In Old Bermondsey
The horse’s head upon the fascia reveals that RW Autos was once a farrier
Twenty-five years ago I had reason to visit Bermondsey St frequently but I have hardly been there since, so I thought it was time to walk down across the river and take a look. Leaving the crowds teeming like ants upon the chaotic mound that is London Bridge Station in the midst of reconstruction, I ventured into Guy’s Hospital passing the statue of Thomas Guy, who founded it in 1721, to sit with John Keats in a stone alcove from old London Bridge now installed in a courtyard at the back.
From here, I turned east through the narrow streets into Snowsfields, passing the evocatively named Ship & Mermaid Row, and Arthur’s Mission of 1865 annotated with “Feed my Lambs” upon a plaque. An instruction that has evidently not been forgotten, as the building adjoins the Manna Day Centre which offers refuge and sustenance to more than two hundred homeless people each day.
At the end of Snowsfields is the crossroads where Bermondsey St meets the viaduct carrying the railway to and from London Bridge, and the sonorous intensity of the traffic roaring through, combined with the vibration from the trains rattling overhead, can be quite overwhelming. Yet the long narrow street beckons you south, as it has done for more than a thousand years – serving as the path from the Thames to the precincts of Bermondsey Abbey, a mile away, since the eleventh century. When I first came here, I never ventured beyond Bermondsey Sq. Only when I learned of the remains of the medieval gatehouse in Grange Walk beyond, with the iron hinges still protruding from the wall today, did I understand that Bermondsey St was the approach to the precincts of the Abbey destroyed by Henry VIII in 1536.
There is an engaging drama to Bermondsey St with its narrow frontages of shops and tall old warehouses crowded upon either side, punctuated by overhanging yards and blind alleys. A quarter of a century ago, everything appeared closed down, apart from The Stage newspaper with its gaudy playbill sign, a couple of attractively gloomy pubs and some secondhand furniture warehouses. I was fascinated by the mysteries withheld and Bermondsey St lodged in my mind as a compelling vestige of another time. Nowadays it appears everything has been opened up in Bermondsey St, and the shabbiness that once prevailed has been dispelled by restoration and adaptation of the old buildings, and the addition of fancy new structures for the Fashion & Textile Museum and the White Cube Gallery.
Yet, in spite of the changes, I was pleased to discover RW Autos still in business in Morocco St with the horses’ heads upon the fascia, indicating the origin of the premises as a farrier. Nearby, the massive buildings of the former London Leather Exchange, now housing dozens of small businesses, stand as a reminder of the tanning industry which occupied Bermondsey for centuries, filling the air with foul smells and noxious fumes, and poisoning the water courses with filth.
The distinctive pattern of streets and survival of so many utilitarian nineteenth and eighteenth century structures ensure the working character of this part of Bermondsey persists, and you do not have to wander far to come upon blocks of nineteenth century housing and old terraces of brick cottages, interspersed by charity schools and former institutes of altruistic endeavour, which carry the attendant social history. Thus Bermondsey may still be appreciated as an urban landscape where the past is visibly manifest to the attentive visitor, who cares to spend a quiet afternoon exploring on foot.
John Keats at Guy’s Hospital
Arthur’s Mission in Snow’s Fields seen from Guinness Buildings 1897
In Bermondsey St
At the Woolpack
Old warehouses in Bermondsey St
St Mary Magdalen Bermondsey – the medieval tower is the last remnant of the Abbey founded in the eleventh century
In St Mary’s Bermondsey St
In St Mary Magdalen Graveyard
This plaque marks the site of the abbey church
Old houses in Grange Walk – the house on the right is claimed to be the Abbey gatehouse with hinges of the gates still visible
Bermondsey United Charity School for Girls in Grange Walk, 1830
In Grange Walk
Bermondsey Sq Antiques Market every Friday
A cottage garden in Bermondsey
The Victoria, a magnificent tiled nineteenth century pub with its original spittoon, in Pages Walk
London Leather, Hide & Wool Exchange built 1878 by George Elkington & Sons, next to the 1833 Leather Market, it remained active until 1912.
At the entrance to St Thomas’ Church
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