As the departure point for the Pilgrim Fathers, a place whose cobbled streets boast hundreds of years of maritime history and a milestone in man’s mastery of the elements, you might think Rotherhithe would be shouting its glories from the rooftops. Instead it remains one of London’s more laconic corners, with what broadcaster Tom Dyckhoff called, ‘A lingering air of abandonment.’
Rovver’ive, to give it its proper name, does have an unearthly quietude for a riverside location so close to centre of London (and therefore the Universe). The housing is dense, as it always has been. And once you leave Rotherhithe Village to follow the river’s bend, the endless flats conceal the magic that is reserved for the windows, balconies and terraces of the riverside homes and – praise be – the pubs here.
We began though, further inland, at Rotherhithe Station, from where Half-life emerged blinking into the bright sunlight, an hour late.
‘I thought you said it was easy to get to?’ he moaned, stretching and yawning.
‘It is. It’s on the ginger line.’
‘Not when you fall asleep and end up in West Croydon, it isn’t.’ He looked around contemptuously. ‘Right. Where the fuck am I?’
‘Are you lost? Do you need directions?’ asked a helpful passer-by, her features enclosed by a hijab.
‘Aw, thanks, love. I’m alright. I just woke up, is all.’
She smiled, kindly, considering it was 3pm and walked on.
‘Bless her. All this balls about banning burqas, no cunt ever tried to get nuns to take off their habits, did they?’
‘Except you, as I recall,’ I said. But for once I had to agree with him.
‘What we need is a pint,’ he then declared.
Once more, I was in agreement.
I hardly knew Rotherhithe beyond The Mayflower pub, despite it being only two miles from London Bridge. The Mayflower seemed to be the limit of my river walks from SE1, so I had not been to or even really heard of The Ship, just around the corner. And what a happy discovery, tucked away from the main road with seating in a sun-trap at the front, a small, friendly bar inside and a little beer garden out back. It only serves Young’s, but there are many worse things than a pint of Ordinary with which to open your account for the day. Some reasonable pub grub later and Half-life announced:
‘I’m beginning to feel magnificent again.’
We walked out onto St Marychurch Street and into the heart of old Rotherhithe, around the eponymous place of worship. The Watchhouse Cafe’s only seating is outside in the church gardens – a lovely spot for a coffee and a sticky. The building used to house a sort of neighbourhood watch before Plod was invented. It was sited here to keep an eye out for grave robbers who made a mint flogging cadavers to Guy’s Hospital for medical research.
‘There are some things I won’t do no matter how good the money is,’ said citizen Half-life. ‘And one of them is digging.’
The 18th century church still has some medieval remnants along with its maritime links. The captain of the Mayflower is buried here and timber from ‘the heroine of Trafalgar’ has been fashioned into a table and chairs. The ship, the HMS Temeraire, is renowned as the subject of Turner’s evocative oil painting The Fighting Temeraire (pictured) that hangs in the National Gallery, seen being towed to its final berth in Rotherhithe.
We have covered The Mayflower before, but it’s impossible to pass this beauty by. It has too much going for it to be ignored. History, a riverside lean and a fine pint. In the day of the Pilgrims, the pub was called The Shippe and, somehow, perhaps after a few ales, boarding an overcrowded one with no en suite facilities, let alone a buffet, for 65 days of storms and dysentery seemed like a good idea to them. Forewarned, we drank in moderation, looking out from the jetty on a vista that never loses its appeal.
Opposite the pub sits Sands Films Studios, an independent film production company, costumier and prop workshop housed in an old granary (Grade II listed). Spiralling rent threatened to close them down recently, so they launched an appeal for small shareholders, and with the help of Keira Knightley, Vanessa Redgrave and Derek Jacobi, they bought the building and resisted it being turned into a lovely Tesco Express.
Sands have been involved in productions from Gangs of New York to Wolf Hall, but there’s nothing rarefied about the place. The staff just seem happy that you came. Their picture research library is open to the public and anyone is free to browse their treasure trove of photographs ‘for any reason whatsoever’, in a room propped up with more ancient salvaged ship timber. They also have a small cinema with world cinema screenings.
The Brunel Museum next door is a little underwhelming, given that it is at the entrance of Victorian England’s ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ – the Thames Tunnel – and dedicated to the genius of the Brunels. After all, Isambard Kingdom Brunel could well be described as the Willy Wonka of mechanical engineering.
His father Sir Marc, assisted by his son, built the first underwater tunnel in the world here at Rotherhithe. Though it was never used for its original purpose of horse-drawn traffic, it became the No.1 tourist attraction in the entire world as two million people made their way underground to enjoy the fairground, sword swallowers, acrobats, necromancers, fortune-tellers, music and yes, beer. The thrill of messing about under the Thames proved irresistible in a science fiction-made-real kind of way. I feel the same way today about escalators. If you think about it, they are like stairs that actually move.
The tunnel is now used, rather mundanely, by the London Overground to get from Rotherhithe to Wapping but is occasionally open to the public. It was Marc’s greatest achievement among many, but his son outdid him, building dockyards, bridges and railways, which must have been very annoying for the old man. Isambard recently came second in a BBC poll of the greatest Britons, just behind Winston Churchill, who had the advantage of being a bit racist.
In summer, on Friday and Saturday nights however, a rooftop cocktail bar, the Midnight Apothecary opens on top of the Museum – of which more anon. Now that’s what I call engineering genius.
Beyond the village
We paused for one at Rotherhithe’s other water side boozerie, the Salt Quay, and discovered anything but abandonment. The massive outside space was packed with people enjoying the late summer sun as God intended: With a pint, on the Thames. Ruddy glorious.
The next stretch of the river soon had Half-life moaning, as we passed numerous sites of former pubs he’d been barred from. The Lost Pubs Project lists 29 closed pubs in Rotherhithe Street alone, which suggests we’re not in the golden age that I imagined. I hoped to reach the Hilton and have a ride on the little-known Canary Wharf-Rotherhithe ferry, but Half-life vetoed that with a quite reasonable:
‘Why the fuck would anyone ever want to go to Canary Wharf?’
Half-life was about to turn back when we spotted the Blacksmith’s Arms, festooned with flowers and more importantly, hand pumps. Phew. We had a pint in the little beer garden, slightly frustrated that we were so close to the river, yet couldn’t get a look at the old girl. It’s not the greatest pub in the world but we had been walking for an entire quarter of an hour.
As we left I spotted the entrance to a park, a logical destination after a pint, especially as Half-life had skinned up. We lost our bearings successfully and found ourselves in Russia Dock Woodland (see main image), a lovely little wilderness with dreamy water features and strange (feathered? Could they have been feathered?) creatures.
Accidental navigation led us back to the centre of Rotherhithe for the last of Rotherhithe’s five pubs, The Brunel. The ale wasn’t great but the pub was welcoming and the manager has moved the pub on from its days as the Adam & Eve, when it could get a bit fighty. Not that the place is devoid of characters. As we sat in beer garden next to a man feeding his Jack Russell a pint of ale, out came a loud lad with his mobile.
‘Oi! Sweetheart! Don’t be a twat!’ he bellowed. Clearly seduction techniques were different around here. ‘Listen!’ the man barked. ‘Do you want this fackin’ bricklaying job or what?’
Among the graffiti, ‘TARA WOZ ERE’, seemed unremarkable initially, even if it was in the Gents’. Then I noticed it was followed by, ‘A LOT’, and a plaintive, ‘THANK YOU, TARA’.
Half-life had hoped to discover Rotherhithe’s Scandinavian community, particularly the lady kind, as there are Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish churches in the area. The Finnish one even has its own sauna, something we know Half-life enjoys.
‘Thinking about it, I’m not sure church-going types are for me,’ he pondered, with weighty understatement. ‘Even scandiwegian ones. I like the sound of this Tara though.’
The cocktail garden
We were just about to grab a bite in the locally renowned restaurant, Simplicity, when we ran into Bibi, a Rotherhither and friend of Deserter. She dragged us to the Midnight Apothecary, possibly through the use of mind control, for tasty booze on a roof.
The Midnight Apothecary is a little oasis of wild plants and wilder booze that has developed from a community garden into a tipsy weekend hangout. Lottie Muir, also known as The Cocktail Gardener, has been running this kooky little gem for four years.
‘Instead of growing plants to eat, we grow plants to drink,’ she said, instantly making her a shoo-in for Deserter Gardener of the Year.
The place was rocking before seven, with the mostly young crowd excited by new drink combinations: Nasturtium tequila and pink grapefruit, or lavender gin, pear juice and lemons. Sadly the Greek pop-up, I Should Be Souvlaki wasn’t on duty tonight, as they sometimes are, or we’d have lined our stomachs with something other than Jensen’s lovely London Dry gin.
A guide then invited everyone down to the Brunel Tunnel Entrance Hall for an entertaining talk about the struggle to build the tunnel, in the historic space that is now used for concerts and shows.
‘This is how history should be taught,’ said Half-life, sipping a Sage Advice (whisky, Benedictine, grape verjus and bitters). ‘We never had cocktails in class where I come from. London, eh?’
Back on deck I found him roasting a marshmallow by the fire pit, unsuccessfully chatting up Bibi. She later told me he claimed to be a descendant of Brunel who had invented a love machine that maximised sensual pleasure through the use of a tripod, some ligatures and Mott the Hoople.
Despite this, Bibi took us up to her roof to show us the sights normally reserved for residents, or gods. The 360-degree panorama was beyond stunning; even Canary Wharf looked interesting. It was heartening to learn these views weren’t just for the wealthy owners of warehouse conversions, that at least one of these old wharf buildings was run by a co-op and not available to the highest bidder. We gazed out on the passing party boats, as the passengers shouted songs through the night and we gave thanks that we weren’t on one.
There’s something lovely and louche about visiting the same pub twice in a day and in returning to The Mayflower we saw it in a different light. Gone were the greybeard tourists and in their place were engineering students from Ireland, young Aussies and Americans, mixing with lubricated locals over a soundtrack of heavy metal.
You could say that there’s not a lot in Rotherhithe, but what it does have is unique, quite fascinating and there for anyone who can be bothered to venture here. Few do. It’s on a peninsula, so no one is passing through. And as welcoming as the locals are, I don’t think they really mind.