Most people are familiar with the ‘chocolate box’ images of London: Buckingham Palace, Tower Bridge, The London Eye. While all of these places should indeed be included on your ‘to see’ list, you will miss out on the heart and soul of the greatest city on earth if you just to stick having your picture taken in front of the ‘tourist icons’. The London’s Hidden Gems series is aimed at those of you who want to go a little deeper when visiting London. This week’s gem: Rotherhithe.
You cannot say ‘Rotherhithe’ without mentioning the word ‘Thames’ in the very next breath. This part of London has always been defined by its proximity to the river. Indeed the name Rotherhithe is probably derived from the ancient Norse term for ‘sailor’s haven’. It is still one of the best places to observe the river in its many moods. If, therefore, you want to experience something of old maritime London, away from the teeming masses of tourists: Get off the Tube at Bermondsey, or Rotherhithe Station, and go for a walk next to the river. Some of the things that you should look out for are:
Echoes of one of the most famous ports in the world. Rotherhithe used to be at the heart of the Surrey Commercial Docks and it was therefore an integral part of the Port of London. Most freight destined for London is now offloaded many miles downstream at Tilbury. However, abundant traces of the history of this part of the Thames can still be found everywhere if you care to look. Machinery for the lifting of canal locks, mooring places old warehouses converted into flats cranes are all around. The names of faraway destinations are also reflected in the street names and in the few surviving docks. Look out for Canada Water, Russia Dock and Greenland Dock. After a while you can almost imagine the rigging of a tall sailing ship shifting into view.
The Mayflower Pub. Perhaps the most famous ship to ever sail from Rotherhithe was The Mayflower: the ship that took the Pilgrim Fathers to the New World in 1620. A pub (called ‘The Mayflower’ of course!) now stands near the spot from where it left. Have a drink there and toast the courage of those early pioneers who risked everything to go and make a new start. Be sure to catch the excellent statue celebrating the legacy of the Pilgrim Father’s just around the corner from the pub.
St. Mary’s Church. Opposite ‘The Mayflower’ you will see St. Mary’s Church. There has been a place of Christian worship on this site for more than a millennium and St. Mary’s is still an active functioning church. Look out for the grave of the captain of the Mayflower, Christopher James, in the churchyard.
The Brunel Museum. One of the greatest engineering families (Marc Brunel and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel ) left their mark on Rotherhithe with the construction of the Thames Tunnel . This tunnel was an engineering marvel of its day and its construction, and the pioneering work of the Brunel’s, is celebrated in this fascinating little museum.