A Mug at Christmas

I’ve survived ordeal by carbon monoxide and reaching Culling Circus is a relief, this curiously named roundabout must have got its title from the tunnel’s ability to kill motorists who dwell too long in its cavernous bowels . . . . . . . . . .

Exclusively for Patrons, here is List 1: Run 13 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.

Beaumont Square E1 to Cannon Wharf Business Centre SE8

If anywhere is going to reinforce the idea that the runs on The Knowledge are just given arbitrary starting points and places where they end, this is the run. Beaumont Square is located in the middle of a large area of social housing lacking anywhere of particular merit. It backs onto the small private hospital, itself having no architectural merit.

Dickens wandered through on a ‘drizzling November day’ in the 1850s: he saw . . .

. . . a squalid maze of streets, courts, and alleys of miserable houses let out in single rooms. A wilderness of dirt, rags, and hunger. A mud-desert, chiefly inhabited by a tribe from whom employment has departed, or to whom it comes but fitfully and rarely

Much, of course, has improved, but it was here on a Christmas Eve a few years later I would find that some of Stepney’s Victorian past is still prevalent.

At the end of an evening shift, foolishly I allowed myself to have my money bag snatched while stationary in Stepney Way, just yards from Beaumont Square. All the usual paraphernalia of one’s wallet and some documents relating to the imminent purchase of a cab were stolen.

It would subsequently be a lesson on the best and worst of Londoners. The next day I received a phone call from the housing estate manager to say that my wallet – minus the money had been handed into the office. After collecting my property my son and I spent a couple of hours scouring the estate for the errant money bag. Just as we were preparing to leave a call from the first floor of a tower block informed us that a bag could be seen on the roof of the entrance lobby to their building.

Upon entry into their flat, it was obvious that the residents had little money, there wasn’t any evidence of Christmas decoration. My son climbed out of their window onto the entrance roof and retrieved the bag. It took considerable persuasion to get these kind people to accept a ‘Christmas’ gift for their children for their honesty.

So maybe Charles Dickens might have been right about the poor state of the buildings but many of the people of Stepney proved his November Tale was inaccurate.

Just up the road from Beaumont Square is a point which fits perfectly with the aquatic title of this chapter. The Widow’s Son on Devons Road is a Grade II* listed public house built in the 19th century with an interesting history behind its name.

The story is that a widow’s house previously stood on the site. Expecting her sailor son home from the sea during the Napoleonic wars one Easter, she naturally baked him a hot cross bun but, unfortunately, he did not return. The widow lived in hope and next year made another bun, and so on.

It was commonly believed that bread or buns baked on Good Friday would never grow mouldy and had a marked medicinal value, and it was also not unknown for such items to be hung up.

The years of stale buns were found hanging from a beam in her cottage after her death, inevitably the house became famous for its collection of buns, and when the pub was built on the same site in 1848 it was naturally called the Widow’s Son and the custom continued; each year a sailor bringing another bun.

The tradition almost ended when ironically the lease on the Widow’s Son ran out a week before Easter, with developers wanting to turn the site into a block of flats.

Thankfully the tradition is back at the Widow’s Son after the enthusiasm of the new landlord and the participation of sailors from the training ship HMS President permanently moored beside the Victoria Embankment.

A very short ride south between Victorian terraces interspaced with post-war developments due to bomb damage makes this a less than scenic drive. But the single most offensive assault on the senses is on one’s olfactory receptors. Turning towards the Rotherhithe Tunnel via the inspirationally named roads: Branch Road, yes it actually is a branch off from Commercial Road; forward into Tunnel Approach, we reach our subterranean river crossing.

The lack of original thought doesn’t end here, we are informed that the designer of this Edwardian tunnel is Maurice Fitzmaurice.

Upon entering the tunnel two things become immediately apparent. After the first 100 yards down a gentle slope, there is a dog-leg to the left. This gentle slope was necessary for horses to be able to carry their burden and the sharp turn was to stop horses bolting when they literally saw the light at the end of the tunnel. There is another sharp bend at the other end serving the same purpose.

There is a 20mph limit imposed, reinforced by using speed cameras, with good purpose.

The second feature of this tunnel is that you cannot breathe, and feel the need to bolt to the other end, in the manner of the aforementioned horses.

When built in 1908, at the expense of 3,000 losing their home, as the inscription above the entrance reminds us, most vehicular traffic was horse-drawn, presumably with just the occasional car. The aroma of horse manure must have been exquisite, compared to the noxious fumes which fill this mile-long tunnel. Four ventilation shafts struggle vainly with the exhaust fumes from 34,000 daily journeys.

Realising I’ve survived this ordeal by carbon monoxide, reaching Culling Circus is a relief. This small, curiously named roundabout must have got its title from the tunnel’s ability to kill motorists who dwell too long in its cavernous bowels. The circular road system has now been renamed St. Olav’s Square, not that it’s a square, but the Norwegian church of St. Olav is nearby, and as we will see we’re just entering London’s very own Nordic Noir.

Our destination, which no punter is ever likely to ask for, is but a short ride down Lower Road. A quick perusal of the area we find: the Swedish Seamen’s’ Church; Greenland Dock (excavated in 1696 and London’s oldest riverside wet dock, where once whales were brought ashore); Finland Quay; Oslo Square; Bergen Square; Norway Gate; and Helsinki Square, its only a matter of time before we see an unexplained death here, investigated by a blonde Scandinavian detective with a dubious past and little interpersonal skills.

My favourite around here lightens the tone of the place, it’s the imaginatively name Wibbly Wobbly Restaurant.

A design classic
Along with Harry Beck’s 1931 iconic map of the London tube, the A-Z remains one of the most ingenious examples of early 20th-century information design.

When undertaking the Knowledge, first you will need a large map covering the area roughly between Shepherds Bush to Whitechapel.

Geographers product, although a little expensive London Knowledge Map at £55.95.

For those with less deep pockets, the London A-Z Premier Map is available at £6.95.

This should be mounted on a cork board. Its use will be for calling over a route at home – more of which later. If you want to find the shortest route between A to B the best way to find it is by inserting notice board pins (the type with the large coloured heads) into the start and end of the route. By stretching a piece of cotton between them you will see the journey ‘as the crow flies’, or as we say ‘On the Cotton’.

You will also need a small pocket map the London Mini A-Z Street Atlas is available at £5.95 to take with you as you go around London. At the rather high price of £99.95 comes the London Knowledge Box. It has the same layout as the A-Z London Knowledge Atlas, each double-sided map page is individually laminated and incorporates a 15mm margin punched for ring binder use if required. Lightweight and waterproof, with the option of taking only the sheets you need for the day’s runs, they are ideal for clipping to a board; the smooth laminated surface allowing for the use of write-on write-off pens for marking runs, invaluable if you are serious about the Knowledge.

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