I love arriving in Rotherhithe. It feels a little isolated from the rest of London. Its history has been outward looking, towards the oceans and beyond. Adventures began here. There is a song by Elvis Costello called New Amsterdam which includes the lyrics:
“Somehow I found myself down at the dockside
Thinkin’ of the old days of Liverpool and Rotherhithe”
These words lodge in my head as I walk along Rotherhithe Street on a sunny spring afternoon.
Rotherhithe was a proper sea faring village on the outskirts of London, across from the Isle of Dogs on the south side of the river. Ships were built here until the last century. And many famous ships headed off on famous journeys from its shores; The Mayflower departed from Rotherhithe in 1620 to take the Pilgrim Fathers to the New World.
The expansion of the city and the building of docks in the nineteenth century heavily populated and industrialised the area. The docks are now filled in and the boat makers long gone but Rotherhithe still has buildings that provide glimpses of the old village among the modern gentrification.
There is a lovely pub called The Mayflower on Rotherhithe Street but although the pub is genuinely very old and quaint and backs onto the Thames it presents a false front – it only changed its name to The Mayflower in 1957.
St Mary’s Rotherhithe church, across the road from the pub, has a more obviously authentic connection to the Pilgrim Fathers. A memorial inside marks the final resting place of Christopher Jones who captained the ship which took them to North America.
Its a lovely church dating back to 1715 that replaced an earlier building from medieval times, which itself had benefited from the dissolution of Bermondsey Abbey in the sixteenth century when funds were diverted from the Abbey to enhance the local parish church. It has a pretty graveyard which is full of floral tributes to recently departed locals.
Opposite the front of the church is an old charity school, with the traditional blue coat statues of children (blue dye being the cheapest colour for their clothes) over the door. This school was founded and funded by an old sea dog called Peter Hill to educate children of seafarers.
Next door to the school is the old rectory which is a splendidly solid Georgian building that has been immaculately restored and now looks almost like a modern show-house.
There is an old granary on St Marychurch Street on another corner of the church’s land that now houses the Sands Film Studios, which includes the costume making workshop that has made many of the period drama costumes that you will have seen on your screens in recent years. It also contains the Rotherhithe Picture Research Library, which is an eccentric collection of local images and clippings that relate to the local area.
So there you have this small piece of London. The river, a good church, a great pub, art and history all within spitting distance of each other. What more could you need?