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Entries about libraries

Exploring Rotherhithe

London

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River view from Rotherhithe

In my previous entry I promised to write more about Rotherhithe. On that occasion we skipped exploring this area as we had visited just a few years ago with my Virtual Tourist friend Regina. But there is plenty to see in this small corner of London, as I hope to show you now.

The Brunel Museum

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The Brunel Museum

This small museum in Rotherhithe tells the story of the building of the Thames Tunnel by two of England’s greatest and best known engineers – Marc Brunel and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The museum is located in the engine house built in 1842 to accommodate steam engines that drove the pumps to keep the Thames Tunnel dry.

When it first opened in 1843 the Thames Tunnel was described as the Eighth Wonder of the World. It was the first tunnel to be built with a tunneling shield under a navigable river and became an overnight tourist attraction. In those early days of the explosion of engineering techniques, every new achievement was a minor miracle and to the Victorians who flocked here the sight of the tunnel disappearing under the river would have been as impressive as the photos we see from outer space are to us – perhaps more so, because they could themselves walk through the tunnel whereas we can only marvel at the depths of the universe on TV or on our computer screens!

As I looked at the old pictures and read about the tunnel I imagined how those who visited must have felt. Were they scared to walk under the river for the first time or just excited?

The website explains, ‘On opening day 50,000 people walked through the tunnel paying a penny each. Within the first ten weeks 1,000,000 people had walked through. These were staggering numbers that any attraction would be delighted with today but bear in mind this was 1843 when the population of London was 2,000,000 people.’

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In the Brunel Museum

But this was never intended to be a tourist attraction, but rather a working transport link to carry cargo under the river and relieve the busy ferries. A bridge wasn’t practical here, as it would have to be very tall to allow sailing ships to pass underneath (and the technology to raise and lower a bridge did not yet exist). So Brunel proposed a tunnel and developed a special technique, using a tunneling shield to support the tunnel’s walls and roof. You can read more about how the tunnel was built, and all the difficulties they experienced, on the museum’s website.

However, the ramps needed to allow carts to pass through were never built, as the money ran out, so it remained a tourist novelty for a while. Later it was used for trains, and in recent years it has been reopened for use by a London Overground extension (yes, I know tunneling under the Thames isn’t exactly ‘over ground’ but that’s the name of the network!)

The museum has some interesting old pictures of the tunnel during and after construction, and informative panels about the work, as well as the lives of the two Brunels. But it isn’t large and you can see more or less everything in 15 minutes or so. When you’ve finished you can browse the bookshop (also small), have a drink in the café (ditto) or simply relax in the small square in which the museum sits. In this square you will see the shaft dug by Brunel to access the tunnel works, which after the tunnel was completed was turned into the Rotherhithe Grand Entrance Hall. It can’t be visited except on one of the museum’s twice weekly guided walks. Oh, and check out the benches in the square which are shaped like some of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s bridges.

Rotherhithe Picture Research Library (Sands Films)

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In Rotherhithe Picture Research Library

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Through a window

This is an amazing place – a treasure trove of images to support anyone researching costume, accessories, furniture and interiors etc. for plays or films. The collection consists of thousands of large loosely bound books classified by themes, countries and historical periods. There is a large collection of period costumes for hire which are regularly used by film companies, and also a costume workshop. The website lists many films and TV productions which have used costumes from Sands Films.

Now, almost certainly you are not a film, TV or theatre researcher, costume designer or similar! But don’t let that put you off visiting. For one thing, the building that houses it itself oozes history – a granary dating back to 1784, with thick wooden beams bleached by age holding up a rickety ceiling. For another, interspersed among the work desks and shelves of books are panels showing examples of embroidery and costume that were created from images held here, including slippers worn by Keira Knightly in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and a waistcoat from the film ‘Young Victoria displayed alongside the original from which it was faithfully copied.

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Keira Knightly's slippers

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Young Victoria waistcoat -
original on the left, copy on the right

I think however that these exhibits were there on a long-term but not permanent basis when we visited (the website then referred to them being ‘currently’ on display, with no dates specified) so if you are going just to see these, check first. However I would recommend a visit in any case as it’s an intriguing space in its own right.

St Mary the Virgin church

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Plaque on the church wall

Unfortunately on several different visits we have been unable to go inside this historic church, as the doors have always been locked, but I can share some information here nevertheless. The church is closely associated with the Pilgrim Fathers. Some of the pilgrims first went aboard the Mayflower when it was moored on the Thames a short distance from here, and the Master of the Ship, Christopher Jones, was from Rotherhithe. His children were baptised at St Mary's and his body buried in the churchyard, although the exact spot isn’t known. The tablet commemorating the 250th anniversary of his burial is inside the church so I have never seen it. But there is a blue plaque on the outside of the tower. This was unveiled on Thanksgiving Day (25th November) 2004 by a descendant of the Pilgrim Fathers. You will see such plaques all over London – they indicate that someone of note once lived in the building, or in another building on the same site.

The plaque reads:

Sailing of the Mayflower
In 1620 the Mayflower sailed from
Rotherhithe on the first stage of
its epic voyage to America

In command was Captain
Christopher Jones
of Rotherhithe

The church was built in 1715 but has naturally changed a lot over the years. The photos of the interior on the website show that the old box pews and galleries that were the norm back then were removed as part of the late 19th century ‘modernisation’ of the church, but the ceiling and pillars especially seem to retain something of the elegance of that earlier age.

There is a striking modern sculpture in the churchyard. It isn’t labelled, and the church website makes no mention of it, but fortunately Google came up with the answer as to what it is – a memorial to the master of the Mayflower, Captain Christopher Jones, which was sculpted in 1995 by Jamie Sargeant. A stylised figure of St Christopher looks back to the Old World while the child in his arms looks forward to its future in the New.

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St Mary's church, and memorial to Captain Jones

The Bluecoat School

Opposite the church is the building that once housed the charity school associated with it. This is one of a number of bluecoat schools in London. The name comes from the costume formerly worn by the pupils. These schools date back to Tudor times and the long blue coat is a relic of the ordinary attire of schoolboys and apprentices of that time. Blue was a favoured colour for charity school children because in Tudor and Stuart times it was the cheapest available dye for clothing. Blue-dyed materials were economical, implying a humble status, and they were therefore avoided by gentlemen and the aristocracy.

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The Bluecoat School

The photo above was taken in 2013. If you compare it with the more recent one in my previous entry in this blog, London Bridge to Rotherhithe, and the one below, you will see that the statues have been restored in the meantime, and the girl has lost her white apron!

The plaque on the building reads:
‘ST MARY ROTHERHITHE
FREE SCHOOL founded by Peter Hill and Robert Bell in 1613.
CHARITY SCHOOL instituted 1742
Removed here 1797.
Supported by Voluntary Contributions’

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The Bluecoat girl today

Peter Hill was a master mariner to teach eight children, ‘sons of seafaring men'. Robert Bell was a friend of the rector of that time. Hill lived to the age of 80 and when he died left a bequest of £3 a year to the master, which was supplemented through church collections. A late 19th century rector of the parish, the Reverend Edward Beck, recalled that,

‘The Churchwardens stood at the church door at the close of the service with a Charity boy and girl at their side clothed in the quaint dress of the time, and a goodly collection was gathered in the old painted plates bearing the inscription “Remember the poor Charity children for God’s sake and your own.”’

He also described how the 40 boys and 25 girls who attended the school at that time were clothed yearly and ‘taught the principles of the Christian religion’. All were taught to read and write, and boys were taught to ‘cast accounts’, while girls were taught to knit and sew. One of the Girls would be taken into the School House, lodged, boarded and instructed in household work, ‘in order to render her more completely fit for service’.

Either side of the plaque you can see the typical statues of children, a boy and a girl, dressed in their blue uniforms, which distinguish these schools. This building is today used as offices, but some bluecoat schools still remain as such. Nowadays though, most of these establishments are bluecoat schools in name only, having long ago abandoned the cassock-like bluecoats, knee breeches and stockings in favour of a more modern uniform. However, a number of schools still retain the traditional bluecoat costume for special occasions, and pupils at the most famous bluecoat school of all, Christ's Hospital (in Sussex), wear it at all times, keeping alive a tradition that dates back to the mid 16th century.

The Mayflower pub

This cosy little pub claims to be the oldest on the Thames! It is certainly old, having been established in 1621, just a year after the Pilgrim Fathers left on their historic voyage. Although it is well known that they sailed from Plymouth, and named their new settlement after that town, not everyone knows that their first departure point was Rotherhithe, very near this pub – hence the name, the Mayflower.

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The Mayflower pub, and its wind vane

The pub’s website explains:

‘In July 1620, the Mayflower ship took on board 65 passengers from its London homeport of Rotherhithe on the River Thames. Rumour has it that Captain Christopher Jones cunningly moored here to avoid paying taxes further down the river. The Mayflower journeyed onwards to Southampton for supplies and to rendezvous with the Speedwell but after many delays, false starts and a devastating leak, the Speedwell’s journey with The Mayflower was abandoned. On 6th September 1620, Captain Jones, along with 102 passengers and approximately 30 crew members, set sail from Plymouth on what William Bradford described as "a prosperous wind”.

After sighting land on 11th November, 1620, strong winter seas forced the Rotherhithe captain to anchor at Cape Cod, much further North than the original destination of Virginia. To establish legal order in their new homeland the settlers agreed, whilst on-board, to write and sign "The Mayflower Compact"; the first written framework of government in what is now the United States.

Captain Jones later returned to London on the Mayflower, arriving at the home port of Rotherhithe on 6th May 1621. He died less than a year later and was buried at St. Mary's church in Rotherhithe, close to the mooring point of the Mayflower where she lay to rest in the Thames, no longer useful as a ship.’

The pub has a welcoming if small interior for chilly days (there was a real fire when we last visited in poor weather) and an outside garden terrace overlooking the river, although space in the latter is at a premium when the sun shines, especially at weekends.

The Sunbeam Weekly and the Pilgrim’s Pocket

Near the Thames in Rotherhithe is this intriguing sculpture. If you like your art to tell a story, this one is for you. Created by Peter McClean’s in 1991, it shows a 17th century pilgrim such as might have sailed with the Mayflower. He is looking over the shoulder of a newsboy who is reading a 1930s paper, the Sunbeam Weekly, which tells the story of the Mayflower and also of modern America – look out for the Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building among the ‘illustrations’, along with cars, a train and a plane, a rodeo rider and more.

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The Sunbeam Weekly and the Pilgrim’s Pocket

At their feet a Staffordshire terrier begs for attention. Be sure to look in the pilgrim’s pocket – the sculptor has created a little joke, as he carries a London A-Z atlas dated 1620, as well as a crucifix and (inexplicably, to me at least) a lobster’s claw!

Surrey Quays

The nearest station to this area is unsurprisingly Rotherhithe, part of the London Overground network. But a short walk south will bring you to Canada Water, a Tube station (Jubilee line). If you decide on this route you can take a short detour to the east to pick up the paths that follow the waterside of Surrey Quays.

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Bridge, Surrey Quays

London’s docklands have changed so much in recent years, and Surrey Quays are a good example of those changes. Everyone knows the tall skyscrapers of Canary Wharf but this quiet residential area is also Docklands. Until 1970 this was the site of the Surrey Commercial Docks – so called because this was once the border between the counties of Surrey and Kent. Many would have liked the area to retain the name of Surrey Docks, but perhaps those who developed the site and built the pleasant-looking family houses that line its waterways felt that ‘Quays’ sounded less industrial?

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Surrey Quays

Whatever the reason, they’ve created a tranquil corner of London where I imagine it is a pleasure to live. The canals have something of a look of Amsterdam, with their distinctive bridges. But the ducks are those you will see on any park lake in England – mainly mallards, coots and moorhens, and I also once spotted a couple of tufted ducks and another species I couldn’t identify.

And look at the cute duck houses that sit on one stretch of water.

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Duck house, Surrey Quays

The names of other docks in this area reflected the many countries with which England traded, their ships arriving regularly in the Port of London to off-load their goods and pick up others – Greenland Dock, Russia Dock, Canada Water. A walk around this part of London will conjure up the ghosts of a very different city, when trade by sea drove the economy of the capital rather than trade in currencies and stocks.

Canada Water Library

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You may not want to necessarily visit a library while in London, and in any case would not need to travel so far from the centre to do so, but if you’re at all interested in modern architecture and the design of public buildings, this one is worth the detour. It naturally has everything you would expect of a modern library – plenty of computer access, wifi, study space, a small café, and of course books.

But what makes it stand out is its design, which was carefully thought out to make the most of the water-side setting while compensating for the fact that the space allocated to the library in this development was rather smaller than the local council (Southwark) would have liked. The architect’s solution? To build an inverted pyramid, so that the upper floors could be larger than the small ground floor footprint of the building. This design makes for a striking building from outside, and when you get inside, the beautiful curved staircase is just as striking.

If you’re interested in the history of the old docks in this part of London the top floor has a series of panels on the wall which tell the story. But bear in mind that this is the quiet study area of the library, so you’ll need to explore in relative silence.

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In Canada Water Library

The café has lovely views of the water outside and would make a good place in which to relax before making the journey back to the centre of town from the nearby Tube station.

Posted by ToonSarah 01:48 Archived in England Tagged churches architecture london water monument history river houses museum sculpture libraries Comments (6)

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