diamond geezer

 Wednesday, August 15, 2018


A fifth crossing of the Thames brings the 51½° line of latitude south of the river for the last time. That means Southwark, and a lot of Rotherhithe and Bermondsey, as we close in on central London. [map] [photos]

Surrey Docks City Farm   [51.5°N 0.034°W]
I'm too old to have a favourite city farm, but this delightful farmyard slams in high on my non-existent list. It's been here by the riverside since 1986, before which the site has been a shipyard, timber yard and a receiving station for smallpox patients. It's easy to slip in from the Thames Path, by the herb garden, but most parents and very small children enter via the main gates on Rotherhithe Street. There is an unmistakeable whiff of livestock just before you head inside. It's amazing how much has been crammed in, including a central yard where you pet the goats, a duckpond, a blacksmith's forge and a small orchard (please do not pick the loganberries).

Animals kept along the 51½°N line include Alice and Hermione the donkeys, who give rides to those of small enough stature, and Rupert, Winnie and Marmalade the Oxford Sandy and Black pigs. A path laid with mosaics leads round the back of their pens to the Muck Heap, which might explain that whiff earlier, passing the Youth Allotments where a crew of young locals grow flowers and veg in raised beds. One of these children was proudly telling her Mum about all the good work she'd been doing with the farm animals that morning, and pointing out her sweetcorn of which she was evidently very proud. The sunflowers are coming on particularly nicely. And don't forget to wash your hands before you leave.

We don't quite get to pass Stave Hill, one of London's largest artificial hills, which is a shame because it's the only elevated bit of land for miles with an actual view. But we do cross Russia Dock Woodland, which is one of the original Surrey Docks filled in to create an ecological buffer, with tiny meandering paths amongst the trees, a wider recreational space, some very keen volunteers and a few old wharfside rails thrown in for good measure.

Albion Channel   [51.5°N 0.046°W]
I wanted to stop off somewhere in the old Surrey Docks to take the temperature of the 80s redevelopment, so picked this artificial waterway running across its heart. Originally this was Albion Dock, one of a labyrinth of ten, and the edge of the docks can still be seen as the higher of the two paths along the eastern side. Most of the rest was filled in to create a place the LDDC hoped people would want to live, and they've been proved right. What's striking is the variety of styles, from pointy-topped stacks to sweeping curved crescents, with red brick flourishes and primary-coloured window frames for added interest, and what's also striking is how not-very highrise the development is. These days they'd have crammed far more people in, indeed down at Canada Water they're doing just that, and nobody gets to live alongside a duck-topped iridescent green channel, more's the pity.

Rotherhithe Tunnel   [51.5°N 0.053°W]
I was worried when I saw that the 51½th parallel crossed the Rotherhithe Tunnel, because I've walked through this polluted tube once and once was enough. But it all turned out fine because the relevant slice is out in the open, on the gentle descent from the roundabout, not far from the huge gates that slam shut to read 'Tunnel' 'Closed'. A slew of signs along the glazed tiled wall warn incoming drivers what they should, must and absolutely cannot do for the next zigzag mile. Breaking down is strongly unrecommended. I love that the Edwardians laid a pavement along both sides of the carriageway, but 21st century pedestrians shouldn't expect to be able to cross from one side to the other as the flow of two-way 20mph traffic never stops.

Two church towers rise above the approach ramp, both belonging to Scandinavian places of worship, and originally built for the benefit of seamen. The one with a copper spire atop what looks like a town hall is the Sjømannskirken, a Norwegian Church Abroad, and gives its name to neighbouring St Olav's Square. The one that looks like a firefighters' practice tower is the one we're interested in, because it's on the right line of latitude, and that's the Finlands Sjömanskyrka, or Finnish Church. It looks very much like a small block of flats, but if you ever get inside (say for the annual Christmas Fair) it resembles a modern and rather compact school hall. These days the seamen are long gone, and both the old pubs bookending the shopping parade opposite have closed down, and [insert usual comment about how fast London changes].

King Edward III's Manor House   [51.5°N 0.059°W]
Another direct hit, and our first ancient monument. Edward III built a moated property here around 1350, when this was merely a watermeadow, with a gatehouse facing the Thames to allow him to come and go by boat. Nobody's entirely sure why he picked the hamlet of Rotherhithe, but falconry's the likeliest reason. By the 16th century river access had been lost and the manor house went private, becoming a pottery, then partially warehouses, then was entirely demolished in the 1970s other than a few foundations. These now sit at the centre of a sparse lawn, the indentation of the former moat clearly visible, watched over by an astonishingly mundane terrace of Southwarky housing. Better known is The Angel pub, a much more likely destination for those walking by, which dates back to the 17th century, not the 14th (when this particular bit of land was in the river). Best place on today's walk for a Thames view, this, on the outside of the final bend before the Pool of London.

Dockhead   [51.5°N 0.072°W]
I'm pausing here, on Jamaica Road, because something's changed. For the first 12 miles of my journey I don't think the line of 51.5°N crossed a single house or dwelling place that was more than 50 years old. Partly that's because of the quirkiness of the line travelled, but mainly because estuarine London wasn't particularly development-friendly until relatively recently. But here on the Dickens Estate the five-storey LCC blocks are of 1930s vintage, at the extremity of the SE1 postcode, and are built on the site of the infamous Jacob's Island rookery. Dockhead also has the first shopping parade I've come across since starting out, which boasts an art gallery, an organic cafe and a quality dry cleaners amongst its semi-gentrified line-up. Two of the shopkeepers are out front chatting, because for much of the week nobody's really interested. The doors of Most Holy Trinity RC Church are firmly bolted. Shad Thames isn't far away. It feels like we've finally hit the city.

Maltby Street Market   [51.5°N 0.077°W]
Oh. My. Word. I have somehow never managed to be here at the weekend before, and I am unprepared for the seething crush on the far side of what looks like a quiet railway viaduct. A few of the arches on the Druid Street side provide clues, like the hairnetted lady from the St John's Bakery selling doughnuts and three quid Eccles Cakes fresh from ovens under the railway. But it's on the other side, along the narrow Rope Walk, that the foodie herd squish to enjoy the very best in everything Time Out adores. Some sellers serve out of the arches themselves, perhaps dispensing gin, raclette or beefsteak. The majority serve from little stalls, griddling while you watch or unpacking from coolboxes stashed underneath. It is rammed.

The clientele is mixed, but mainly young, the occasionally gymbod leading his parents into the melee to source something with noodles. At the Cheese Truck a grilled stilton, bacon and pear chutney sandwich costs an amount with the trailing zero missing. Craft beer is big. An acrid smell sparks the alleyway. Only the central section has tables, and they're all taken, so latecomers juggle their way to the council estate car park at the far end holding a plastic trayful in one hand and a cup of tinkered juice in the other. Not everyone's pleased. "I can't believe they charged £6 for this and skimped on the chicken," joshes one lad to his mates, But most have the look of regulars about them, Maltby Street being where they kick off their weekend to ensure it isn't wasted.

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