Here’s what guide Tim Thomas says about this walk…
“I live in Rotherhithe. It’s my adopted village. My heart is there.
“The cobbled streets, pubs and warehouses of old Rotherhithe tell a unique story. For centuries the riverbank heaved with mighty sailing ships from all over the world and like every dockside there was vice and violence. There was grinding poverty and disease. People survived through piracy, prostitution and theft. The village had a fearful reputation. It was the underbelly of the great city. The rapacious East India Company built much of it – the fruits of evil. You can sense it in the air. Vestiges of the port remain. Then came the blitz. There were bomb sites everywhere. Finally the docks closed because of the new-fangled containers and everybody ended up unemployed. By 1970 the local borough was the poorest in Britain. It badly needed some luck. (Persevere, dear reader).
“Despite these haunting shadows, amazing things had come to pass. Edward III built a palace in a wilderness of reed-beds for his falcons in the fourteenth century. In 1620 “The Mayflower” set sail from the back of a local pub and changed history.
“Later Prince Lee Boo arrived from the distant Pacific and caused a sensation – no-one had ever seen a South Sea Islander before. Sadly, he died six months later and is buried in the local church, now a place of pilgrimage for people 12,000 miles away. In 1825 Marc Isambard Brunel started the gargantuan task of building the first tunnel under a river anywhere in the world. By hazard it ended up as “The Eighth Wonder of the World”, a subterranean fun-palace. Charles Dickens frequented Rotherhithe’s dark and dangerous streets to experience the poverty first hand. He mentioned The Old Mortuary by name in the first chapter of Our Mutual Friend. At the beginning of the twentieth century Dr Alfred Salter and his formidable wife Ada arrived to try to alleviate the poverty. Both Quakers and socialists, their efforts mark them out as giants of British social reform. Their statues by the river attest to this.
“So what about the much-needed luck mentioned earlier? Around 1980 an ill-defined transformation sidled in. The process gathered momentum. Artists took over the empty warehouses. The bomb sites were steadily cleared. The unoccupied council flats gained a dizzying variety of tenants and now it is an extraordinary community, a hidden gem near the heart of London. A bemused visitor recently asked me, ‘Why is everybody smiling round here…?'”
AND FOR FURTHER READING
All about where this walk goes…
1. In the mists of time a wilderness of marshes and reed-beds stretched across the area, yet Edward III built a mini-palace here in the fourteenth century for his falcons.
2. From a rowdy pub in a fast-developing port the Mayflower set sail on its epic voyage to the New World in 1620. History was re-written
3. Meanwhile, Rotherhithe was being built by the East India Company, a cornerstone of the British Empire, a byword for an utterly ruthless approach to business; the wages of sin.
4. At the end of the eighteenth century the charismatic, handsome young Prince Lee Boo arrived from the tropical island of Pelew. He caused a sensation, no-one had ever seen anyone like him before. His brilliant life was cut short by the diseases of London. His grave in St Marychurch is now a place of pilgrimage for South Sea Islanders.
5. Rotherhithe was relentlessly becoming the soft underbelly of London, the roughest, toughest locality, haunt of pirates and prostitutes (called “Winchester Geese” because the Bishop of Winchester ran the whole vice racket). The village developed a fearsome reputation for violence and criminality. Charles Dickens was drawn here to observe poverty and degradation close-up. This reputation lasted almost to the present day.
6. Dr Alfred Salter and Ada Salter, two of Britain’s foremost social reformers (both Quakers and socialists) wrestled with the disease, poverty and drunkenness endemic in the community. Their statues stand proudly by the river.
7. Today a transformation is turning this formerly accursed place into one of London’s most extraordinary and desirable neighbourhoods – a colourful, bohemian community, a hidden gem, a lively village just twenty minutes walk from Tower Bridge.
Ahoy! The Mayflower Village – The Practicals
Ahoy! The Mayflower Village takes place at 2:30 pm every* Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
*November 1 – April 30. To be on the safe side check the date on the calendar. Or heed the top-level announcements that read: Click for dates this walk does not take place.
The meeting point is just outside the exit of Bermondsey Tube station.
The team of Mayflower Village guides is headed up by Robert.
Robert is Mr Mayflower Village himself. He lives locally; he’s extremely well connected; he’s the distinguished retired Curator of the Brunel Museum; he’s a boon companion of the Landlord of The Mayflower, “the oldest pub on the river.”
FURTHER READ – WAXING LYRICAL
Short read: 1620 salute, time-honoured village, oldest pub on the river.
Epigraph read: The Mayflower, Sea to Shining Sea, Ancient Riverside Village… And for good measure Gulliver’s Travels and the tunnel that made modern cities possible.
Long read: Once upon a time… yes, 400 hundred years ago the Pilgrims sailed from here. And a world-changing voyage away, the ship limped back for salvage. Here’s a school endowed by sailors, ringed by houses built from ships. Here the captain lies at peace, his memorial a stone keel. Here the Fighting Temaire’s a bishop’s chair – and an altar. Here’s a church with masts for pillars, with a roof that’s an upturned ship. Here the Golden Hinde returns with round flanks full of treasure (but the Erebus and Terror are still lost).
Here names flash like jewels in the night of time… Adventurers and settlers; kings’ ships and ships of men; captains, admirals and generals of East India fleets; gold-seekers or pursuers of fame… All went out on that stream. The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empire. We are all pilgrims, we all sail and we return to the Mayflower on the river. The oldest pub on the river, it looks like, feels like the inside of an old ship – quarter deck and quarter gallery and forecastle and foredeck and stem and hold and bulwark and tumblehome. And it serves good ale.
Now the curtain rises on a different scene. 1st Miracle: we’re only a 10-minute tube and Overground ride from the Houses of Parliament. 2nd Miracle: we’re 500 years away. 3rd Miracle: this place still looks like – feels like – what it once was. 4th Miracle: the Mayflower – the Pilgrim Father’s pub – is here (let alone a king’s palace, a Dickensian mortuary, a villain’s gibbet, a prince’s tomb and a pirate’s pub). Coda anyone? River-lulled in ancient Rotherhithe we’ll hear the cool lapse of hours pass, until the centuries blend and blur. In Rotherhithe, in Rotherhithe…