Wednesday, July 1st 2015
Tigger used to work in a district of the Borough of Southwark south of London Bridge called The Borough or, if you are London Transport, simply Borough. To meet her from work was easy: I would take the tube from the Angel (or simply ‘Angel’, according to London Transport) to Borough Station and walk 5 minutes to Tigger’s workplace. I could then sit in the lobby and watch Tigger at work until it was time for her to leave. Now things have changed, as they are wont to do.
Tigger’s firm is moving out of its old location, a building in which a famous range of diaries was once published, because this is going to be demolished and be replaced by a student accommodation block. The firm’s new offices are close to the Thames at Tower Hill. Getting there to meet Tigger of an evening is slightly more complicated than the journey to the Borough location. Also, owing to tighter security in a shared office block, I cannot go into her workplace to wait for her. I have to find another rendezvous.
Whereas I once took one tube train, I now take two. I start on the Northern Line at Angel as I used to do but now change at Bank to the District or Circle Line and travel one stop to Tower Hill. Tower Hill is of course where you find the Tower of London, one of London’s prime tourist attractions.
From the train, I take three flights of stairs to reach the entrance of the station. Here, you are likely to find your way encumbered by vendors of sugared nuts, distributors of free newspapers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, chuggers1 and gaggles of tourists trying to find the Tower of London.
Running the gauntlet, you arrive at the wide, busy main road, which is also called Tower Hill at this point. In the picture, the pavement is relatively clear because I came early to have time to take photos. Usually, it crowded with groups waiting to be taken by guides to the Tower, people waiting to board the tour buses and commuters trying to get through the crowds to make their way home.
My route takes me past this section of ancient wall. This area was part of the Roman city and there is still a lot of Roman brickwork here. You can tell this is Roman wall because of the horizontal lines of red tiles, a typical feature of Roman walls. Near bottom left in the photo, you can see a bronze statue. It is rather a mystery piece. It is pretty certain that it represents the Roman Emperor Trajan but where it comes from is uncertain. One opinion is that it is an 18th-century copy (but what it is a copy of is not stated) and another story says that it was discovered on a dump and rescued by a clergyman and later presented by the Tower Hill Improvement Trust at the request of the Reverend P. B. ‘Tubby’ Clayton. I don’t think that Trajan ever visited Londinium in person but he stands here in effigy to remind us of our Roman past.
I follow the left side of the streets to take advantage of the pedestrian crossings so I have a more distant view of two of London’s most famous landmarks, the Tower of London and Tower Bridge. Building of the Tower started soon after the Norman Conquest but it has been extended and remodelled several times since then. The Normans placed it on the hill so that it would dominate the city and remind the inhabitants of Norman power and authority. In Tudor times, those unfortunate enough to incur the displeasure of the monarch were confined here, perhaps to be tortured and eventually to be executed by the headsman.
Tower Bridge, completed in 1894, was designed to match the style of the Tower of London. It is two bridges in one, with a walkway at the top (no longer open to the public) and a bascule road bridge that lifts to allow the passage of tall ships.
I pass in front of the large building that is now called Royal Mint Court. The Royal Mint resided for several centuries in the Tower of London but eventually became so large that it needed premises of its own. In 1809 it moved here, to a building designed by James Johnson and Robert Smirke. The mint makes currency not only for the UK but also for a number of other nations and the technology has continued to develop, requiring more and more space. The time came when even this building was no longer big enough to contain the mint and, starting in 1968, the enterprise was moved bit by bit to Llantrisant in Wales. The last coin was struck here in 1975. Today Royal Mint Court, as it is now called, serves as office accommodation. I wonder whether the ghost of Sir Isaac Newton, sometime Warden of the Mint, still roams its corridors.
I then turn into a busy 5-lane road with fast traffic in both directions. I am on the left and need to be on the right. Occasionally, there is a break in the traffic in both directions but taking advantage of this is risky.
There is just one safe crossing point, a pedestrian passage controlled by lights. Quite often it is blocked by traffic tailing back from the next set of lights so that even when the light is green for pedestrians, you have to thread a tortuous path between vehicles.
I am always in a hurry (well, I am, after all, off the reunite myself with Tigger!) and have hitherto followed the route I knew along the road. Tigger likes to explore during her lunch break and showed me a pleasanter alternative route she had found. Near the pedestrian crossing is this gate, decorated with two long-tusked elephants. It leads into St Katharine Docks. Just inside is one of the original warehouses of the docks, Ivory House (built around 1858), hence the elephants. I don’t like to think what trade might underlie the symbolism but a I salute the elephants and hurry on.
St Katharine Docks is connected by a lock to the Thames which is tidal at this point. Once it was part of London’s commercial dockyards. It opened in 1828 and its construction required the demolition of the slums that hitherto occupied the site and the hospital of St Katharine, from which it takes its name. Over 11,000 people lost their homes, without compensation. Where they went, I do not know. I imagine they further increased the severe over-crowding in other slum areas.
While the Port of London still operated (it closed in the 1980s), the ships moored here would have been commercial vessels trading with foreign ports but today, though there are a few working boats, most seem to be luxury yachts. The landing stages are closed to the public lest we disturb the peace of the occupants.
Beside the water is a pub called The Dickens Inn. Its history is not without interest (see the pub’s About Us page). It was originally built, probably in the 18th century, as a warehouse, perhaps trading in tea. Later, it was encased in brickwork to match the styling of the rest of the dock area. When the dock was redeveloped, the original timber was once again liberated but by now, the building was considered to be inconveniently placed and was therefore moved 70 metres to its present location. I am sceptical that there could be any real connection between the pub and Charles Dickens, though the author of Oliver Twist and Great Expectations certainly knew the area and would no doubt have explored it in his rambles.
On the eastern side of the St Katharine Docks, a passage between buildings leads out to the road and the office blacks where Tigger is incarcerated during working hours.
On arriving, one finds oneself in the midst of building works. These have been going on for months and have turned the place into a noisy, dusty hell hole. What is your entrance today probably won’t be tomorrow, and you will find to find a new way in.
Happily, there is a place where I can take refuge until Tigger joins me. Hidden among the heaps of rubble and the builders’ fences, is a branch of Pret A Manger, where I can buy a cup of coffee or green tea and sit and wait.
I can usually find a seat in the quiet corner where the easy chairs are. The windows are opaque to protect them from the building work going on outside but I can sit here and read until Tigger is released and can join me. Then we start the journey home…
1chuggers (from ‘ch[arity m]uggers’), people who accost you in public places in the name of a charity to get you to sign up for regular donations. They are banned from some areas but charities apparently rely on them as spontaneous donations continue to decline.