And again, instead of going to the gym, I go on a random walk around my part of London. I walk briskly, honest. I cover about 3 miles in 45 minutes, burn 320 calories, and see some sights and witness some events and overhear some chats. And read some petitions and speak some French.
The initial and fastest leg is from Bank over Southwark Bridge to Borough High Street. I nip past Borough Market, observing the long queues at Neal’s Yard Dairy (a fine British cheesemonger). Desperate Christmas shoppers throng the place. Some of my colleagues have recently received boxes of Neal’s Yard cheeses from their brokers and I am delighted to see that such specialties as Appleby’s Cheshire and Sparkenhoe Red Leicester have pride of place on Neal’s Yard’s shelves. I haven’t had either cheese but I intend to as soon as I have this cholesterol thing beat, and shall report at length. 2012, here I come.
There are even longer queues at local pubs. What’s with people drinking at 3pm, I ask you?
At 67 Borough High Street, I see a lovely red building on which appears the following legend: W H & H Le May Hop Factors. Surely that’s worth a brief investigation? Yes, it is.I find that the Le Mays were a famous supplier of hops to brewers and the like. (The Le Mays were a well-to-do family. One of them, Lt Algernon Le May, aged 34, perished in the Great War – his name appears on a nearby war memorial.) The hop trade was a major part of Southwark till nearly the 1970s. For centuries, Borough High Street and Old London Bridge were the only means of ingress into London from the south. The area, therefore, was dotted with inns and taverns. Recall Harry Bailey who led the pilgrims in Chaucer’s tale? He was a proprietor of a local tavern, and very rich to boot. Hop factors were warehousers and intermediaries between the growers and the breweries.
Southwark is rich in listed properties, many pre-dating the 19th century. This building though is rather modest inside. 19th century developers liked to apply a bit of embellishment to the exterior to aggrandise their creations.
Not fifty metres away at 77 Borough High Street is George Inn, one of the last extant hostelries in Southwark. This was built in the 17th century. These inns catered to horse-drawn traffic, and were situated on long plots with a narrow frontage onto the main street. These survive mainly in name only. I don’t go inside George Inn Yard to inspect the inn itself. I’ll leave that for another time I shirk off gym. It’s a National Trust property, which helps as I am a member. But here’s a picture of its lovely galleried front.
[The George Inn by Nick Garrod, on Flickr]
A little further along and a quick left onto Talbot Yard reveals a non-descript office building on which appears a plaque. Here stood Chaucer’s Tabard Inn, from where the pilgrims set off on their grand trip to Canterbury. Just like the George, it had burned down in the 17th century and was reconstructed; unlike the George, it didn’t survive the Industrial revolution, and exists only in literary memory. Luckily, we have engravings of it from the 180o’s when it looked a bit like this:
[The Tabard Inn, c. 1850. Wikimedia Commons]
I retrace my steps to Borough High Street and shift left on Newcomen Street. I hope there might be a plaque or some memorial or the other to the only Newcomen I’ve heard of, who invented the steam-powered pump and inspired James Watt’s steam engine. But he was a Devon man, and I am not sure if he had much to do in London.
Like many of the side-streets in Southwark, this street too used to be coaching inn yard (once called Axe Yard). In the 17th century, it came to be owned by two charities. One building bears the name of one of the charities – John Marshall’s. The street, however, is named after the other – Mrs Newcomen’s. She owned three messuages – ha! I learn a new word – one of which was in Axe Yard, and she bequeathed them upon her death in 1675 for "the clothing of poor boys and girls with a suit of linen and woollen once a year, whereof two-thirds . . . [were to] be out of the Borough side, and the other third . . . out of the Clink Liberty . . . and for . . . teaching them to read and write and cast accounts, and for . . . putting forth boys apprentice at 5l a piece, at their age of 14 years." (Quote from here.)
As I continue along Newcomen street – not the prettiest street in Southwark, admittedly – I note signs everywhere of King’s College and Guy’s Hospital. Every time I look up, I see the immense Shard. It looms over the entire borough. Guy’s Hospital is so much more to human scale. There is a courtyard with an arch. It is another memorial to the fallen soldiers of the Great War.
[John Keats at Guy’s Hospital, by Mike Paterson]
Beyond is a colonnade separating two inner courtyards. In one of them stands Lord Nuffield, a benefactor of the hospital, and in the other is a seated John Keats, a bronze-work by Stuart Williamson inaugurated in 2007. The great poet had trained as a surgeon in the hospital, and quit, undone by the gruesomeness. As far as I can tell, the only bit of medicine that ever appeared in his poetry are these lines from Ode to Fanny:
Physician Nature! Let my spirit blood! O ease my heart of verse and let me rest; Throw me upon thy Tripod, till the flood Of stifling numbers ebbs from my full breast.
Across St Thomas’s street is the Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret. It is closed, unfortunately, till the New Year. As I head away from it, a lovely girl steps out in front of me, followed by a young man who tells her, 'I have an entire archipelago of mistresses.'
Say what? Before I can react, they disappear into a side street. Scratching my head, I continue along St Thomas’s Street till I get to Crucifix Lane. I see a sign for the Fashion and Textile Museum. There’s no time to take a gander at that; I turn towards the Shard. Construction all around has wrecked views and entrances and my neck hurts from craning. I see BVAG petitioning against the demolition of Southwark’s heritage (London Bridge is the first city-centre railway terminus, it thunders, it should not be treated so shoddily; prevent the demolition of prime Victorian-age train sheds), and I see an interesting art gallery. It is called the Underdog Art Company, exhibits graphic art and has live music shows, and I’m afraid I have no time for that either.
[Silk Screen Print by Tony Lee at Underground Art Co. Image by Shuby, on Flickr.]
I am accosted by a couple of young women. ‘Excuse me, sir,’ says one. ‘The Underground?’ She has a strong French accent, and waggles her fingers down. West African, I surmise, so in my best French I respond, ‘Suivez la rue 300 mètres et tournez à droite.’ They grin at me happily. ‘D’accord!’ says the other woman, and giggling at my accent (I hope) they head away.
The rest of my walk is even brisker than ever – onto Barnham Street to Tooley Street, left onto Tower Bridge Road and over that fruitcake bridge back to the City. I don’t stop anywhere, just burn my soles on Tower Hill and Tower Street and Eastcheap and King William Street, all the way back to Bank.