On a chilly Sunday morning, Steve and I went to Bermondsey tube station to go on a tour of Thames-side Southwark, led by the charismatic Tim Thomas (who wore the best flat cap I’ve ever seen). An actor (gleefully telling us it was he who bumped off Simon Callow in the third act of Four Weddings and a Funeral), Singer (and songwriter, co-writing the theme tune to Rainbow) and friend of the Brunel Museum, over the next two hours Tim took us into the heart of the old docks of Southwark.
Bermondsey and Rotherhithe were historically poor areas. The inconsistent docking of ships meant that a regular wage to a worker was not accessible, so it’s hardly surprising that Dickens, the tour-guides’ friend, came here regularly to see the deplorable conditions for himself and get inspiration for his characters from the area. One such character lies in the Church of St Mary’s, designed by John Adams, who also designed St. George’s Hanover Square, where Laurence Sterne was buried.
In the shadow of its mighty spire, lies the grave of a Prince. In 1783, The Antelope, on a secret mission from the East India Company, was wrecked on a coral reef off what is now the Republic of Palau. “The crew were terrified that they were going to be put in a pot, boiled up and eaten by the locals” explained Tim. “The opposite happened, the locals welcomed them and helped them repair the ship. The Captain got to know the King of the island very well, and friendships were formed.”
“Now the King had a son by the name of Prince Lee Boo, and he was fascinated by what he could gather from the crew about what London was like. Prince Lee Boo begged his father that he should sail back. He caused a sensation when he arrived as no-one had seen a South Sea Islander before. He became a celebrity and even met the King. However the air of London got to him and he died of Smallpox six months later.”
Tim then took us to a pub nearby called the Mayflower, whose Captain resides in the same Churchyard as Prince Lee Boo. The Mayflower, named in honour of the ship that sailed from the mooring of this very pub to bring the first successful colonists of North America to what is now Massachusetts in November 1620. “This is a very popular place for our North American allies to make a pilgrimage to,” confirmed Tim.
The jewel of the tour was hidden from view, ingress gained through a tight hole into what looks like a baby gas-holder from Rotherhithe Street. Next door to the Brunel Museum is the original entrance shaft to is Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s first significant engineering project: the first tunnel under the Thames and indeed, a river. The project, which sought to alleviate the congestion that the boats of the Thames had created, was projected to take three but instead took eighteen years to complete. It was a marvel of engineering which cost several workers their lives (with Isambard a near fatality at one stage) from deadly methane gas, quicksand and flooding.
Tim’s voice, holding the group’s attention like a subterranean raconteur, boomed around the soot-stained walls, pointing out the remains of the staircases that our greatest living engineer and thousands of Londoners would have once walked down, to sample banquets and music. The venture ultimately failed and the tunnel, which became the haunt of thieves and scarlet women, was eventually converted into a tunnel for a railway. It is now the oldest section of railway in London.
We ascended the scaffold out of Brunel’s tunnel and seemingly returned to the world of the living. Much of the area’s past is hidden, buried even, underground, but with guides such as Tim, the long gone and the long dead effortlessly were resurrected.
Tim’s walk runs every Sunday, meeting at 10:45am at Bermondsey Tube. Photographs © Stephen Roberts 2015.