Saturday 23 May 1998
Rotherhithe today is an odd place. Until recently an unfashionable peninsula, its Travoltaesque rediscovery is in danger of turning a rich and diverse area into a bland stack of shoreside hutches. All across London, liberties are being taken with the River Thames and some of the most flagrant of these are on Rotherhithe Street. Once the longest street in London, it follows the river in a gentle bend from Southwark Park to Greenland Dock. Where once there was water on both sides, now there are apartments - for long stretches the only reminder of its maritime past is the shipping paraphernalia cemented into the pavement, anchors and mooring points lying incongruously on street corners. Access to the riverbank is even limited to residents in places.
However, thanks to the developers' obsession with a waterfront locale, and some judiciously bagged conservation areas, all is not lost. St Mary's is one such, a beautifully tranquil spot, a few hundred yards from Rotherhithe's inelegant Tube station. Buildings to note include The Mayflower pub, on St Marychurch St, which commemorates the Pilgrim Fathers who moored their ship here in 1620, prior to sailing to America. It contains beams from the Mayflower, and it is the only pub in England licensed to sell US postage stamps.
Rotherhithe was the location for the first tunnel beneath the Thames, designed by the Brunel brothers, which linked south London to Wapping and now holds the East London Line - the Brunels' original engine house, opposite the Mayflower, has been restored. St Mary's Church, which dates from 1715, is worth a visit, as is the former Peter Hills school with its plaintive-looking charity children perched on the wall outside. This pretty area has a cool, calming aura as well as a clutch of decent pubs.
Further along Rotherhithe St, Lavender Hill Nature Park is a lovely green space marooned in yet another Wimpey wonderland. It is the site of Rotherhithe Heritage Museum, which tells the story of the area using items washed up on the shore. Stave Hill Ecological Park is another delightful green area, and following its main path south, through Russia Dock Woodland, leads you down towards Greenland Dock, which last century was the biggest timber port in the world.
Jonathan Swift chose Rotherhithe as the birthplace of Gulliver - which holds a certain irony now that its own little people have been overwhelmed by servants of Canary Wharf, the new giant of the river.
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