The Foofication Of London
Jacob’s Island was the roughest part of London. It’s where Dickens chose to send Bill Sykes to his death, a rookery of mud and sewage that was virtually in the river Thames itself. The filthy waters in the creeks that bisected it rose and fell, leaving silt and animal corpses, so the surrounding hovels were perpetually damp. Dickens described it unflatteringly (and I have to go by memory because I couldn’t find the reference) as ‘the Venice of drains’.
Overcrowded and impoverished, it lay beside the Neckinger tributary which branched into streams and reservoirs used for ablutions and washing, so sickness abounded. Worse, the industry that surrounded it was of the most antisocial kind imaginable; tanning, for which you needed leather hides and a lot of dog shit, and soap-making, which stank. Jacob’s Island was a ‘Liberty’, meaning it operated beyond City of London jurisdiction, so it was the place to head for if you wished to avoid the police. It has been eradicated. All that remains is a chimney and a faded marker plaque.
When I was very young this area and all the way along to Deptford and the Isle of Dogs was ‘Venetian’ only insofar as there were a huge number of bridges across the inlets, all of which seemed to open and close in different ways. I associate the area with bad times, bad smells, dirty pubs and visiting my ancient toothless Aunt Nell, who lived in a basement slum and kept a foul-mouthed mynah bird.
So this week, in a quest to include more South London locations in the Bryant & May books, I revisited the area, starting with Bermondsey Market (see columns passim). Inevitably, I wandered off the path I’d intended to take and found myself in Vinegar Park. Yes, those are giant red ants over a tube carriage; no, I don’t know why.
The first thing to note about Bermondsey Market is; it’s gone.
Where a triangular park once existed are now just mean-looking apartment buildings. The ‘market’ is apparently still there on Friday mornings but must be very small indeed to cram into the tiny space that’s been left for it. Where once antique specialists sprawled through collapsing warehouses in every direction, selling everything from marine chronometers to Victorian bibles, there’s now a little bit of tarmac provided as a sop to the ‘community’.
Nearby Shad Thames, where John May lives, was once packed with orange-handed porters lugging sacks of saffron and cinnamon. Now it is squeaky clean, filled with hanging baskets and sandblasted brick, and completely dead, because all that’s here now are expensive flats people barely live in. It’s so much the home of office workers that the shops don’t even bother opening on weekdays, just at the weekends for tourists.
Bermondsey Street has been foofy-fied for years, with pretty little shops surrounding the green-tiled Garrison pub. This area was also called Dock Head, but the only memory of that is ‘The Ship Aground’ pub, which I think was once called the Dock Head. What strikes me now is how incredibly prosperous this once-impoverished part of London now is – formerly forgotten areas, those liminal spaces created by railways and arches, have been prettified and filled with street markets selling hipster food and knick-knacks. They sell to the workforce, who drift into the bars and pubs at five and leave for the suburbs soon after seven.
London Bridge Station has a beautiful new design that solves the old problematic space; it’s raised on arches, so access was always nightmarish, dirty and dark and crowded. Now it’s full of light and air – and shops. Retail units are everywhere, including over at Vinegar Park, yet another street food park for workers.
For me the biggest shock was seeing the old view of Tower Bridge utterly ruined by the Walkie-Talkie. Until recently you could take tourists to the Angel, Rotherhithe, and show them the sun setting between the towers; no more. Make no mistake, London is all about the workforce now. Perhaps it always was in the London Bridge area. But as I walk along the river’s edge all I see are crammed flats with skeuomorphic balconies and mean little entrances. Perhaps we’ve swapped one kind of unacceptable housing for another. It would be interesting to know which had the smaller living space, slum houses or modern flats.