Last week I went on a reconnaisance trip to scout out a new tour I have been wanting to start offering to my lovely tourists. As well as the regular tourist hotspots, I really enjoy taking people to the lesser visited parts and judging from the reactions of my tourists, the more authentic an experience, the greater their enjoyment.
As such I took a walk along the the south bank of the Thames through the districts of Bermondsey and Rotherhithe. These are parts of London that even most Londoners never visit, let alone tourists and yet having gone through a certain level of gentrification, what were the aspects that made visiting the area a seeingly stupid and possibly dangerous idea is now what makes it so attractive.
I knew there was a lot to see but even I didn’t quite appreciate just what atmospheric and historic neighbourhood this was and so it seems like a good idea to write a few blog posts about just some of the highlights I came across. As it is an easy-going Saturday I thought I would start off with historic Angel Pub in Rotherhithe.
The Angel pub sits in splendid isolation in front of the remains of Edward III’s mansion on the Thames Path at the western edge of Rotherhithe and has a history going back to at least the 17th Century though it is likely that in one incarnation or the other, it dates back to medieval times.
At the very end of Bermondsey Wall East, it used to be flanked by a variety of buildings, all crowded together to make the most of the valuable Thames frontage.
Local legend has it that Judge George Jeffreys (the “hanging judge”) used to come here to watch men die at Execution Dock, which was opposite. It is also believed that the legendary Captain Cook prepared for his journey for which eventually led to his landing in what became known as Australia.
During most of the 17th and 18th Centuries its busy riverside would have ensured a rich but not always salubrious variety of clientele, from river pirates, smugglers and thieves to sailors and press gangs. In the early 20th Century its reputation and location attracted local artists including Augustus John and James Abbott McNeil Whistler. Such artists of course were only following in the footsteps of perhaps the most celebrated British painter, JMW Turner who is said to have painted one of the two most lauded British paintings, The Fighting Temeraire either here or at Cherry Tree Park, the small riverside park just a minute away on foot.
The Fighting Temeraire was painted by Turner and is said widely acknowledged to be one of the most loved British paintings. It depicts the grand old HMS Temeraire which fought under Admiral Horatio Nelson at the great victory at Trafalgar. Here, at the end of its life, it is being towed back to London ready for the breakers yard. Notable also of course that the small tug is pulling the great old warhip thanks to the power of the steam engine which has latterly rendered the age of the sail to history.
In the 19th century The Angel was in the middle of a very busy stretch of tightly packed Thames-side trade related industrial buildings and slums. Even now, the area has a reputation that can deter more delicate people from visiting after dark.
It remains decorated in period style and has happily not fallen foul of the trend in many pubs that cater to a younger crowd of having music playing. Here you can enjoy a drink or a meal whilst looking out at the tremendous views with friendly locals, a smattering of tourists and lively conversation.
In days gone by, the pub was a hotbed of smugglers with tap doors in the lower floor that open up a few feet over the river. When out on my walk through Bermondsey and Rotherhithe, I got talking to former and slightly elderly smuggler. I talk to everyone 🙂
As you can see from the old photo above, The Angel is actually built partially over the river with just enough space for small boats to position themselves underneath. I would have gone closer to take some photos of the doors but firstly was running a bit late, secondly there was some renovation work going on which made things a little difficult and thirdly, a sudden and slightly surprising high-tide had come in and I doubt anyone would want to open the trap doors up!
If you’d like to tour with me on this trail that will culminate inside the Mayflower pub, constructed out of the actual timbers of the famous Mayflower ship then visit my tour page below: