This is another entry in my series of walks, for those visitors to London who would like to get off the beaten track, yet still immerse themselves in the history of the city. This starts in the area where I originally grew up, and then lived in for a second time, from 1985-1997. Many tourists and visitors enjoy a trip to Tower Bridge. They can look across to The Tower of London, gaze along the river, see City Hall, and the nearby park. But how many venture further east, delving into the working-class past of this part of south London?
This guide to a walk of discovery should provide a nice diversion for the interested traveller, and makes for a nice morning or afternoon, ending at a familiar place that has good transport links, and lots to do once you get there. The dockland area featured in this post has seen a great deal of transformation since my youth, yet the spirit of the past is in every step, and historical sights and buildings are there to be found, along with breathtaking views across the river, to the modern development of Canary Wharf, and some very old districts too. Links will be provided at the end.
Start the journey by taking an underground train to Surrey Quays Station. This is in Zone 2, on the East London Line. Exit the station onto the main road, and opposite, you will see the large retail development, Surrey Quays Shopping Centre. Cross at the traffic lights, and walk north onto Redriff Road. You are now in the place that was once home to the huge Surrey Commercial Docks complex, where ships from all over the world were unloaded. After the relocation of this work to Tilbury, in 1969, the docks were abandoned, until extensively developed by the London Docklands Development Corporation, in the 1980s. Walking on the right-hand side of the road, the first thing of interest that you happen across is the Dockers’ Shelter. Many dock workers had to wait each day to be given a tally, entitling them to a day’s work on the docks. These casual employees would shelter from the weather under this construction. It features a mural, highlighting the history of that trade.
Continue along Redriff Road, until you pass Norway Gate on your right. The road name now changes to Salter Road. Take the next right, into Rotherhithe Street, and bear left. On the next bend, you will see an open space, and the entrance to The Surrey Docks Urban farm. This is a valuable local resource, teaching inner-city children about farm animals, and providing a classroom for school trips too. The farm is open seven days a week, and entry is free. Walking along Rotherhithe Street, you will see a mixture of social housing that has been home to generations of south Londoners. As this existed at the time when the docks were still thriving, and was accessed by bridges, some of it is unchanged. The change in the law that enabled tenants to buy and sell their homes has brought many new arrivals, but the feel of the area has changed little since my young days, playing around the dockside. These contrast starkly with the many converted warehouses and luxury wharf-side developments, sold at prices far beyond the reach of ordinary local people.
Coming up on your right is the restored Columbia Wharf. There is a modern Hilton Hotel here, and access to Nelson Dock Pier. This was once a riverboat stop, (and might be still) and it offers great views of the Canary Wharf complex, just across the river. Squeezed in between converted warehouses, you won’t miss the timber-framed black and white facade of the pub The Blacksmith’s Arms, a little further on. This traditional drinking establishment also serves food, (until 15.00) and has an outdoor garden too. The interior is unchanged since the 1930s, and provides a real feel of what a London pub should be. Carrying on, now heading west, you will come to Lavender Pond Nature Reserve, which will be to your left. This small reserve is managed by Southwark Council, and is something of a refuge from the dense housing that surrounds it. The park was also home to the Pumphouse Museum, now sadly closed. The pond was originally used for floating the wood that arrived at the docks, to stop it drying too quickly.
Keep going until the street opens out, near the junction with Salter Road once again. You will see an old bridge across an inlet, and to your right, the modern pub/restaurant called The Old Salt Quay. The upstairs bar and terrace offer uninterrupted views of the river, and across to the district of Wapping, in east London. You can see the river frontage of the famous pub, The Prospect of Whitby, as well as the home base of the River Police. In the distance, to the west, is Tower bridge, and this is an ideal place to stop for a drink and watch the water traffic, or just enjoy the view. After your rest, (or not) continue along the old street. There are some modern housing developments on both sides, as well as the old terraced houses that have been there for decades. Some people also live on houseboats moored alongside, with footbridges giving them access to the land.
You will soon arrive at one of the oldest parts, an area that looks like something unchanged for centuries, even allowing for the modern conversion of the old warehouses. To your right, you will see the tiny pub, The Mayflower. This old building is worth a look, even if you don’t want to eat or drink there, as it is more than 400 years old, and retains many original features. It is a popular tourist destination still, despite its distance from the more visited sites in central London, and some tour groups are actually bussed there, to enjoy the experience. The small jetty overlooking the river at the rear serves as an outdoor space, and can get very crowded in peak season. Opposite the pub, is the church of St Mary The Virgin. This was rebuilt in the early 18th century, but a church has stood here since 1282. It is home to the grave of Christopher Jones. He was the captain of The Mayflower, the ship that took many of the original Pilgrim Fathers to America, in the 17th century. The church is still well-used by the local community, and has many historical connections.
Take the narrow Thames Path as far as Elephant Lane, before turning north, (right) to find the path again. At the junction with Cathay Street, you will see another old pub, The Angel. This riverside pub has some history too, dating back to an original inn in the seventeenth century. The current building was erected in 1830, and is Grade 2 listed. It is a popular pub, serving good food as well as drinks. A narrow outside terrace offers panoramic views along the river. The location also marks the boundary between Rotherhithe, and the adjoining borough, Bermondsey. Turn right, (with your back to The Angel) and you are on Bermondsey Wall East. A short walk will take you to the ruins of the riverside Manor House of Edward III, built in 1353, which will be on your right. An information panel marks the site, which is maintained by English Heritage. At the junction with Cherry Garden Street, turn right to continue along Bermondsey Wall East. On your right, you will see a sign for Cherry Garden Pier. This haunt of my childhood is now a departure point for river cruises, and makes a good spot for photographing the river, The Shard, and Tower Bridge to the west. It is also the site of the grandly-named ‘Bermondsey Beach’, where access to the riverbank reveals sand and stones, and an interesting place to walk, if the tide is out.
After this point, riverside access is restricted. I suggest you walk south along either Cherry Garden Street, or Marigold Street, until your reach the busy Jamaica Road. Turn right, and you will see signposts for London Bridge. Stay on the same side of the road, and walk west for a while. There is not much to see, but at the junction with St James Road, opposite, is the imposing St James Church, a Bermondsey landmark, built in 1829. My parents married here, in 1946. Continuing west, you will pass Dockhead and Mill Street, crossing the River Neckinger to your right as you do so. At the junction with Tooley Street, turn right into Shad Thames. This old street is said by some to be the inspiration for the site of ‘Fagin’s Den’, in the novel ‘Oliver Twist’, and you can still imagine the urchins returning to the place, after a hard day stealing. In truth, Dickens’ almost certainly set the scene in Clerkenwell, as this area is some way from the other places mentioned in the book. The restored iron walkways above, crossing between the former warehouse levels, give an accurate idea of what the whole area would have looked like, in the 19th century. Part of this street was once known as Jacob’s Island, and was a notorious area in those days. There is now an art gallery here, named after it.
At the bend in the road, you will see the Art Deco edifice of The Design Museum to the right. This is a great place to visit, and well-worth the entrance fee. It also has a very good cafe/restaurant inside, and a well-stocked gift shop. Once around the bend, the rest of Shad Thames hosts a variety of restaurants and cafes, from the mainstream coffee bars, to the very expensive; like the marvellous Le Pont de la Tour, where we once enjoyed a family meal. You will be under the south side of Tower Bridge, back on the tourist trail, and able to gaze up at this industrial marvel, the best-known landmark of London. It is accessed by steps from the street, and from there, you can decide whether to continue your journey, or make your way home from one of the nearby stations.
I hope that you get the chance to take this walk one day. You will have been steeped in history, able to take some unusual photographs, and have seen a part of London that is very dear to my heart.
Lavender Pond Nature Park & Reserve