London: from Woolwich to Charing Cross

London: from Woolwich to Charing Cross

The most scenic way to get an idea of the extent of London is to take a trip on the River Thames that flows through the heart of the City.  From it, one can see many of the buildings and sites of historical interest and embark/disembark at your discretion.

Starting at Woolwich, the north shore is mainly important for the extensive Royal Docks, the Royal Albert Dock, the Royal Victoria Dock, and King George V. Dock. South Woolwich incorporates the Royal Arsenal and the Royal Military Academy once used for the training of cadets for the Artillery and Engineers. The Royal Military Academy was built in 1805 to the designs of James Wyatt. The academy ceased operations in 1939, and in 2008, the listed grade II building was granted planning permission for residential conversion.

The next place of interest is Greenwich, with the Hospital, Park, and Observatory. If you have time, you should stroll through Greenwich Park and see its magnificent old trees and beautiful flower-gardens.

William III built the Greenwich Hospital for the care of the sailors wounded at the battle of La Hogue. It is set on the site of Greenwich Palace, where Henry VIII and his daughters, Quenn Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I, were born, and which was the scene of many dazzling entertainments and historical events. The constructions, once used by the Royal Hospital School, were taken over by the National Maritime Museum in 1937.

The “Whitebait Dinners” for which Greenwich used to be famous, took place at the Ship Tavern, one of the largest Greenwich inns, once situated on the present site of the Cutty Sark clipper ship, home to a collection of objects, ranging from figureheads to newspaper cuttings. Close by is the entrance to Greenwich Tunnel, opened for foot-passengers in 1902.

What is extraordinary about this part of the river is its story full of scientific discovery, naval innovation, dark deeds, and regular London life through the ages. Along the north shore from the West India Docks that once covered 295 acres, much of which is now covered by the Canary Wharf estate to St. Katharine Docks Marina is the riverside district of East London. The whole area is very cosmopolitan, and Limehouse Causeway was once the home to the original Chinatown of London.

St Paul’s Shadwell, across Shadwell Basin, marks the eastern entrance to the former London Docks, begun in 1800 and Rotherhithe, a residential district in south-east London, lines the south bank for some distance. Here is also the Thames Tunnel. It never paid as a footway and was converted to railway use in the 1860s.

Next comes the site of the old Execution Dock where pirates were executed. Captain Kidd, among others, was executed there in 1701. The prisoners were hanged at low tide and left there until three tides had washed over them. All traces of the Execution Dock are now long gone, After 400 years of use, the last pirates stepped off in 1830. It was someplace along the half-mile of shore between the Wapping Old Stairs and Wapping Dock Stairs in East London: possibly at the spot overlooked by Captain Kidd, a pub named in honor of the most infamous pirate to meet his end here.

The area on the south side is Bermondsey, famous in olden times for its abbey and its market garden and mill-streams. The gardens have disappeared under the buildings, and the streams are now sewers. Bermondsey is a bustling place and was once the center of the leather trade. The western part of Bermondsey fronting the river was formerly a very horrible location, and the many ditches there formed what was called Jacob’s Island. Dickens describes it in “Oliver Twist” and makes it the scene of Sikes’s death.

Just before the Tower Bridge and St. Kathrine Docks Marina used to be a very mean and dirty district. A church, hospital, and 1250 houses were demolished to provide the twenty-three acres that were occupied by the docks.

The Tower Bridge was begun in 1886. The central span consists of drawbridges that can be raised to allow big ships to pass. The Tower of London, with its Traitors’ Gate, is located immediately to the west on the north bank. The buildings, as can be seen now, were commenced by William the Conqueror. The series of apartments in Caesar’s Tower, —hall, gallery, council-chamber, chapel—were built in the early Norman rule, and used as a royal residence by all Norman kings.

The Tower occupies five hectares, enclosed by a double line of walls enhanced with towers. These are called the Outer Ward and the Inner Ward, and in the center is the great White Tower. The Inner Ward was the royal quarter, to which the public had no right of entry but the people had free access to the Outer Ward. There are four ways into the palace. The Lions’ Gate on the west near the old menagerie, now in ruins were the last vestiges of the barbican that protected the front of the castle before any enemy could reach the entrance. Second, the Iron Gate, a small portal protected by a tower, deriving its name from the purpose for which it was erected. And lastly, the Queen’s Stairs and the Traitors’ Gate on the River Thames.

William Hepworth Dixon, an English historian and traveler, wrote:

“All personages coming to the Tower in honor were landed at the Queen’s Stair; all personages coming in disgrace were pushed through the Traitors’ Gate. Now a royal barge, with a queen on board, was going forth in her bravery of gold and pennons; now a lieutenant’s boat, returning with a culprit in the stern, a headsman standing at his side, holding in his hand the fatal ax. Beneath this arch has moved a long procession of our proudest poets, our fairest women, our bravest soldiers, our wittiest poets, Buckingham and Strafford, Lady Jane Grey, Princess Elizabeth, William Wallace, David Bruce, Surrey, Raleigh. Names in which the splendor, poetry, and sentiment of our national story are embalmed. Most of them left it high in rank and rich in life, to return by the same dark passage in a few hours, poorer than the beggars who stood shivering on the bank; in the eyes of the law, and in the words of their fellows, already dead.”

Below the river, from Tower Hill to Tooley Street, runs the forgotten and short-lived Tower Subway. The tunnel might be considered the world’s first tube railway. Sixty feet deep, it was constructed in 1869-70.

The large building with an extensive quay in front is the Custom House. Built in 1814- 17, it is the fourth Custom House constructed on or near this site. The first, of which there is any record, dates back to 1385.

To the west of the Custom House is the Old Billingsgate. This was once a world-famous fish market running up until 1982. Warehouses and wharves used to fill the bank from here to London Bridge and over them the spire of St. Magnus The Martyr a Church of England church and the tall Monument of the Great Fire of London.

Opposite St. Botolph’s wharf that was once was located on the north bank of the River Thames in Billingsgate Ward, directly east of London Bridge. A bridge has always existed since the first record of wooden piles being driven there in 43 AD. Over the next few centuries, the wooden bridge was renewed several times. The first stone bridge with buildings on it was erected in 1209. There were nineteen arches in the old London Bridge. The seventeenth, towards the Surrey shore, had a drawbridge, a chapel, and a gateway, over which traitors’ heads were impaled on spikes and exhibited for all to see.

London Bridge (not Tower Bridge) has been the scene of many stirring events. In 1212, three thousand people were imprisoned on it by flames and burnt to death. Those who weren’t killed by the fire either jumped into the river and drowned or were squashed as they tried to board already overloaded rescue boats.

Some fifty years later, Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester, repulsed Henry III. here, and the Londoners attacked Queen Eleanor of Provence with eggs and stones as she was trying to get through one of the arches in her barge. It was traitorously opened to Wat Tyler’s mob in 1381.

A few years later, a Scotch and an English knight tilted on the bridge before the King and Court. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth, elegant houses and other buildings embellished with gardens and arbours on their flat roofs lined it on both sides. Near the drawbridge stood the Nonsuch House, four stories high, built of wood, made in Holland, marvellously carved and gilt. “As fine as London Bridge” passed into a proverb.

The northern bank from London Bridge to Blackfriars is picturesque and full of historical associations. St. Paul’s towers, for example, above the buildings that cover the sites of old castles and palaces.

Up until the middle of the eighteenth century, London Bridge was the only means of crossing the river except by boat. The Thames, therefore, was London’s greatest freeway. There was no footway on the bridge and only enough space for two vehicles to pass one another. The pedestrians had to follow a carriage which might be passing across.  A narrow thoroughfare between two lines of houses was small accommodation for traffic; and so, the Thames waterman early thrived and multiplied. The city streets also were narrow so that the most convenient and pleasurable way to get to Charing Cross from the Tower, for example, was by water. Dreadful roads and dubious characters infesting them rendered the river far more safe and preferable as a route to more distant places, whenever possible.

The many “landing-places” made it easy to take a boat for business or amusement. Over a hundred of these “landing-places” or “stairs” as they were called, were available at the start of the eighteenth century. Even in Elizabethan days, the watermen or wherry men were more numerous than those engaged in any other profession.

In the reign of Queen Anne (the second daughter of James II and his first wife Ann Hyde) there were more than 40,000 wherry men on the payroll of the Watermen’s Company.

Between Greenwich and Westminster, the Thames was used largely for pleasure and spectacle. Picnics and water parties were every-day amusements of the London citizen. By boat, also they visited the Bear Garden (Elizabethan Amphiteatre) on the Bankside in Southwark, the Vauxhall Spring Gardens, and other places of entertainment on the south bank. The Thames was, therefore, a scene of busy life and animation. The palaces of royalty and the nobility with their wharves or Watergates were located along the north bank. During the reign of the Turods, the royal residences were more numerous than at present. They included the Greenwich Palace, Whitehall, the Tower, Bridewell, Westminster, Chelsea, Hampton Court, and of course, the Windsor Castle. The magnificent royal barges going from one place to another, and the splendid barges of the visiting nobles with their gorgeous retinues, were familiar sights on the river.

Great contests and celebratory observations were also held on the water. Up until 1857, the Lord Mayor’s Show, one of the best-known annual events in London dating back to the 16th century, went to Westminster by water. Foreign country representatives and royal princes were received and escorted by the royal barges of the Lord Mayor and Companies with various inventions and music. The magnificence of some of these was by some writers considered to exceed the Venetian pageants on the annual occasion of the wedding of Venice to the Adriatic. The last spectacle of this nature took place in 1849 when the Prince Consort, the husband of Queen Victoria, went down the river to open the Coal Exchange, situated at the corner of St. Mary-at-Hill and Lower Thames Street, facing the Custom House. This building was demolished in 1963.

In the old days, competitions of all kinds were held on the water. Jousts and tiltings, for example, on boats with spear and shield. Staff and buckler, was another popular competition, as the boats were rowed swiftly past one another. Boat racing among the watermen was very common, one survival of the contests being Doggett’s coat-and-badge, still rowed for. One of the favourite excursions of the residents was a visit to the “Folly on the Thames,” which is described as a floating summer-house with music, located near where Waterloo Bridge now crosses.

“Even when a hard winter came, our ancestors were not to be denied their fun upon the Thames. For on January 24th, which lasted from the beginning of December until well into February, John Evelyn, an English writer, gardener, and diarist, says that he saw on the frozen river bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cooks and tippling places, so that it seemed a bacchanalian triumph.”

On the south bank, London Bridge opens into Southwark. “In the Borough, there still remain some half dozen old inns that have preserved their external features unchanged. Great rambling, queer old places, with galleries and passages and staircases wide enough and antiquated enough to furnish materials for a hundred ghost stories.” At the time when Dickens wrote these words, the old Tabard Inn from which Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims was still standing.

The White Hart, a similar inn, also in High Street, mentioned by Shakespeare in Henry VI and where Mr Pickwick found Sam Weller engaged as “boots” was not pulled down until 1889. The Marshalsea Prison, familiar to readers of “Little Dorrit,” a Novel by Charles Dickens, stood near St. George’s Church at the corner of Great Dover Street and Borough High Street. The prison was closed in 1842, and all that remains today is a long brick wall and two gated arches.

Immediately after London Bridge and directly opposite the Swan Lane, you will see the square tower of St. Saviour’s, since 1905 Southwark Cathedral, the Anglican Cathedral on the south bank of the River Thames. It is one of the most exceptional medieval constructions in London. The Church was entirely rebuilt in the thirteenth century primarily by private contribution. The poet John Gower, who lies in a fine Gothic tomb within the Church, gave largely to the cause. It was in this Church that, James I of Scotland was married to Jane Beaufort in 1424. In St. Saviour’s, heretics were condemned to the fires of Smithfield during the reign of Queen Mary I also know as Bloody Mary. It was here, that John Harvard, the founder of Harvard University, was baptized in 1607. John Gower, Philip Massinger, John Fletcher, Edmond Shakespeare, and Alexander Cruden, of Concordance fame, were buried in Southwark Cathedral.

From here and as far as Blackfriars Bridge, is the Bankside district. Celebrated for its theatres and other places of amusement, and rich in associations with Shakespeare and other Elizabethan playwrights and entertainers. The old Globe Theatre, in which so many of Shakespeare’s plays were produced, is supposed to have stood on the site once occupied by a large brewery, The Brewery of Barclay, Perkins and Co. Not far away was the Rose Theatre, the Hope Theatre, the Swan Theatre, and the Paris Garden Theatre. The Paris Garden Theatre was used almost exclusively for bear-and-bull baiting. Up until the reign of William III, bear-and-bull baiting also took place in the Bear Gardens.

West of Bankside and as far as the Westminster Bridge, the south side of the river was formerly a low swampy area called Lambeth Marsh, which the water covered at every tide. Until the early 19th century, it was a district of open fields and deep ditches where a few unsavoury places of amusement stood. Since, however, the three bridges—Blackfriars, Waterloo and Westminster—were built, the whole bank has been lined with wharves. The only object of interest here was the old shot tower built in 1826 to the design of David Riddall Roper. The Tower was built in stock brick, it tapered slightly, being 30 feet in diameter at the base, where the wall was 3 feet thick, and 20 feet in diameter at the gallery, where the wall was 18 inches thick. The gallery was 163 feet from the ground and was reached by a spiral staircase cantilevered from the inside face of the wall. The gallery had an iron handrail that was supported by iron console brackets. Below these, the Tower was ringed by a stone band carried on small corbels, while at various stages, there were small segmental-headed windows. In 1950 the gallery chamber was demolished and a steel-framed superstructure erected to serve as a radio beacon for the Festival of Britain. Soon after the Festival, the Tower was demolished to make way for Queen Elizabeth Hall, a music venue that hosts daily classical, jazz, and avant-garde music and dance performances, which opened in 1967.

Leaving London Bridge, the iron bridge designed by Sir John Hawkshaw and initially opened in 1866, consists of five impressive spans that you will pass under leads into Cannon Street Station. This was the site of the old Steelyardd, the headquarters in London of the Hanseatic League. Then you will come to the old Walbrook Wharf, located at the mouth of the Walbrook, a small stream that formerly streamed through the City and fell into the Thames at this point.

The Old Southwark Bridge of three spans, which Robert Stevenson, a Scottish novelist, and travel writer, illustrated as an “example of arch construction confessedly unrivalled as regards its colossal proportions, its architectural effect, and the general simplicity and massive character of its details.” Admiral Lord Keith laid the first stone on April 23rd, 1815, and the final ceremony took place on March 24th, 1819. The new Southwark Bridge is an arch bridge for traffic linking Southwark and the City across the River Thames and was designed by Ernest George and Basil Mott. It was built by Sir William Arrol & Co. and opened in 1921. The south end of the bridge is near the Tate Modern, the Clink Prison Museum, the Globe Theatre, and the Financial Times building. The north end is near Cannon Street station.

At this place, in the old days, the Fleet, which gave its name to Fleet Street and the old Fleet Prison, fell into the Thames. It was inconsistently called the Fleet River and the Hole-burn (the stream in the hollow) from where the name Holborn originates. This spot used to be lined with busy quays and crowded with boats. It gradually became a foul ditch and silted up, and at last, had to be covered over. Now it exists only as a sewer.

The most recently built pedestrian bridge, the Millenium Bridge, has become a familiar sight along the banks of the Thames River. This innovative suspension bridge, linking St Paul’s Cathedral on the north side of the Thames with the Tate Modern gallery, Britain’s national gallery of international modern art, on the south, became the first new river crossing in central London since 1894.

Between Blackfriars and Westminster, the northern bank is not only rich in historical associations but is pictorially beautiful and imposing. The long, broad stone Victoria Embankment is fringed with trees and backed with marvellous architecture and occasionally an ornamental garden where the community can enjoy the trees, flowers and music in the summer.

The old aristocratic Strand palaces that stood here have been demolished from time to time, and the ground is now occupied by government offices and other institutions. The great building adjoining Waterloo Bridge is the Somerset House built during the reign of Edward VI by Edward Seymour, Lord Protector and Duke of Somerset. When the Stuarts came to the throne, Somerset House was made a royal residence, especially for the queens. Catherine of Braganza,  queen consort of England, of Scotland and of Ireland from 1662 to 1685, as the wife of King Charles II, was the last royal to live in it. Somerset House was demolished in 1775 when Buckingham House (now Palace) was given to Queen Charlotte, and the present edifice, designed by Sir William Chambers, was erected. In 1828-31 the east wing, King’s College—was added, and in 1853 the west wing.

The old Waterloo Bridge, of nine elliptical granite spans, was opened in 1817. It was considered one of the most admirable stone bridges in the world. Antonio Canova, Italian Neoclassical sculptor, famous for his marble sculptures, declared, “it was worthy of the Romans,” and The Duke of Wellington was the first passenger to cross it. The present Waterloo Bridge from 1945 is the first reinforced concrete bridge to cross the Thames in central London. The whole length of the bridge’s five-span structural skeleton is visible from below, and it is faced in Portland stone.

The Savoy Hotel and Shell Mex House occupy the sites of old palaces, and so does the Adelphi, which comes next. The Savoy was the first purpose-built deluxe hotel in London. The current Shell Mex building was designed by architects Messers Joseph and built in the early 1930s. The Grade II listed building on the left is Adelphi.

Durham House was a palace belonging to the bishops of Durham in medieval times. It was built in 1345 for Bishop Thomas Hatfield. Both Henry IV and V stayed in this Palace, which was eventually confiscated by Henry VIII who then gave it to his daughter Elizabeth I. The last remains of Durham House were cleared during the rain of George III. It was at this time that John & Robert Adam built the original Adelphi Buildings between 1768-72. The entire Salisbury estate in the Strand was sold in 1888. The greater part of the site is now occupied by the Shell-Mex House. Worcester House used to be on the Savoy Hotel and Theatre site.

On the edge of the Embankment is the famous Cleopatra’s Needle, made in Egypt for the Pharaoh Thotmes III. in 1460 BC.

A band plays on summer evenings in the Victoria Embankment Gardens in front of the Adelphi. The gardens also provide a welcome retreat from busy Embankment and bustling Villiers Street and are popular with office workers as pleasant space to eat lunch and relax.

The buildings between the Victoria Embankment Gardens and Charing Cross Railway Station were constructed on the grounds of a palace that once belonged to the powerful favourite of James I, George Villiers, 1st duke of Buckingham. George Street, Villiers Street, Duke Street, and Buckingham Street keep his memory alive. The old York Watergate is in its original position on the north side of the ornamental gardens.

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