diamond geezer

 Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Random City of London ward (6): Vintry

My sixth random ward is another riverside district and another with a bridge, this time Southwark. Vintry is the only ward in the City named after one of its Worshipful Companies, the alcohol-loving Vintners. It lies south of Cannon Street, the street, and west of Cannon Street, the station. It's also not especially sightseeingworthy, but I'll do my best. [pdf map]

Let's start with the bridge. Southwark Bridge opened in 1819 in the hope that the public would use a tolled crossing, but instead they carried on using Blackfriars and London Bridges so the City took over its finances. The current bridge is a 1921 replacement and still relatively quiet compared to its neighbours, unless you're on two wheels in which case it can get quite busy. It has splendid lamps and turrets, brightly painted, and a plaque in the centre commemorating the day King George and Queen Mary came to open it.

The large classical building upstream on the City side is an office block called Vintners Place and surrounds Vintners Hall, the Vintners' longstanding home. Who would have guessed that having the freedom to trade wine without a licence in medieval times would have made them extremely rich, even if their privileges have been drastically cut back over the years and they now spend a lot of time promoting 'wine education'. Peculiarly they're also one of the two livery companies responsible for upping the Queen's swans, which normally takes place in July but was cancelled this summer for the very first time. A bronze statue across the road depicts a staid-looking Barge Master and a swan looking pointedly towards his groin.

The Vintners' riverside frontage is a narrow path called Three Barrels Walk - architecturally a collision between 1st century Rome and the 1990s. A gold plaque recalls that the Worshipful Company of Fruiterers used to be based here in Worcester House during Tudor times, but it turns out there's a lot less money in flogging fruit than flogging wine so they no longer have a hall, let alone a set of luxury conferencing facilities. But they are still commemorated in the dark pedestrian subway beneath Southwark Bridge which is called Fruiterers Passage, titter ye not, and whose tiles depict engravings of ye olde Thames.

This riverside path continues as Three Cranes Walk and then enters a protected raised walkway across the front of Walbrook Wharf. This, unexpectedly, is where the City of London disposes of its rubbish. Every so often the walkway closes and a sturdy travelling crane lifts containerfuls of refuse across onto the decks of a waiting barge, or unloads the empties in the opposite direction. The operators try to avoid bringing the barrier down between noon and 2pm unless the tide is high.

The alley alongside the loading zone enters a thoroughly gloomy service road buried beneath a dreary building. On one side is the depot where Veolia trucks drop off their smelly cargo, plus a backdoor into the office block where several of the City Corporation's penpushers are based. On the opposite side is the entrance ramp to an NCP basement car park and further down is the Little Ship Club, formed in 1926 by City sailors in need of somewhere to socialise in the winter months. Calling this operational bunker Bell Wharf Lane feels entirely anachronistic.

The only church in Vintry is St James Garlickhythe, a Wren rebuild with a Hawksmoor steeple. During the Middle Ages Garlickhythe was the quay where garlic was unloaded, because it seems the English have long had a taste for the stuff. The cobbled lane behind is still called Garlick Hill, and is far less quaint than it sounds like it ought to be. Parallel Queen Street is far grander, once a triumphant thoroughfare leading from Southwark Bridge towards the Guildhall but more recently requisitioned as a cycleway. Again pre-war buildings are rare, but if you stand in the right spot in Cloak Lane you can see a K2 kiosk and a pair of fine 18th century townhouses.

Not all postwar buildings are drab, of course. The former HQ of Crédit Lyonnais at 30 Cannon Street is a triangular triumph, its tiered facade iced like a Bake-Off patisserie showstopper. Two blocks back is Bracken House, built for the Financial Times in the 1950s and reoccupied by the newspaper last year after three decades in a characterless bunker the other side of Southwark Bridge. It flies salmon-pink flags from its rooftop and above the entrance boasts a fine astronomical dial with, peculiarly, the face of Sir Winston Churchill as its sunburst centrepiece. I should also mention the blue police callbox on the corner of Friday Street, although this one really is smaller on the inside than the outside.

Finally let's visit the delightful Cleary Garden on Queen Victoria Street. A small bombsite was transformed just after the war into an acclaimed garden, and subsequently tweaked into a triple-decker terrace. Up top is a pergola with six benches and a row of peonies, which may not especially impress, but head behind to find pink roses, a towering spruce, a bird feeder and, unexpectedly, a trailing vine. The garden was sponsored in 2007 by a French wine company, hence the planting on this level "helps evoke the floral aromas of the Loire Valley" and the plaques on the benches namecheck several local wines. This is Vintry ward after all.

A final set of steps leads down to a dead end lawn, plus another pergola, plus five more benches. I bet the planting looks gorgeous in the summer but all I found on a December morning was an uneaten M&S beef chilli ready meal and an empty Curly Wurly wrapper. I could also hear trains braking somewhere down below, which'd be the comings and goings at Mansion House station. The upper part of the Cleary Garden is built on top of the fire exit, and in the event of an emergency passengers would emerge through some brown doors onto Huggin Hill. Bring a bottle, there are far worse places to sit and drink.

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