A description of a journey of discovery and explorations in London’s hinterland.
A few months ago I discovered and became an accidental traveller in a new and strange world beneath my feet. My entrance into this new world came about when I started off across London Bridge, over the river Thames towards the city to do some street photography. My eye was caught by an area of foreshore on the north bank exposed as the tidal river retreated towards the estuary and the North Sea beyond.
Descending the steps beside the bridge and walking east I followed a broad flight of steps down to the foreshore in front of Custom House. Within a few feet, I arrived in a different world and the hustle and bustle of the city disappeared.
I was immediately enchanted and enthused to explore this place which I describe — taking a little poetic licence — in the sense that it is ‘an area lying beyond what is visible or known’ (Oxford Dictionaries) as London’s hinterland.
Sometimes it is visible, sometimes not, but it is always there with its own residents, rhythms and returning visitors. As I returned to the hinterland, themes developed such as its separation from the city life above, its quietness and peacefulness and the glimpses of history that can be gained from the objects appearing there.
The sense of otherness was tinged with one of wilderness. The river allows and then denies access and this hinterland is not always a safe place. We visit there as and when we are permitted by the river and we must leave before it catches, captures and holds us. I have read that any wilderness has one of two effects on people; either they are fearful and walk away from it or they are fearful and walk into it to explore. So be it.
While preparing this, I became aware of a book by Lara Maiklem called Mudlarking. Mudlark is the term used to describe “a person who searches the banks of tidal rivers for scrap metal, ropes etc. to sell” (Chambers dictionary). I first heard of it as a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week and have found it to be a very helpful guide and very descriptive of how I feel about the foreshore. To plan my explorations, I used the website of the River Thames Society for access points in conjunction with a smartphone app for tide tables.
East from Westminster Bridge on the south side of the river the area is known as Bankside. Here you can find the Tate Modern Gallery, housed in the old Bankside Power Station building, and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.
Below the embankment wall, a large area of the foreshore is exposed at low tide and mudlarks descend to start their work, picking around for treasures, unobserved by the oblivious crowds passing above them. Others go to explore the foreshore or to have a quiet walk during their lunch breaks and birds find it a safe place to rest.
Sense of history
Across the river on the north foreshore east of London Bridge, where I first entered this world, I saw the remains of old barge beds built to provide level platforms on which, in the past, barges could be loaded and unloaded. They gave me a sense of history and I liked their juxtaposition with the warehouses and the Shard building opposite, all symbols of the city’s commercial life through the centuries.
As I tried to frame both the barge beds and the Shard to capture this juxtaposition, a River Police launch passed between them. I later learnt that the oldest element in the photo is the River Police, founded in 1798, which predates both the barge beds and the warehouses opposite. It is now officially known as the Metropolitan Police Marine Policing Unit, having been merged with the Metropolitan Police, or its predecessor, in 1839. Its base is still in Wapping High Street but everyone I know still calls it the River Police.
Exploring further east, I found more barge beds, with Tower Bridge behind, and then turned back west towards Westminster, descending to the foreshore whenever possible.
I wanted to explore the north foreshore around Wapping beyond Tower Bridge as I had seen exposed areas from the South Bank and also, to my surprise, on Google Earth. Leaving Tower Bridge, I looked for ways to access the foreshore and between the old buildings, I found atmospheric narrow stairs and alleyways with views to the river beyond.
Lara Maiklem writes in her book Mudlarking that the small causeways from the bank allowed access to the wherries, small boats that, in former times, ferried passengers across the river.
I was struck by Lara Maiklem’s description of this area: “The narrow passageways that survive are cobbled time tunnels, unchanged for centuries; dark, cold and windy, musty and damp with river air, they smell and feel like the past.
In places they lead to equally ancient stairs, rotten wood and stone steps worn by millions of feet into a series of sagging crescents. And with the outside world kept at bay behind the tall brick walls that line the river, I can easily lose myself in another world altogether.”
Beside The Town of Ramsgate pub, the narrow alleyway led me to Wapping Old Stairs. Intrigued by the names, I later found the following on the pub’s website:
The reference to Ramsgate became about after the fishermen of Ramsgate who landed their catches at Wapping Old Stairs. They chose to do so as to avoid the river taxes which had been imposed higher up the river close to Billingsgate Fish Market.
As for the Wapping Old Stairs next door, they also have a bloody history.
“If you visit during low tide, you can still see the post to which condemned pirates were chained, to be left to drown as the tide rose.”
I saw no chained pirates hanging around on the point of being drowned, or the top of the head of an ex-pirate (things aren’t what they used to be), but two men were leaving the place where they had been working, having been driven back by the rising river. I returned down the alleyway, chatting with them and resolved to visit again on another day.
Modern goods, ancient treasures
I returned to the southern foreshore, east of Tower Bridge, on other days and at times when my tide tables application showed convenient low tides. Walking from London Bridge, I passed a construction site of the Thames Tideway sewage project and reached Bermondsey Beach opposite Wapping Old Stairs. It can be seen in the background of the image above. The few visitors allow the local swans to rest briefly on land, preen themselves and, when ready, launch again into the river.
On one visit, I met a mudlark with a metal detector making his way back and forth on the foreshore. I checked that he was happy to be photographed and looked for compositions to try and show how I felt about him working in this other world.
He searched methodically and, when his detector indicated something of interest, he dug carefully to expose it. He told me that he’d previously found a Roman coin and showed me a photo on his phone. The coin is one of only two such found in England. In answer to my question, he said that he was fully licensed for his digging — a requirement now for mudlarks.
As the working world continued above us, with delivery drivers bringing their goods, in the hinterland just below their feet the mudlark collected those goods that were delivered lost or discarded in centuries past.
A short distance further east lies the foreshore at Cumberland Wharf in Rotherhithe. This area is said to be the place from where The Mayflower left London for its voyage to North America.
Making my way down the short flight of stairs through the embankment wall to the foreshore, I saw a man walking his dog joined by a young woman using the wall for her morning yoga.
Asking her if I could include her in my photographs she agreed in a North American accent and, far behind her on one of the buildings, the flag of the United States flew. A happy coincidence.
Having walked up and down the foreshore, I stopped to eat my lunch on the steps and enjoyed seeing the traffic on the river passing the boats moored on the foreshore. The cruise ship was turned by the tugs just east of Rotherhithe, presumably because the river is wide enough there, before being pulled backwards into the Pool of London.
My most recent visit to Rotherhithe was as the tide was coming in and I made sure I was close to the steps as the water approached. I had planned to reach the foreshore when the river was lower but two trees falling on railway lines to the south of London had thrown the rail network into chaos and delayed my arrival.
As luck would have it, and as I was leaving the foreshore, a young man, sounding obsessed with finding a can he had dropped from the path above, ran past me. Unable to reach the can, he changed his mind and threw stones into the river oblivious of the rising water cutting off his escape. Finally responding to the increasingly desperate entreaties of his friends he climbed a ladder and pulled himself over the wall to escape.
Having had enough amusement for the day and forced by the river to abandon the foreshore — tide and time wait for no man (must patent that one) — I retired to The Angel pub in Rotherhithe for a coffee. It’s a Sam Smith pub, by the way.
I plan to return to this hinterland whenever time and tide allow. It will continue to be a place where I can briefly escape from the world of the city above. I look forward to seeing the birds resting, the river traffic passing by and the mudlarks searching for those treasures that will so evocatively provide a bridge between London city and its hinterland.