site unseen St Mary's Rotherhithe, London

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
One of JMW Turner's many masterpieces, The Fighting Temeraire, has recently been featured in a special exhibition at the National Gallery in London. The painting depicts an old man-of-war, a veteran of the Battle of Trafalgar, on its 55-mile journey from Sheerness up the River Thames for demolition in Rotherhithe, London.

The full title of the painting is The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to her Last Berth to be Broken up, 1838, and Turner brilliantly contrasts the ghost-like ethereal bulk of the venerable 104-gun fighting ship with the little steam-driven tug which fussily tows the old timer to a painful death. An epoch passes. Steam replaces sail.

Doubters have asked whether Turner actually witnessed the Temeraire making its final journey in September 1838. But who cares? In this case, strict accuracy is surely subordinate to artistic reality.

But despite the avalanche of words written about the Temeraire, no one pointed out that parts of the warship can still be seen today (for free) in Rotherhithe, south London.

Rotherhithe is one of London's prettiest villages, sandwiched between the entrance to the Rotherhithe Tunnel and the River Thames. A walk here takes in the mortuary where drowned corpses were hung up to dry, as well as the old fire- engine headquarters.

Around the corner is the engine house which helped the Brunels, father and son, to construct their tunnel under the Thames in the early 19th century. Numerous Scandinavian churches - the loos still bear the Norwegian equivalent of "Gentlemen" and "Ladies" - demonstrate how important the timber business was to the neighbouring Surrey Docks.

The views over the river are unparalleled, justifying Rotherhithe's frequent appearance in the film A Fish Called Wanda. The recent sequel seems to have been filmed in America rather than Britain. Authenticity gives way to production values - which leads back, in this case, to JMW Turner.

St Mary's is a Georgian gem of 1715, approached up steps. An earlier structure, prone to flooding by the unruly Thames, had rotted away, and the sponsors of the new building were taking no chances. The charming interior is dominated by four pillars which are in fact old masts, encased in a thin plaster covering.

Close to the sanctuary is a plaque commemorating Captain Christopher Jones, the Master of the Mayflower, the pioneering ship which originally sailed from Rotherhithe on its perilous way to the New World. But the real delight is the oak communion table and chairs that once formed part of the Temeraire.

These fragments are the only survivors of a once great vessel.

Turner would have wept - and then reached for his sketch book.

St Mary's Rotherhithe is in St Marychurch St, London SE16