diamond geezer

 Monday, November 23, 2020

Random City of London ward (4): Queenhithe

My fourth random ward is also the smallest, indeed it may be the UK's tiniest electoral district. Queenhithe covers a mere 10 acres, plus an adjacent slice of the River Thames, and is one of the oldest parts of the capital. What's more you've all been there, as I shall attempt to demonstrate with this photograph of the ward taken from inside the ward... [pdf map]

Queenhithe itself is the City's oldest dock, thought to have been used by the Romans and definitely by the Saxons (who established a market alongside). The queen who gave her name to the dock was Matilda, the wife of Henry I, who was granted duties on all the goods landed here. For centuries that meant corn, later furs and leathers, but being upstream of London Bridge caused most of Queenhithe's trade to decline and it's been some time since boats last unloaded. What remains is the City of London's last surviving inlet, a clinkery slope exposed at low tide with damp timber posts to either side.

In 2014 a splendid mosaic was created along the harbour wall depicting two millennia of Queenhythe's history. It's both comprehensive and gorgeous, ranging from Roman chariots to the Diamond Jubilee barge, so you'll be pleased to know The Gentle Author has captured the full 20m length on his blog so you can ogle it from the comfort of home. It's not the prettiest of locations in real life, other than the cobbles down the street, the ancient inlet now overrun by a flurry of modern blocks in various shades of brown - one residential, one offices and the other a forthcoming hotel. The only positive to the opening of the 220-room Westin London City is that it'll open up the waterfront, finally ending the need for the Thames Path to make a miserable inward diversion.

The ward of Queenhithe stretches along 300m of waterfront and no more than the length of a football pitch inland. The riverside was once all wharves and warehouses, plus intermittent access to the Thames down narrow alleyways. A couple of these survive, in name if not in atmosphere. Stew Lane extends past ventilation grilles and fire exits to the Samuel Pepys public house, beyond which a vertiginous ladder descends to the foreshore. Gardiners Lane is little more than a service road terminating at some smelly bins. As for Trig Lane this has been entirely relocated, now parallel to the river, to provide access to some fairly hideous 1980s blocks of flats. Despite its diminutive size Queenhithe is actually one of the City's four most populous residential wards, making up in property prices what it lacks in charm.

Only two pre-war buildings survive inside the ward, one a church and one a bit of a church. The latter was St Mary Somerset, rebuilt by Wren but whose congregation had dwindled so much by the 1860s that it was almost all demolished. The tower stands alone at the foot of Lambeth Hill, since reworked into a private home, and surrounded by a strip of box-hedged garden whose gingkos are shedding vivid yellow leaves at present. The church that remains in service, so to speak, is St Benet Paul's Wharf. It too was at risk of demolition but Queen Victoria gifted it to the Welsh Anglican congregation who (normally) worship here in their mother tongue. It's also Wren's last unmodified City church and, amid a redevelopment maelstrom, somehow still surrounded on three sides by an inclined cobbled cul-de-sac.

The road which divides Queenhithe ward in two is Upper Thames Street, which was rebuilt as a major arterial thoroughfare in the late 1960s. It's so divisive it's been spanned by a couple of the City's iconic pedways, one a fifty year-old original, the other a more recent addition. The land drops away so steeply that what was ground level at one of Fyefoot Lane is three staircases above the roadway at the other, with a dizzying drop. The pedway at the foot of Little Trinity Lane is more curvaceous and less lofty, but seemingly requires a reassuring message that "users may detect slight vibrations while crossing" but "the structural safety of the bridge is unaffected".

Upper Thames Street disappears into a bleak box tunnel to continue its passage across the ward. A row of adjacent portals suggests a quadruple bore, but only the central pair eventually connect through to the Embankment. High Timber Street swiftly hits a gloomy dead end where service vehicles hide, and Castle Baynard Street has been acquired for the benefit of the East-West Cycleway as an exhaust-free express route. I'd always been put off entering by the No pedestrians sign, but it turns out this only applies to the middle two tunnels and walking along Castle Baynard Street is unnerving but permitted.

The tunnel also takes you underneath Queenhithe's most significant building, the City of London School. This independent fee-paying establishment educates 800 boys with moneyed parents (and is partnered with the girls' school at the Barbican). It moved here in 1986 - the ebullient brickwork very much of the era - squeezed into a riverside site with a trenchful of vehicles concealed between the classrooms on the lower two floors. It must be an astonishing location to spend your schooldays, as did Daniel Radcliffe, although its three football pitches have to be supplemented with a sports centre a coachride away in Grove Park.

But as I said at the beginning, the reason you've most likely visited the area is on a walk from St Paul's to Tate Modern. Queenhithe begins at the traffic lights by the Sally Army HQ, and continues along a familiar broad walkway with the school on the right hand side. Within 90 seconds you're at the start of the Millennium Bridge, where two staircases (and an inclined lift) lead down to the riverside walk. But you'll have continued above the water along the slender suspended thread, and that was Queenhithe too, all the way out to the halfway point where Southwark officially begins. With far fewer tourists than usual to block your selfie, it's the perfect time to visit.

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