Hidden London: East Rotherhithe Edition

The best way to explore London is on foot, discovering alleyways and stumbling upon churches – spotting things you couldn’t possibly see from the tube or even a bus. Thing is, even then it’s difficult to know why things are where they are; why they’re named what they are; and, more importantly, finding the things you didn’t even know were there.

For ages I’ve wanted a good walking guide to the city. City Walks – London has sat on my wishlist for ages – ever since I discovered Bee-Boppin’ the Boroughs which blogged the New York version – but without anyone ever buying it for me. Then, while on a book-buying spree in the London Transport Museum shop, I spotted London’s Hidden Walks and persuaded my sister to buy it for me as an Easter gift (she got two Cath Kidston for Uniqlo t-shirts, so I feel this was a fair deal). A sunny Bank Holiday with no plans other than a need to distract myself from my worldly worries seemed like the perfect occasion to try one of the walks out.

The book contains 13 walks, all aiming to take you into parts of the city you wouldn’t normally explore and reveal things you’d never even think to look for. As my only other Bank Holiday activity involved grocery shopping, I figured I’d start with a walk that began virtually on my doorstep – Canada Water to Greenwich, via Deptford. On reflection, it would have been better to do the walk in reverse seeing as my main supermarket was at the start of the walk, but I have enough map/directions issues without trying to read them backwards!

The walk was actually easy to follow, especially as much of it was along the Thames Path which is very well signposted. The only time I got lost was when I was instructed to come off the path in Deptford and was led into an estate that I wouldn’t normally have passed through. At one point my walk was interrupted by the arrival of three patrol cars and a police van – I think that says a lot. (This also rather surprised the hard-core ramblers I passed who were presumably following the Thames Path.) Actually, I generally wouldn’t go into Deptford at all and was dubious of its historic merits – turns out it’s actually quite a fascinating place…

I should have guessed that an estate named after Pepys meant the area was connected to the diarist, but didn’t expect to discover that Tsar Peter the Great lived there for a while too. Nor had I fully realised that Christopher Marlowe was killed on Deptford Strand. Or, that Deptford was such a hotspot for religious radicals (ok, Quakers) that the Church of England felt the need to build a massively imposing church in the town (for town it was until the city absorbed it) in order to reassert its presence. It all looked rather lovely in the unseasonally bright sun and all in all was just the distraction I needed.

Random things found along the river – a staircase to nowhere, and the spot on the strand where Marlowe’s body was found. 
 Deptford signage – proof that a Tsar [that’s the spelling I was taught in Russian history & I’m sticking to it] once lived here and a fabulously named playground.
 St Nicholas church – a beautiful, calm oasis in the middle of chaos and the Marlowe’s final resting place. 
The deliberately ostentatious St Paul’s and the uber fabulous Laban centre. 
Oh, and I knackered my sandals by the end of it. 
It’s the price you pay for walking miles along the mean streets of London. 
The rest of the photos are on Flickr and I’ll try and aim to do these fairly regularly. In fact, there’s another Bank Holiday Monday in the offing and I currently have no plans for it, so perhaps it could be a good day for another adventure. Fellow walkers are more than welcome, I’m sure it’ll be super fun!

In search of Hawksmoor

Today’s officially my first day of holiday and, miraculously, the sun has shone for the third day running. Perfect weather for a three hour brunch (bread & white chocolate spread courtesy of Le Pain Quotidien) and an insanely long walk in search of churches…

The thing that I find particularly interesting about this afternoon was that the friend who instigated the church hunt is not a ‘church friend’ – she is in fact my long-standing, first day of secondary school friend, who doesn’t particularly do church. [I feel an appropriate indication of our level our friendship was the fact that we wore matching hair accessories, unintentionally. Well, it’s either that or further proof of H&M’s ubiquity.] As part of an art degree she’s exploring the connections between a group of six London churches designed by the same architect – Nicholas Hawksmoor. This sign (found today) gives a fairly decent explanation of his achievements:

The rules (oh yes, there are rules…) to her project include the banning of public transport and maps in finding your way between churches. Other features including the documenting of discoveries – both at the churches and along the way – via a range of mult-media forms and iPhone apps. I documented our adventures the usual way – taking photos and making mental notes of potential blog fodder. Our mission began in Greenwich and didn’t end until several hours later when we made it to Wapping – quite an energetic afternoon.

First up was St Alfege’s in Greenwich. A beautiful building in a neighbourhood of stunning architectural beauty, though with odd ornamental features that don’t seem to fit in with the general style.

Another feature of the project is that you just feel your way (hence the no maps rule), so as I’d not visited any of the churches before, it was up to me to suggest our direction. As all I knew was that the next church was in Limehouse, this left me with quite a route to navigate – the first issue being the small matter of the River Thames. However, Greenwich is a place where you can cross the water in something of a unique way – well, unique to pedestrians – i.e. under the river, courtesy of one of Brunel’s fabulous (if somewhat scary) tunnels.

Towards the Island Gardens end of the tunnel 
– where it looks as though it’s been reinforced somewhat.
Rather disconcertingly, the rest of the tunnel’s tiled and looks like it might be leaking… 

Happily, once over the river, Babs revealed that she’d never yet made it to Limehouse without getting lost in the maze that is the Isle of Dogs – massively reassuring, as the sun started to disappear from the sky. When you’re not using maps, you’re reliant upon certain landmarks – not just hugely obvious buildings like Canary Wharf, or the distant (incomplete) Shard, but bus stops and the DLR. It’s amazing how reassuring the DLR line running above you can be, knowing that your destination is ultimately somewhere along it. We didn’t get too badly lost, except for some short moments of confusion in Canary Wharf (which is ridiculously confusing) and along the way discovered the peace and tranquillity of Mudchute. Yes, ‘Mudchute’ – literally, a place at which mud was dumped, now the site of a city farm and general fieldy-ness. After some sustenance in Canary Wharf, we continued in search of that other useful landmark – water – and soon emerged in Limehouse, site of St Anne’s. 

 The entrance to the church is actually up a side street & alleyway – cunning.
Hawksmoor also had a bit of a thing for pyramids and obelisks.

Fortunately it was a much simpler matter to get from Limehouse to Wapping (heck, it’s all of two DLR stops…) and en route I finally found myself in familiar territory, spotting a favourite religious conference centre as well as taking a photo opportunity I missed on a canal walk a year ago. Once in the Shadwell-Wapping vicinity I knew exactly where I was and began being able to share my own geographical discoveries – but before I could share a favourite, we had to observe St George in the East [great name], Wapping. 

An excellent example of how to rebuild and use a church building after bomb damage. 
Left as a shell after WW2, the building consists of worship space, flats & a Montessori School – and fabulous ground. 

From the church, the ever-intriguing Tobacco Docks was but a stone’s throw away, so I took immense pleasure in sharing the spooky deserted shopping mall. An added bonus being that Babs discovered that it was the location of a fondly remembered childhood photo of her and two of her sisters next to the Three Sisters – the ship moored in the dock. The glorious finale to the exploration was a pint in the Captain Kidd, one of London’s most endearing pubs, where our feet protested at any suggestions of a move towards Christchurch, Spitafields.
So that’s three of the six churches ‘found’ – three more to go, so there will be a part two to this adventure. Who knew that after years of enforced church architecture lessons on family holidays, I’d willingly spend an afternoon following in the footsteps of a church architect? The tour raises a few questions for the church at large too – why are so many churches behind locked gates? How can an interested observer find out more about what’s going on inside the church? Are the churches just a throwback to a bygone age and no longer relevant to today’s society? One final – none church – question: why is Canary Wharf and the Isle of Dogs in general so flipping hard to navigate??

When history, transport, geography and geeks collide…

Last Monday I revelled in an extremely rare beginning of the week lie-in, the sort of event I long for most Sunday nights as it becomes increasingly obvious that I should make an effort to leave the pub before last orders. As you might imagine, I was fully immersed in sleep at about 7.45, until my mattress began vibrating. Emerging from slumber I foggily tried to work out why my phone (kept under my pillow) was making noise when I knew that the alarm was off. Looking at it I realised my sister was on the phone and, as it was such an early hour, I figured it was important enough to answer.

Our conversation went something like this:
Mim “Hello! Are you listening to the radio?”
Me [Slightly slurred] “Ermm, no.” 
Mim “Oh, it’s just that Chris Moyles has just been talking about that disused station in Highgate that’s on the line Muswell Hill was on..”
Me [Slightly more awake & interested] “Wow. That’s interesting…” [Now thinking this is an odd topic for an early morning phone call.]
Mim “Well, you can listen again online when you get to work later.” 
Me “I’m not going to work, I’ve got the day off…”
[Awkward moment of silence as Mim realises implications of this statement.]
Mim “Did I wake you up?”
Me “Yes, yes you did. But it’s ok, it’s always good to hear an exciting disused station story.” 

[The July 9th Chris Moyles Show podcast includes the segment in question, just in case you want to hear the exciting story yourself.]

I wasn’t lying – it is always good to hear random factoids about London Transport. Plus, thanks to a Facebook status relating to this event, I’ve now collected a few more friends who are similarly intrigued. (In the process, I also discovered my sister nearly pulled over and rang me as soon as the story was told just after 7am – I’m so pleased she waited until she got to school!) We’re now planning a Girls’ Day Out adventure equipped with the nerdiest book in the world and a thermos of tea.

In a strange moment of coincidence/cosmic alignment, just a few days later I had an e-mail from a friend sharing a discovery that had caused him to think of me. (It’s important to note that he doesn’t do Facebook, so hadn’t read about the phone call.) Lost London is a site through which people can share their exploration of London on journeys that begin at disused stations. I quote:

Lost London is a pervasive game that focuses on psychogeographical experiences in relation to forgotten urban spaces in London.

Loving the word ‘psychogeographical’!  The idea is that you document what you see on your journey via some means – like photography – and share with the world. It’s great, but like many sites that relate to the topic of London Transport, can easily throw you into a vortex from which it’s difficult to extract yourself. Having the briefest of plays with it over lunch today I’ve discovered (to my bitter disappointment) that I missed out on a chance to visit the old station at Aldwych – even worse, that I’d been in the vicinity and off work while the exhibition held there was on. Gutting.

Is it wrong that I’m actually almost too excited about this adventure to wait until the girls come to town? After all, I live in the city and these things are on my doorstep. Anyone fancy a psychogeographical expedition this week? I’ll provide the book and the tea…