Racing down The River

Dickens went further to describe Tower Bridge’s construction as: the filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London, wholly unknown, even by name, to the great mass of its inhabitants . . . . . . . . . .

Exclusively for Patrons, here is List 12: Run 189 the next ‘run’ from my travelogue Pootling around London: Manor House to Gibson Square, again I hope you find it both amusing and informative.

Thank You again for your support.

Barnes Bridge Station SW13 to Bromyard Avenue W3

It’s late March now, I’ve parked up on the imaginatively named ‘The Terrace’, which has some of the prettiest Regency cottages I’ve ever seen. The wind whips across The River and round my shoulders, one of winter’s dying gasps. I would have preferred the long ride from Essex to probably the furthest south-west corner of the 6-mile limit later in the year when the sun starts to gain a hold over winter’s icy grip.

But next month it’s the annual University Boat Race and thousands will turn up to watch between Putney and Chiswick Bridges. The popular annual event is televised and many will support one of the university’s eights for their entire life, even though they may never have been to the university town, let alone its seat of learning.

I’m rather bemused by this thought of next month’s race, recently I’ve discovered a public house called Doggett’s Coat & Badge, which overlooks the Thames by Blackfriars Bridge. The pub is named after the oldest rowing race in the world, having been held every year since 1715. The course, from London Bridge to Cadogan Pier, is longer than those wimps from Oxbridge endure, and the competitors face the elements on their own, if that wasn’t bad enough, when it started they would row against the tide. All for a prize of £250 and to get to wear a coat and badge for a competition dreamt up by Thomas Doggett, an Irish actor, and comedian, who relied on The River’s watermen acting as 18th-century cabbies prepared to go ‘Sarf of The River’.

The whole area around here has an air of refinement, the cottages with their ornate ironwork, The River looking benign as it moves slowly by, the real cheese shop specialising in European fromage and of course, an off-license packed full of wines from France and Italy. It set off on my run and before long my illusions are shattered.

On the right in a riverside pub, the White Hart, but curiously it has an A-board outside which has scrawled upon it that a certain regular at this fine hostelry has been barred, and furthermore that he should adhere to this instruction. In East London, troublemakers are thrown out, but here it seems, the gentility gives formal notice, a public declaration if you will.

As if to emphasise that this is the land of drinkers I can smell the aroma of beer being brewed. And there on my right is the Stag Brewery which began life in 1700.

A sharp right turn and I’m approaching Chiswick Bridge, here is a reminder that this area once actually produced commodities. It’s my favourite face of this run, Chiswick is Old English for `cheese farm’, reference to this fact was first recorded over a thousand years ago.

Before long I’m approaching Hogarth Roundabout, home of the artist and satirist who drew a cartoon which coined the phrase ‘Gin Lane’, and we are back again to our alcoholic pub crawl, and opposite is Fuller’s `Griffin’ Brewery, started in 1600 in a garden in the nearby Chiswick Mall which overlooks the Thames.

Turning away from The River and all the production of alcohol it’s just a short ride past Turnham Green to reach our destination, Bromyard Avenue, and the last piece of trivia on this run. Bromyard House was formerly the Ministry of Pensions building accommodating 6,000 staff, and at the time of its construction in the 1920s was the largest single building in Britain, during World War II the building served as headquarters for the Canadian military, who no doubt enjoyed a tipple in the officer’s mess.

I’m looking at a book given to me by a good friend, for Christmas or my birthday, I cannot remember. The prosaic title of London`s Changing Riverscape belies the wealth of information between the covers, written by five enthusiasts of The Thames it shows both The River’s banks from London Bridge to Greenwich.

There’s a reason I’ve fished this book out from my bookshelves, for that same friend has given me for my 70th birthday a round trip from the Pool of London to Whitstable on the paddle steamer Waverley, the world’s last remaining seagoing vessel of its kind. I have a tenuous connection with this venerable ship, described by the operators as `Britain’s largest interactive exhibit’, as this historical craft was first launched in the year of my birth.

I must, at some time, have driven down every street within a 6-mile radius of Charing Cross, but never have I sailed down the Thames.

In the early light, there is a fine drizzle, not an auspicious start to the day. We lie moored alongside the grandly named Tower Millennium Pier, not that the ticket details give the correct name of the pier, nor a postcode that’s recognisable by my satnav.

We’re facing upstream and traffic is light upon London Bridge, which owing to Waverley’s height we cannot negotiate. The Waverley is doing what it was built for, taking day trippers out upon British waters for the proverbial trip around the bay, or in this case a trip around the Thames estuary.

Named after another ship which acted as a minesweeper in World War I and was sunk at Dunkirk during the Second World War, the Waverley has been lovingly restored and the only nod to modernity is the new lifeboats, escape ladders and fire extinguishers.

Tower Bridge is raised as one of the modern Thames Clippers sounds its horn by way of salute. This Victorian bridge often thought to be much earlier by some of my passengers was opened – literally – by the Prince of Wales in 1894, his mother, Queen Victoria described the reasons for its construction in less regal terms as – bosh!

Others were as equally opposed to this artery between the City and the south bank, known as Jacob’s Island, which Dickens used as Bill Sykes’s lair. Dickens went further to describe Tower Bridge’s construction as:

. . . the filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London, wholly unknown, even by name, to the great mass of its inhabitants

After Tower Bridge on our port side, as we should refer to the north side of the Thames for this part of the journey came St. Katherine’s Dock built between 1826-1828 at the cost of demolishing 1,200 houses, a hospital, and a church. In all 11,000 inhabitants were displaced. After all that the dock would remain a working facility for only 140 years.

Further, on much of the wharves have disappeared and the riverbank gave over to modern apartments, which the architects seem to have a competition amongst themselves as who can design the most offensive in terms of looks. The first real evidence on the port side of The River’s industrial heritage is not encountered until we reach Wapping where many of the original warehouses have now residential usage – loft apartment living I think is the jargon.

But first in our sights were a pair of fine Georgian pier houses once the home of senior officials of the London Dock Company. With good reason did they live adjacent to their workplace, the wool warehouses alone occupied nearly one million square feet of storage.

The crime was rife here, soon we were passing Execution Dock, where pirates, smugglers, and mutineers met their end at the end of a rope, in the case of pirates this was achieved using a short rope, strangling them rather than a clean break. As a further attraction, they were not cut down but remained hanging until three tides wash over the corpse. One celebrated pirate was Captain Kidd, whose death is celebrated by a modern pub on the shoreline here, two attempts were made to execute him, with the first rope breaking, to ensure that his name would always remain in the public’s consciousness his remains were gibbeted by The River at Tilbury for three years.Here’s a strange thing. Your brain. When you load your laptop with pictures it uses up vast amounts of memory. But if what you save isn’t pictures of cute cats but just text a modern device could probably store every printed word that’s housed in the British Library (Euston Road, just in case you didn’t know).

Your brain – or mine – is the opposite to a hard disc. It can store unlimited images, but remembering numerical sequences or words is quite a different matter. Try it for yourself. Try to memorise a paragraph from this missive. After you have failed miserably then try to remember images in a page of your newspaper.

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