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Hanging Out In Rotherhithe

Hanging Out In Rotherhithe

I’m living in a house in Teak Close on the south side of the Thames.  You won’t find Teak Close on the average tourist’s map of London.  Southeast London tends to fall off the edge of most of them.  If you do find it, you’ll see that it’s near the Rotherhithe Overground station.  It turns out this whole area is known as Rotherhithe.  I didn’t realize it because many of the neighborhoods here are referred to by the names of the different docks that used to cover this area (Surrey Docks, Surrey Quays, Canada Wharf/Canada Water, etc.).

Today I stayed close to home and explored Rotherhithe using a walking tour I found on the BBC’s website.  Parts of the tour followed the Thames Path.  It’s fun to imagine the history that could be seen from these banks.  Roman and Viking invasions, several of Henry VIII’s unfortunate queens being carried to the Tower of London, and apparently, the Mayflower setting sail for America in 1620 (more on that in a bit).

Rotherhithe was once an important ship building center.  There’s a dry dock just a few blocks from my house where ships were built from the 17th century until the late 1960s.  Apparently ship building was thirsty work; at one time there were more than 150 pubs in Rotherhithe.  I can confirm that there are considerably fewer these days.

Rotherhithe had strong trade links with Scandinavia.  As a result, a large Scandinavian community developed here.  The Norwegian Royal Family even attended services at St. Olav’s Norwegian Church in Rotherhithe while they were exiled in London during World War II.

Another of Rotherhithe’s claim to fame is that it’s the site of the first tunnel ever built under a navigable river.  I stopped at the Brunel Museum, a small but interesting museum that honors the role the project’s engineers, Marc Brunel and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel, played in its construction.  It features exhibits on the dangerous conditions workers faced during its construction, and on the pioneering tunneling methods devised by the Brunels.

It took 18 years of grueling labor to complete the Thames tunnel.  Eventually the project ran out of money so the ramps at either end were never built.  This meant that the tunnel couldn’t be used for its intended purpose of transporting goods under the river.  Instead, it became a tourist attraction.  It was so popular that more than a million people visited it in the first three months after it opened in 1843.  It was finally converted into a railway tunnel in 1869, and is still in use today.

I had never hear of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, but he’s venerated in England.  In fact, he placed second in a 2002 BBC poll of the 100 Greatest Britons.  Winston Churchill placed first.  It turns out Brunel was a brilliant engineer.  After working on the Thames tunnel, he went on to design railroad lines, train stations, bridges, and tunnels all over England.  Today you’ll find roads, colleges, and buildings named after him throughout the UK.

Another interesting fact I learned is that the Mayflower actually started its journey to America from Rotherhithe docks, then stopping at Southampton and Plymouth before crossing the Atlantic.  When you sit down to Thanksgiving dinner this year, think of my Pilgrim connections here in London.

The Pilgrims’ momentous journey is commemorated by the aptly named Mayflower Pub, which was built in 1780.  I stopped at the Mayflower for an early dinner of steak and Guinness pie accompanied by a crisp Aspall cider from Suffolk.  I loved a sign in the pub that said “We are dog friendly.  Paws on the floor please.”  Actually, the entire country is dog friendly.  I’ve seen dogs everywhere, including in stores, on buses, and on the Tube.

As old as it is, the Mayflower Pub wasn’t the first tavern on this site.  The Shippe Pub was here in 1550.  On Sunday nights the Mayflower is lit by candlelight so that guests can experience what the Shippe Pub would have been like when the Pilgrims were here (although I’m not sure the Pilgrims spent much time in pubs).

St. Mary’s Church is directly across the street from the pub.  Parts of the church date back to the 12th century.  Three of the Mayflower’s four owners are buried at St. Mary’s, including her captain.  A watch house near the churchyard was built in the 1820s for the night watchmen who patrolled the area.  Apparently grave robbing was so common in the 1700s and 1800s that watch houses were often built near churchyards to deter body snatchers.  One final Rotherhithe fun fact: the actor Michael Caine was born here in 1933.

Thanks to today’s exploration, I know that even the quietest neighborhoods in London are steeped in history.  Check out the BBC’s walking tour of Rotherhithe, and picture me on my daily walks.

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