases to amaze me about London is the amount of significant historical sights that go completely uncelebrated. Call it an abundance of historical detritus if you like. An excellent example of this is Drake’s steps. Everyone knows the concept of a (gentle)man laying down his coat for a lady to walk across a puddle unhampered. Well this very concept originated at Drake’s steps – now just an uncommemorated set of steps leading to the Thames at Deptford.

Drake’s galleon, The Golden Hinde (a reconstruction of which you can now visit near London Bridge), was moored at Deptford when he received his knighthood in 1581. When Queen Elizabeth I visited to bestow the honour onboard, Sir Walter Raleigh placed his coat down at the top of these stairs to keep her feet dry, pretty much marking himself out for all time as the archetypal gentleman.

A small plaque commemorating the victualling yards in the area, well after Drake’s time, and another to Drake’s endeavours at sea is all that marks out this place. Sometimes the gates are left open – on my last visit they were held together with a flimsy piece of rope. You can find this uncelebrated corner of London’s history along the Thames in Deptford, just above Conroy’s Wharf. It’s nowhere near a tube – the closest would be Surrey Quays, a good twenty-minute walk – but you can take the 199 bus from Canada Water station to the third stop on Grove Street.

Go underground at the Brunel Museum

Looking for something different to do on Christmas Eve? Well how about spending it underground. OK, maybe not the whole day, but if you head to Rotherhithe’s Brunel Museum you can be entertained in the Christmas spirit (including stories, decorations and prismatic reflectors) in the underground Entrance Hall to the old Thames Tunnel. This is a massive underground space (half the size of the Globe Theatre) that you enter via a tunnel and staircase.

When the Thames Tunnel was first opened in 1843 it was the first tunnel in the world to travel underneath a river. It was heralded as the Eighth Wonder of the World, and over one million people payed a penny for the pleasure of walking under the river in its first ten weeks. Today it still links Rotherhithe and Wapping via the Overground network. Normally visits to the shaft are only conducted via guided tours run twice a week in partnership with London Walks, which includes a longer tour of the surrounding area.

Thames Tunnel Entrance Hall, photo courtesy of The Brunel Museum

The Underground Christmas event now has the following dates left: Sunday 18th December at 12 noon, and Saturday 24th December at 2pm, 3pm and 4pm, and the £5  ticket also includes entrance to the Museum. No bookings are required, and you can find the Museum directly behind the Rotherhithe Underground Station. The Londonphile has this in the diary for the 24th! This looks to be becoming an annual event so if you can’t make it this year maybe it’s one for 2012.

For Brunel Museum details see:
http://www.brunel-museum.org.uk/index.aspx

For details on the London Walks tour mentioned see:
http://www.walks.com/London_Walks_Home/Tuesdays_Walks/default.aspx#22895

UPDATE: This tour turned out to be a real gem. While the 2pm and 4pm sessions appeared to be quite busy, I attended the 3pm session which was composed of just four people. We were regaled with fascinating stories of the lost world of the Thames Tunnel, from its construction to its heyday and subsequent decline. My understanding of this site as the birthplace of the modern subway system (and hence the modern city) and as the world’s first underwater shopping mall (as well as a bit of a den of iniquity) has been much enhanced! Go down if you can!

And you have just been granted another opportunity to do so as there will be two openings in January 2012. On Wednesday 11th January and Sunday 15th January at 12:00 p.m. you can again descend into the chamber (without the stories this time). £5 including museum entry – no need to book, just turn up on the day.

http://www.brunel-museum.org.uk/events/greatescape.aspx