A walk that demonstrates the south of the river’s redevelopment and deep history.

This one’s another of Stephen Millar’s suggested walks, but it differs ever so slightly from his route due to the enormous construction works at London Bridge. After work I took the Tube across London, needing to kill some time before meeting a friend in Dulwich at 7pm. I popped out of the Underground opposite Borough Market and turned right onto St. Thomas Street, the Bunch of Grapes pub with all its nooks to my right, and The Shard looking imperious framed against the blue sky. Off we go!

Starting Point: London Bridge Underground Station, zone 1.

Finishing point: Canada Water Underground/Overground Station, zone 2.

Length: 4 miles (6.4 kilometres).

Walking east, somewhat against the tide of people, I enjoyed passing underneath the immensity of The Shard. I still maintain that from some close-up viewpoints it doesn’t look at all impressive, especially compared to views from the other side of South London, but today it just looked a triumph. Once past that skyscraper I entered a world of confusion. Hoardings and diversion signs all over the place. Street signs obscured or less easy to notice, turnings blocked off and incorrect routes made to look like the right way. I spent a few stop-start minutes looking from the map to the street layout, and back again. One eyebrow raised.

The Shard looming over the Grain & Grapes pub in London Bridge

I turned down Fenning Street and then Vinegar Yard in my search for the right direction before finding the far end of Snowsfields to drag me back on track.

The old Guinness Trust Buildings to the left are rather pretty remnants of a philanthropic age I feel we could really do with taking inspiration from. Guinness Trust Buildings in BermondseyThis part of London has seen deprivation through the ages as bad as anywhere in the world. Long before the Romans arrived Southwark was a marshy satellite to the settlement on the other side of the river, from dodgy beginnings it didn’t get much better until the 20th Century. Homes like those provided by the Guinness Trust lifted so many people out of despair and started the drive to rebuild Southwark rather than consigning it to oblivion. Modern housing associations allow neglect and absenteeism on a scale that would never be tolerated in centuries past. Use it or lose it. In a metropolis so desperately short of good housing stock it is a scandal that so many flats and houses lie derelict or unoccupied.

Leathermarket building with detail of the carvingsLeft onto Weston Street, past an old burial ground for Guy’s Hospital, and then the intricate façade of The Leather Exchange building.

It so grabbed my attention that I missed the obvious turning onto Leathermarket Street so I had to backtrack a few seconds later. Leathermarket Street is one of those tight roads with tall warehouse buildings replete with little winches and crooked glazing. You just expect there to be creative types beavering away in here, and so it proves to be. Norman Ackroyd has his studio and home along here, as seen in the recent BBC series ‘What do artists do all day?’ His favourite tapas bar on the corner was busy but it was too late in the afternoon to spot him at play.

Turn north up Bermondsey Street and you can view some 17th Century cottages on your left and the Fashion & Textile Museum across the road. The backdrop consisting of the ever-present Shard. Turn south and follow the curve past the White Cube gallery and several highly-rated restaurants. Bermondsey is an up-market area but it is trying to hold on to its creative halo, even if the angel underneath lives in a council flat block and might never be able to afford to live in one of those warehouse conversions. The area oozes vibrant contrasts between the obviously skint and the obviously minted.

Scenes along Bermondsey High Street

As I crossed Abbey Street and continued on Bermondsey Street the relaxed strollings of local people were rudely interrupted by honking horns, swearing, and banging. A people carrier type of taxi drove along, rapidly pursued by what can only be described as the angriest man in the world, in a UK Power Networks van. His bug-eyed incandescent-red face projecting out the driver’s window and his clenched fist beating staccato against the outside of his door, tenderising the metal. Torrents of obscenity washed over his bonnet, onto the asphalt and sloshed around us on the pavement. Everyone stopped and watched, giggling at this lunatic. Whatever that taxi did, it must have been BAD.

At the end of the road the South London Mission building looked attractive despite the still audible ranting as he turned the corner. I turned east onto Grange Road, up Grigg’s Place, and east again along pretty Grange Walk. Pretty even though local dogs had tried their darnedest to trip over pedestrians with prodigious numbers of turds.

As I headed up The Grange I watched two enormous people eating crisps and drinking coke, wrapped in hideously bulging shell-suits pilfered from the last century. They nearly had heart attacks right in front of me when an untethered bull terrier bounced out of nowhere from behind a wall and barked directly into the man’s ear.

I was now deep in a land of crumbly blocks of flats resembling prison blocks or hospital wards. Nothing grand or glistening about the architecture along Abbey Street, just traffic. One point of interest and a reminder of a century even older than those shell-suits was the road on the right entitled only as ‘Neckinger’. The word refers to the devil’s neckcloth, i.e. a hangman’s noose, but it also names a long-buried river which empties into the Thames further along this walk. In fact it is the historic Jacob’s Island district immortalised in Dickens’ tales of London. The prowling territory of Bill Sykes and Bullseye in Oliver Twist, for example. This whole area was once a renowned slum shrouded in some of the worst smells imaginable. Henry Mayhew described Jacob’s Island horrifically:

On entering the precincts of the pest island the air had literally the smell of a graveyard, and a feeling of nausea and heaviness came over any one unaccustomed to imbibe the moist atmosphere. Not only the nose, but the stomach told how heavily the air was loaded with sulphuretted hydrogen; and as soon as you crossed one of the crazy and rotten bridges over the reeking ditch, you knew, as surely as if you had chemically tested it, by the black colour of what was once white lead paint upon the door posts and window sills, that the air was thickly charged with this deadly gas. The heavy bubbles which now and then rose up in the water showed you whence at least a portion of the mephitic compound issued, while the open doorless privies that hung over the water-side, and the dark streaks of filth down the walls, where the drains from each house discharged themselves in to the ditch were proofs indisputable as to how the pollution of the ditch occurred. 

The water was covered with scum almost like a cobweb, and prismatic with grease. In it floated large masses of rotting weed, and against the posts of the bridges were swollen carcases of dead animals, ready to burst with the gases of putrefaction. Along its shores were heaps of indescribable filth, the phosphoretted smell from which told you of the rotting fish there, while the oyster-shells were like pieces of slate from their coating of filth and mud. In some parts the fluid was as red as blood from the colouring matter that poured into it from the reeking leather dressers’ close by.

So yeah, that says more than enough. Now it is called Shad Thames and St. Saviour’s Dock, and costs a bomb to live there, shamefully erasing much of the area’s past.

New Concodria Wharf building and gatesPassing under the railway bridge you take on the busy A200 road and zig-zag along George Row and Jacob Street, again pay attention to the decaying blocks of flats – some of them are alarmingly shaky. Turn right onto Mill Street. Admire the New Concordia Wharf buildings. I last trod these cobbles on my walk from Charlton to Westminster on the Thames Path, that time I went the wrong way and missed the footbridge over the mouth of the River Neckinger but this time I took the time to walk onto the bridge and look inland, up the Neckinger with its mud and silt.

The muddy inlet of St. Saviour's Dock

Buildings along the Thames between Bermondsey and RotherhitheHead east once again and cling to the roads following the line of the Thames, beyond the well-grafittied barges, until you see the Old Justice pub. If I had the time I would have grabbed a drink here as it looks like it tries really hard to be a welcoming local community pub. Internet reviews seem to agree that it has potential, if you catch it in the right mood. Turn into the small park and follow the stone flag path, just for a change from pavement, and keep steadily eastbound. You will pass the ruins of a mansion built by Edward III but frankly there isn’t much left to see.

Grafitti barges near Shad Thames

Before you know it you are on a road simply called Thames Path. Just after it turns into Rotherhithe Street The Mayflower pub will be on your left. It’s well-worth stopping for beer here. In summer the decking out the back juts over the Thames and creates a relaxing little place to rest.

The Mayflower pub on the Thames Path, Rotherhithe

I went past and turned south only Railway Avenue so that I walked around the outside of the Brunel Museum. This pump house drained the Rotherhithe Tunnel and now holds a collection of Brunel artefacts minded largely by volunteers.

The Brunel Museum in RotherhitheSt. Mary Church Street leads to road crossings over the entrance to the Rotherhithe Tunnel. Nip across and turn left onto Albion Street, right onto Neptune Street, and right onto the intriguingly-named Moodkee Street. There is not much to see here, you’re deep in more estates. Even the pubs cease to look inviting, even if the signs are advertising drinks cheaper than any I’ve seen in London for a decade!

Surrey Quays Road takes you east to the ‘nature reserve’ at Canada Water. I’m not sure what I was expecting but a dank green pond with litter bobbing on the surface and a gallery of drunks in the gazebo was not to my liking. I should have expected it, but I didn’t. I walked briskly around the little area of decking before ending my journey in the insanely busy Canada Water station.

If this walk shows you anything at all it is how regeneration comes from within. Not in some kind of hippy, from-the-heart notion, but from the financial centre. From the source of power. As the rich people clamour with their jingly purses for nicer places to live closer to their offices you see the shoddier areas being swallowed and experiencing that oh-so-insulting term ‘gentrification’. Borough Market is utterly different from its humble outlook even ten years ago, now the tendrils of the gentry are sneaking along the rail lines and trying to turf out the people who have put up with London’s bullshit for centuries. The same effect is emanating from London’s other head – Canary Wharf, and now Deptford is under real threat of being gutted. They have already taken the river frontage but it won’t be long until the enormous construction sites seen at London Bridge and Chambers Street infect the whole area. As I pointed out a lot of the accommodation here is sub-standard but I feel that is partly down to owners sitting on their stock until the developers come knocking. Why ‘waste’ money on most likely botched repairs in the meantime? Their pay-cheque is coming, damn the little man.

This walk is the past and future of London. It has changed a lot in the 15 months since first walked it, so take my advice and waste no time in getting along to Bermondsey and Rotherhithe before they are gone forever.