Idling along the Thames – Part III: London’s Inner Boroughs

In my mind, once the Thames leaves leafy Kew it enters urban London. The river has already passed through the London boroughs of Kingston and Richmond (see Idling along the Thames – Part II: Entering Greater London), but they sit within the Outer Boroughs and offer a sense of being outside the bounds of the city.

From Kew Bridge to Putney Bridge, the river curves like a sine wave, bottoming out just after Barnes Bridge and peaking near Hammersmith Bridge. Now the Thames moves into the Inner Boroughs – first, Hammersmith & Fulham on the north bank; then, 3km later, the Borough of Wandsworth borders the river to the south. Twenty-two bridges cross the river as it makes its way through nine of London’s 12 Inner Boroughs.

Five bridges across the Thames – London Bridge, Canon Street Bridge, Southwark Bridge, Millennium Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge, view from Sky Garden

Putney Bridge

The first ‘true’ Inner Borough bridge for me is Putney Bridge because both north and south banks of the river intersect with an Inner Borough.

Putney Bridge is a ‘memory holder’ for me.

Putney Bridge

A few metres from the bridge, I once ate a leisurely, al fresco meal with my son at a now closed Carluccio’s restaurant on the final day of a UK holiday. My son’s home was only a few kilometres’ walking distance from the restaurant but, to accommodate a less mobile member of our party, we took a bus for the 3km journey. For some reason now lost to me, we caught the 39 bus – surely the longest possible transport option. The route did, however, have the advantage of passing by the All England Tennis and Croquet Club on a day when the Wimbledon Championships were in full swing. Patrons queued with typical English resignation awaiting admittance to the courts.

Battersea Bridge

On a subsequent visit, my London base was not far from Clapham Junction. On summer evenings, I would cross under the railway line near Wandsworth Station, weave through the always hectic Wandsworth Roundabout, and make my way to the Thames’s southern bank. With Wandsworth Bridge behind me and the heart of London ahead, I would meander past Plantation Wharf Pier and Oyster Pier, and head towards Battersea Bridge, enjoying the balm of a lengthy twilight en route.

Evening view towards Battersea Bridge

Albert Bridge

After Battersea Bridge comes Albert Bridge, possibly my favourite of all London’s bridges.

Why the favourite? I fell in love with London on my first visit. I generally avoid big cities and crowded places but London felt different. I loved the Tube (even on a rare sweltering day when descending underground felt like entering a blast furnace). I loved the beds of brightly coloured annuals threaded through the orderly royal parks. I loved the backstage tours of theatres in the afternoons, returning at night to see the stage light up.

Albert Bridge

When I returned home, I missed London. But I discovered a 24-hour web cam positioned on the roof of a building on Chelsea Embankment. It meant that, at any time of the day or night, I could watch live images of Albert Bridge and imagine myself there – following the morning traffic stalled on the bridge, enjoying the changing colours of the seasons, ensuring a cyclist avoided being crushed by the urgent advance of a double-decker bus.

Sadly, that web cam no longer operates. I’m holding out for a future visit when I can return to Albert Bridge in person and see it lit up at night – the first of the 14 bridges comprising the Illuminated River project.

Albert Bridge to Chelsea Bridge

Between Albert Bridge and Chelsea Bridge, the 80-hectare Battersea Park occupies the river’s entire southern bank. The park features a children’s zoo, a boating lake, a sub-tropical garden and a Peace Pagoda. The park is expansive and open to the river.

Peace Pagoda, Battersea Park

But on the Thames’s northern bank, nestled discreetly behind brick walls and wrought iron fences, is the Chelsea Physic Garden. Founded in 1673 by The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London to enable its apprentices ‘to study medicinal plants and their uses’, the garden boasts an extraordinary array of plants. Some have healing properties, some are known for domestic uses, some (like deadly nightshade, monkshood and mandrake) taught the apothecaries’ apprentices about poisons.

Equisetum hyemale var. robustum, commonly known as horsetail, caught my attention. Once employed for polishing pots and pans, the stems can also be used to make reeds for clarinets and saxophones. And apparently it’s possible to ‘produce a drink used as a diuretic and to treat venereal disease’ (Wikipedia). I have no personal knowledge of the veracity of any of these claims.

Horsetail, useful for polishing pots and pans, and for treating venereal disease

Westminster Bridge

As the Thames draws closer to the heart of London, significant public buildings and structures crowd its banks. From the 11th century Tower of London and the 19th century Palace of Westminster (both UNESCO World Heritage Sites) to the more recent Millennium Wheel, many are internationally recognisable.

The Tower of London and the London Eye (aka Millennium Wheel)

Westminster Bridge, which abuts the House of Commons end of the Palace of Westminster, was painted green in 1970. The bridge now matches the colour of the seats in the Commons. Further upstream, Lambeth Bridge is painted red to match the seats in the House of Lords. (Lambeth Bridge sits alongside Lambeth Palace, the London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The archbishop is a member of the House of Lords, one of 26 Church of England bishops who together form the ‘Lords Spiritual’.)

Palace of Westminster

I’ve spent many days investigating this stretch of the Thames, taking London Walks around the riverbank or heading indoors to explore the buildings that line the riverbank – the National Theatre, the Tate Modern, Shakespeare’s Globe, the Cutty Sark, the National Maritime Museum on the south bank; Somerset House, Temple Gardens and the Brunel Museum to the north. But sometimes it’s the accidental discoveries that are the most captivating.

London Bridge and Borough Market

Take, for instance, Borough Market.

Borough Market with the Shard behind

Adjacent to the current London Bridge (the 1st century bridge being long since gone and the 19th century one sold to a misguided American), sits Southwark Cathedral. The cathedral is just visible from the river, although probably missed by many tourists whose eyes are drawn to the more imposing Shard behind it. Tucked between these two structures, and shadowed at street level by overhead rail lines, lies Borough Market.

There has been a fresh food market on the south bank of the Thames for centuries but the market that stands there now was established in 1756.

Paella making, Borough Market

Today, much like yesteryear, vendors and buyers shout for attention, people jostle in the aisles between stalls, and the air is filled with the heady smells of fish, fruit, cheese, breads and pastries.

The market is big and lively and noisy. Until a local told me about it, I’d never heard of it. Left to my own devices, I may have missed this delight for the senses.

Waterloo Bridge to Blackfriars Bridge

Sometimes it’s worth ignoring the public buildings and grand designs and leaving the hustle and bustle behind.

One Sunday morning, I left my Lambeth accommodation and made my way through Waterloo to the Thames’s bank. Unlike a weekday, when it is estimated that about one million people travel into London (Department for Transport), the streets and the embankment were quiet. I was fortunate to strike the river when the tide was low. (The Thames is tidal from Teddington Lock to the North Sea. The Port of London Authority provides tide times.)

Between Waterloo Bridge and Blackfriars Railway Bridge, I descended a set of stairs and stepped blithely across silt and sludge and stones to the water’s edge. At the time, I hadn’t heard the term ‘mudlarking’ in connection with the Thames and I certainly didn’t know about the Port of London Authority (PLA) requirement that foragers must obtain a foreshore permit. The PLA’s website warns allcomers of the foreshore’s ‘potentially hazardous environment’ and the ‘dangers that may not always be immediately apparent’ – the rapid rise and fall of the tide, ‘raw sewage, broken glass, hypodermic needles and wash from vessels’.

River Thames, towards Blackfriars Bridge, low tide

Fortunately, I exercised care and did not remove anything from the foreshore during my wanderings. That said, I’ll know better if there’s a next time.

Despite not spying anything of archaeological significance (just as well given my lack of a permit), I liked being close to the lapping edge of the river. Not travelling across its surface by boat, not crossing it via a bridge, not surveying it from the lofty heights of the Sky Garden, not even walking under it as I had done at Greenwich. Simply being alongside it, in that liminal space between solid and liquid.

Beyond Greenwich

Thames Barrier

I have not yet ventured beyond the Thames Barrier. But the river continues on, past Erith and Greenhithe to Tilbury Docks, before flowing into the North Sea between the Isle of Sheppey (in Kent) to the south and Southend-on-Sea (in Essex) to the north.

The water that occasionally surfaces in a nondescript Gloucestershire field descends a mere 110m to sea level while travelling through nine English counties and one of the world’s major cities. During its 340km journey, it is joined by dozens of tributaries, passes through 45 locks, is crossed more than 200 times by bridges, ferries, tunnels and a cable car, and morphs from freshwater to tidal.

There is still much to discover as I idle along the Thames.

Links and sources

View from Sky Garden, looking towards Tower Bridge

Photo credits

All photos by the author. This blog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Photos are free to use and share, but please attribute and link back to the blog.

Signs and Wonders

What do we ‘see’ when we travel?

This is the question I asked myself last week as I began labelling photographs taken during several sojourns in the UK. The labelling task seemed a useful occupation during bound-to-base, COVID-19 days.

My first experience of overseas travel didn’t come until I was in my mid-50s, quite an august age for an Australian of my generation, and something that made me unusual among my peers.

I’ve never had an urge to travel. I recall sitting at a wedding reception with a group of strangers a decade or so ago. The conversation started with ‘Where do you live?’ (a guest from Sydney) and ‘What do you do?’ (a guest from Canberra). There were no guests from Melbourne so we didn’t ask ‘Who do you barrack for?’ or ‘What school did you go to?’ Eventually, the questions shifted to family and children. One of my children had been living overseas for a couple of years at that stage so the inevitable query was ‘Have you been to visit?’ When I answered in the negative, the follow-up question was inevitable: ‘When are you going?’

Home and Away

At that time, I hadn’t considered going at all.

I like home. I am content with the mundane and averse to people en masse. As the years passed, however, it became clear that my son in the UK would not be returning to Australia. It was time to arrange a passport.

Being an Australian of Anglo-Celtic descent, I carry images of London in my DNA. Big Ben, Tower Bridge, the Palace of Westminster, the River Thames. There is a sense in which I had known the English metropolis before I ever set foot there.

But imagination is not the same as reality.

Looking back at the photos from my initial visits (and, yes, there have been several now), I am interested to see what captured my attention, what it was I chose to record.

Certainly, there are pictures of renowned sites – Lord’s Cricket Ground, Royal Albert Hall, St James’s Park – but there are other, perhaps less expected, snapshots. The latter fall mostly into three types: places that put flesh on the bones of my imagination, sites that offered a connection to home, and unexpected oddities.

Here is a sample…

Flesh on the Bones of Imagination

  • Cheapside

As long-term readers of this blog know, I have a fondness for the novels of Jane Austen. In Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a certain London district is spoken of with derision and disdain.

One evening at Netherfield Park, the conversation turns to the Bennet family’s relations. Mrs Hurst reveals that there is an uncle (Mr Gardiner) ‘who lives somewhere near Cheapside’.

‘That is capital’, replies Miss Bingley and both sisters laugh heartily at the Bennets’ ‘vulgar relations’. Mr Darcy compounds the sisters’ scorn by declaring that, for the Bennet daughters, having relatives living in such a place ‘must very materially lessen their chance of marrying men of any consideration in the world’.

My pleasure was great indeed when I accidentally found myself wandering into this formerly unsavoury part of London.

  • The Inns of Court

Another of my literary favourites is C. J. Sansom’s Shardlake series. The series’ protagonist, Matthew Shardlake, is a lawyer who conducts his legal business at the Inns of Court. Shardlake’s offices are at Lincoln’s Inn, but he also petitions at Gray’s Inn and Clifford’s Inn.

No doubt I missed some of the erudite narrative presented by my London Walks guide as I strolled among the buildings where the fictional Shardlake had walked before me.

In Cheapside and around the Inns of Court, I took photos of signs that authenticated the mental pictures formed through reading.

 

Connections with Home

I never suffered a moment’s homesickness in the course of my UK travels. But that’s not to say I didn’t recognise, and welcome, connections with home.

  • The Cutty Sark

On three separate occasions, I visited the Cutty Sark, the famed tea and wool clipper now preserved as a museum in Greenwich.

After my first visit, I became so enamoured with the ship that I spent hour upon hour in the National Library of Australia researching the clipper’s voyages to the Australian colonies.

As with Cheapside and the Inns of Court, it is the interpretive signage on board the Cutty Sark that features in my photos.

 

  • Captain Bligh House

In a stroke of good fortune when searching for accommodation options in London, I came across a self-catering B&B in Lambeth. It’s a quirky establishment that reflects the flair of its artistically minded owners.

And the connection with Australia?

The house was once home to Captain William Bligh, infamous for the mutiny on the Bounty, and only slightly less infamous for his ill-fated governorship of the colony of New South Wales.

 

Curiosities and Oddities

You’ll have noticed by now that I like taking photos of words – interpretive text, street signs, wall plaques, you name it. If there are words in public spaces, they will likely be recorded on my camera … especially if those words reveal the unfamiliar or the unusual.

Private Gardens

On my first stay in London (when Captain Bligh House was, alas, already fully booked), I spent a few nights in a small hotel in Victoria, very close to genteel Warwick Square and its leafy arbour. My only previous knowledge of private communal gardens came from the movie Notting Hill where Anna (Julia Roberts) and William (Hugh Grant) execute a successful night-time ‘break and enter’ over a wrought iron fence and into Rosmead Gardens.

Prior to their illegal climb and drop, William points out that ‘only the people who live around the edges are allowed in’.

Signage at Warwick Square’s garden reinforces William’s claim.

An entry in my diary indicates the status of those likely to be admitted to the lush green plot: ‘The price of real estate here is suggested by the make of cars parked on the street alongside the garden fence: BMW, Mercedes, Jaguar and four Porsches.’

  • Street Crossings

Another English novelty was the Humped Pelican crossing.

I am familiar with Zebra crossings, a name clearly referencing the white stripes on black bitumen, but a ‘humped pelican’? Nothing at the crossing site offered a clue to its meaning.

It was only after searching the internet that I discovered ‘Pelican’ is a portmanteau derived from ‘Pedestrian Light Controlled Crossing’.

(In addition to both Zebra and Pelican crossings, the UK also has Puffin, Toucan and Pegasus crossings.)

 

What Did I See on My Travels?

I saw signs and wonders!

I travelled into an unknown land (albeit one with cultural similarities to my homeland) and I was alert to both familiarity and curiosity. The first reinforced my own sense of self and my known place in the world, the second exposed me to difference and a wider understanding of ‘the other’.

And, as is so often the case, literature bridged the two.

Waterstones, Piccadilly (photo taken with permission)

 

Links and Sources

Photo credits: this blog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Photos are free to use and share, but please attribute and link back to the blog.