This is part two of our stroll beside the Thames, and I’m hoping today we might make a little bit more progress. If you recall last Monday we didn’t get very far as there was so much to see and share before we even got to the Thames, and then when we got to the Thames itself I was distracted by the enormous Gin Palace. We did though make it to the Tower of London, and that’s where we start today with part two.
The Tower of London is one of the historic royal palaces. The central ‘White Tower’ began life in the 11th century; a fortress commissioned by William the Conqueror and built under the direction of the Bishop of Rochester. It was an enormous structure for its time, and would have dominated London’s skyline. Over the first few hundred years the Tower would have seen sieges, revolts, executions and lions! The building was a home, fortress and a prison. It wasn’t though until the early 17th century that a garrison was permanently maintained here. After the restoration of the monarchy it became home to the Office of Ordnance and the new Crown Jewels were displayed here. The old ones having been melted down by Oliver Cromwell. By the mid 19th century and the departure of the Royal Mint the Tower had become the tourist attraction it is today, and in fact the Victorians rebuilt much of the site so it looked more like a medieval castle! There were a few brief moments in the First and Second Word Wars when the Tower saw a return of state prisoners and also executions, the last one taking place in 1941. Next door to the Tower is Tower Bridge but before I take you there, here’s a photograph of a building I spotted in the distance. Isn’t it glorious.
Turning back to the river the view is dominated by Tower Bridge. It is 122years old, and since 1982 (which must have been when I first and last went round!) it has hosted an excellent exhibition telling you all about the build. The views of the Thames from the high-raised walkways are superb, and these days you even get a view of the bridge below following the introduction of a glass floor. It is a bascule bridge which comes from the French for “see-saw”. Took 8 years to build and is constructed of steel, Cornish granite and Portland stone. The colours are relatively new as prior to 1977 it was brown. The bridge is still raised on a regular basis, and in fact if you are in London this week it is being raised today, tomorrow and Wednesday. Well worth watching the raising if you are around, exact times can be found here.
Leaving Tower Bridge and heading into St Katharine’s Docks we began to leave the tourists behind us. These docks were built in the early part of the 19th century, and are named after the 12th century Church which along with 1,250 homes, was destroyed to accommodate the development. I was delighted to learn last week, thanks to the Gentle Author, that the misericords survived. Do visit his recent post on St Katharine’s Church to find out more. The commercial life of the docks was relatively short, which somehow makes it even worse that as well as all the destruction around 11,000 people were displaced to enable the construction of St Katharine’s Docks. They were designed by Thomas Telford, and these days the warehouses are mostly residential, and the dock basin houses round the world yachts on their London stage as well as other yachts and a few traditional boats.
Heading back to the river along Millers Wharf we slowly made our way towards Wapping High Street. Many of the warehouses have long since gone replaced by modern glass builds and those warehouse that remain have mostly been converted into flats. Some of the new builds work, some don’t but the addition someone had made to one did make me smile! I think I would prefer to live in one of the many houseboats which can be found on this part of the Thames.
Wapping Pierhead, a little way along the High Street, marks the entrance to what was the London Docks. Like the wharves on the banks of the Thames part of the docks were demolished in the 1960s, and its main entrance closed. However the first basin as well as Georgian terraces which lined the entrance still exist and a garden has been created over the waterway. These terraces were once home to dock company officials but suspect the occupations of those who live there now are very different. The last one sold for over £2.5million and that was 3 years ago!
A few yards on from the Pierhead is the Town of Ramsgate pub, the oldest pub on the Thames. It also has an obscure link to my hometown of Winchester. The pub is where one of England’s most notorious judges – Judge Jeffreys – was believed to have been apprehended following the Glorious Revolution in 1688 (yes the 17th century in England was a time of huge turmoil with revolutions, uprisings and restorations). Jeffreys became infamous after the failed Monmouth uprising against James II in 1685. Judge Jeffreys oversaw the trials which followed and seemed to take great pleasure in his decision to send 320 people to the gallows and hundreds more to transportation and slavery. The trials took place throughout the West Country, with the first one taking place in my hometown of Winchester (told you it was an obscure link!). The brutality of the punishments issued by the courts led to the trials becoming known as the Bloody Assizes and Jeffreys as the ‘Hanging Judge’. Unsurprisingly therefore when William of Orange’s revolution was successful three years later, Jeffreys attempted to escape the country. He failed though, having been recognised at Town of Ramsgate by someone who had been present at the trials. He was not sent to the gallows nor was he transported, however he was dragged to the Tower of London where he later died in great pain as a result of kidney disease.
Jeffreys escape plan probably involved catching a boat, as running alongside the Town of Ramsgate is one of the many dead-end passage ways which head off the High Street to the river. This one is known as ‘Wapping Old Stairs’. Once people would have stood on the stairs to hail passing wherries manned by one or two watermen. At low tide you can still walk down many of the stairs, however there are no wherries to hail these days!
I enjoyed walking along Wapping High Street, it was not at all what I expected. I wouldn’t have liked to have tried it in earlier centuries though, or even 50 years ago, as it was once a dangerous and overcrowded place. One historian described it as a ‘filthy strait passage’. In the 18th century there was so much crime in the area that in 1798 the oldest uniformed police force in the country was formed here. The force was partly funded by West India Company merchants who had sustained huge losses due to theft in the area, and knew they had to do something if they were not go go bankrupt. Within one year of the force being set up they had cut the thefts by 80%. The docks have gone now, replaced by estate agents and expensive flats. However the Metropolitan Police still have a police station and a pier here.
We are now only a few steps from another pub, which also happens to be where we stopped for some Birthday refreshment. So I think I’ll stop here with a few shots of Wapping High Street in the 1960s, borrowed from James Page-Roberts’ excellent 1997 publication ‘A Guide to a Dockland of Change‘. And I’ll be back next Monday to tell you all about the next pub and part three of the walk! If you fancy joining in with your own walk then do pop across and visit Jo’s Monday Walk page to discover how.