Quiet and unassuming, this serene slice of London is in fact bursting with historical treasures.
Situated on a peninsula on the south bank of the Thames, Rotherhithe is the yin to the Isle of Dogs’ yang; a stalagmitic landmass protruding into the river and one that has long been on my to-do list. Rotherhithe effortlessly fulfils both my formal criteria (outside of Zone 1; on the Tube Map) and informal preferences (peculiar name; topographically diverse), but also has that special ingredient: intrigue. How could I know so little about an area within touching distance of central London?
Before my trip, I’d only heard of Rotherhithe because of its tunnel, which seems to be an omnipresent feature on radio travel reports (‘heavy congestion in the Rotherhithe Tunnel’; ‘never-ending tailbacks from the Rotherhithe Tunnel; ‘caravan party in the Rotherhithe Tunnel’); it’s a surprise that anyone dares use it. But, evidently, they do – too much.
On arriving at the station, it was this engineering feat – opened in 1908 – that greeted me. However, I soon learnt that another underpass holds pride of place in these ends: the Thames Tunnel. Completed 65 years earlier, the Thames Tunnel was not only London’s first underwater thoroughfare, but the world’s. It was even dubbed the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ when completed.
Unsurprisingly, engineers encountered a slew of problems during its construction (more flooding than funding being just one of them), but if there was one person who could see the project through, it would be the best-named Briton of all time: Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
From steamships to railways, dockyards to bridges, Brunel’s ingenuity transformed these Isles; the Thames Tunnel was his first engineering project. A museum dedicated to it resides within the engine room of the Tunnel, five minutes’ walk from Rotherhithe station.
The museum was a potentially reasonable £6 to enter, but with a full day ahead of me, I decided it would be best to explore the surrounding garden and come back later on. I was glad I did, not least because the garden comes complete with a monkey puzzle (my favourite tree; if you don’t have a favourite tree yourself, I’d recommend this one), a Knights of the Round Table sculpture and a plaque dedicated to the feats of Marc Brunel – surely Isambard was not a made-up name?
Concerned, I set off down a cobbled street and soon came to the uniquely-named St Mary’s Parish Church, whose congregation had seen fit to erect a slide amongst the gravestones. Thoughts of the congregation addressing an existential question through the contrasting symbolism of youth and death swirled around my mind, but they were clearly not that insightful, as I can’t recall them now.
I continued past the Rotherhithe Watch House – a former base for parish constables in the early 19th century (now a minuscule café) – and the Grade II listed Hope (Sufferance) Wharf, before coming to the King’s Stairs Gardens: “one of the last remaining riverside parks in London”, don’t you know. Supposedly, King Edward III (whose father was the one killed by that infamous poker) used the stairs to access his manor house in Bermondsey back in the 14th century.
The park may allude to the area’s monarchical connections, but neighbouring Southwark Park is the very essence of a public green space. The 26-acre, Grade II listed park (yes, another listing, I told you Rotherhithe is historic) opened in 1869 and perfectly balances beauty with utility. On the one hand, the people of Rotherhithe are treated to a resplendent 19th century bandstand, an ornamental lake and picturesque gardens, while on the other there are tennis courts, football pitches, a bowls lawn, an art gallery and a café.
Yet, if there was one thing that caught my eye about the park, it was the memorials: the Gardens are dedicated to Ada Salter – a leading advocate of social reform, who was one of the UK’s first ever women councillors and mayors – while a drinking fountain near the bandstand pays homage to temperance activist Jabez West – one of the first public monuments erected in honour of a working-class man in this country. Well done Southwark.
Rotherhithe, as you’d likely expect, is smattered with bodies of water, each with a different use and level of upkeep. Some are filled with reeds, some with rubbish. Some are home to boating communities, some to floating communities. All of them are filled with duck houses. Southwark Council doesn’t employ Sir Peter Viggers does it?
As I walked round one of these large puddles – Greenland Dock – I started to notice a certain homogeneity: the houses looked identical, the streets were carbon copies of each other and everything was named after Scandinavia: Sweden Gate; Norway Gate; Finland Street. Perhaps the Scandinavian connection was testament to the quaint, neatness of the area?
Having almost circumnavigated Greenland Dock, I came to the Moby Dick or ‘da moby’ as the other patrons were calling it. Cosy with sofas overlooking the water, the pub seemed the perfect place to put feeling back in my fingers and food in my belly. Looking at the menu, I was intrigued by the ‘ocean pie’ and duly enquired to its contents. Apparently, that was a stupid question, as the response of ‘fish’ came with a healthy dollop of ridicule and disdain. I ordered a cheese and marmite toastie (£3.50) and a pint of Jack Frost (£3.90).
Leaving the Moby, I soon found myself at the Russia Dock Woodland, which as the name suggests, is an infilled dock-come-park; 90% of Rotherhithe’s docks have been drained since the Second World War. As I contemplated which direction to take through the woodland, a kindly local resident asked if I was lost. After badly explaining that I was sort of lost, but that was sort of my plan, he proceeded to share his views on this ‘changing, but unique’ part of the capital.
Now a ‘blissfully quiet and peaceful’ community, Rotherhithe was the first place to have purpose-built docks for the convenience of London and was the heart of the city’s timber trade in the 19th century – kick-starting the area’s association with arctic nations (besides the street names, Rotherhithe is also home to separate Norwegian, Finnish and Swedish churches, while Nordic architects helped to develop much of the area – I felt vindicated for my earlier thoughts). His favourite spot: ‘Easy. The top of Stave Hill’.
Stave Hill was a short meander through the woodland and, despite its name, is not actually a hill, but an artificial mound that rises 30 feet above the surrounding ecological park. My new friend had told me that ‘you can see the whole of London on a clear day, while at night the lights of Canary Wharf make you feel like you’re in New York’. It was neither a particularly clear day, nor night-time, but his passion for the views were not mis-sold: they were excellent.
From here on, I continued to zig-zag through the peninsula, walking down canals and under bridges until I hit the Thames Path, when I remembered about the Brunel museum, which I was certain I could afford. Yet, as I tried to pay, the honest attendant informed me that I had missed the daily tour of the tunnel and would only be admitted to the museum. In other words, it wasn’t worth it. Instead she gave me a leaflet, which cleared up my earlier concerns about Isambard’s name: Marc was his father. An engineer also, the Thames Tunnel was the only project they worked on together.
As we have already established, historical appetites are easily satisfied in this quarter of London and I continued to fill my boots at the Mayflower pub just beyond the museum. Whether or not the pub’s claim to have been the “favoured Inn” of the Mayflower’s captain, Christopher Jones, is true, there is no doubt that the infamous Pilgrim Ship – immortalised in the annals of American History – began its epic voyage to New England (via Southampton and Plymouth) at Rotherhithe port. The pub also claims to date back to the 17th century and its interior – cluttered, cramped and illuminated by a crackling fire – certainly helps to capture the essence of the epoch.
I ordered a pint of Mayflower Scurvy Ale (£4.10), sat on the jetty and listened to the Thames sloshing under my feet, thinking about the continuous, but varied, importance of Rotherhithe throughout the ages. It was then that I realised I still didn’t know the etymology behind Rotherhithe: it’s Anglo-Saxon for ‘landing-place for cattle’. If you say it out loud, it’s almost onomatopoeic; it’s certainly lovely.
Cost: £11.50 (£17.50 if you take in the Thames Tunnel tour)