Garden Barge Square

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Last weekend I visited some floating gardens on the Thames, as part of the annual Open Garden Squares Weekend. Garden Barge Square – also known as the Floating Barge Gardens – is built across the top of a number of boats on the Downings Roads Moorings, which boasts a pretty spectacular backdrop in the form of Tower Bridge.

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There have been moorings in this area – close to the old Jacob’s Island site – for around 200 years or so, though the gardens themselves are a relatively new innovation having first appeared in the late 1990s. I was surprised to learn that the moorings’ continued existence is only due to a vigorous fight against moves by Southwark Council to shut it down in 2003 and 2004. But clearly that’s another story…

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I regularly catch boats past these gardens but had no idea just how extensive they were until I ventured onboard. There are trees up here! Much of the gardens are built across the top of the barges in metal trenches on either side of central pathways. The various boats are then connected via a series of walkways and bridges. It’s very easy to forget that you are walking right across the top of someone’s boat – which is often their home as well, with over 70 people residing or having a studio on the 30+ boats moored here.

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The waters along the Thames here are very rocky – much more so than on canals or marinas. You will definitely find yourself swaying with the motion for some time after you get back to dry land. The good news is that once you get over the initial narrow walkway that leads to the barges you feel much more secure in the garden areas themselves.

And it’s worth it to visit this unique environment, though you’ll have to wait for the next Open Garden Squares event, scheduled for June 14th and 15th 2014. In the meantime, a good view of the barges can be gained from the Thames Path around Bermondsey Wall West.

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Thames beachcombing

It’s amazing what you can find along the Thames. The Londonphile has been beachcombing around Rotherhithe and is developing quite a collection of blue and white china. The Thames foreshore is truly a treasure trove, and the best part is that it is constantly being refreshed as the tide washes in and out twice a day, both bringing with it new items and revealing new finds as the water rolls back. I collected the items above over just two short trips to the foreshore at Rotherhithe (along stretches near the Mayflower pub and Surrey Docks Farm respectively). Here are a few more photos of what I have found so far:

I particularly like the pattern on this one:

This one has almost – not quite – washed away; possibly it’s an older piece:

These pieces are tiny (around two centimetres) but come out well in a photograph (if I do say so myself):

But it’s not just about blue and white – here are some brown and cream items:

Clay pipes are also a popular find along the Thames. These can date as far back as the 16th century and were indeed used for smoking. Jane from Jane’s London makes jewellery out of clay pipes she finds along the Thames. Here are some pipe stems I found:

If you want to do your own spot of treasure-hunting you should check the tide times to determine when there will be a low tide – the lower the tide the better as more of the foreshore is exposed. BBC Weather has a webpage showing tide tables for London, which I think are easier to understand than the one published by the London Port Authority. I would also recommend some hardy gloves, wellies (or at least sensible shoes – the mud can be surprisingly thick) and a bag for finds. Just remember that while you can pick up anything from the surface (i.e. without any digging, scraping or lifting or rocks) without a licence, if you do find anything that may be of archaeological value this must be reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme Finds Liaison Officer at the Museum of London on  020 7814 5733 or flo@museumoflondon.org.uk.

If you don’t feel like going it alone there are a number of groups that run organised walks or fossicking tours along the Thames. Thames Discovery and Thames Explorer Trust run a number of archaeology and beachcombing walks on various sites along the Thames. I wrote about Thames Discovery’s Rotherhithe Winter Walk earlier this year; the Thames Explorer Trust will hold a free Custom House Walk on Friday 22nd June 2012, 9:30am to 11:30am – there are currently seven places left so be quick! Keep an eye on Thames Discovery’s Events page as new walks are listed regularly. London Walks also hold Thames Mudlarking walks guided by an archaeologist. The Surrey Docks Farm holds irregular foraging sessions along their foreshore – there will be one this Sunday 10th June at midday – no booking is required and it’s free.

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.