London Walks: Bermondsey And Rotherhithe

Two more of Joolz’s Guides London walk videos. This time with a very personal connection to beetleypete!
(Each short film is around fifteen minutes long)

The first is a tour of Bermondsey, the district just immediately south and east of Tower Bridge, on the banks of The Thames. We see how the former leather-making district has becme ‘gentrified’ since the 1980s, but all the historic buildings remain. I was born in Bermondsey, and lived there until I was 15, when my parents moved us away to the suburbs. In my youth, the leather industry was still very much in evidence, and the modern-day food markets and smart delicatessens were traditional street markets, and cheap cafes.

The second film features Rotherhithe, which is a continuation of the walk from Bermondsey, along the riverbank to the east. Once again, we see the preserved history, and how docks and warehouses, where my grandfather and my mother worked during WW2, have now been converted into smart (and very expensive) apartments and restaurants. Joolz continues to the famous riverside pubs The Angel and The Mayflower. I moved back to Rotherhithe in 1985, and lived not far from The Mayflower. In fact, I had my second wedding reception in the upstairs restaurant of the pub, in 1989! It has famous connections with The Pilgrim Fathers, and the founding of America.

If anyone is planning a visit to London, watch to the end of the second video. You will see that you can book Joolz for a personalised tour of London, and contact details are shown. I couldn’t think of anyone better to show you around, except me of course!

Thinking Aloud on a Sunday

Roots

Yesterday, I published a post about identity. I had spent some time thinking about my background and life in London, on the southern banks of the River Thames. When I got up today, I searched through some images, happy to wallow in a little nostalgia. Then it occurred to me to share some with you, a glimpse of a time and place, and a part of London many of you may never have heard of. Rotherhithe.

This house is not my grandparents’ house, but in all other respects, including the corner location, it is identical. Their house survived the nearby bombing in WW2, though many in that street did not. Such houses had outside toilets, tiny back gardens, and life was mainly lived in the ‘back room’, next to a small kitchen known as ‘the scullery’. It was usual for someone else to live in the upstairs rooms, and my aunt and uncle lived up there, with my cousin. My grandparents’ house still stands, and is now considered to be a ‘trendy and desirable’ property.

Close to the river, rows of low-rise flats had been built. This shot is from the early 1960s, which I can easily tell from the cars parked on the street.

Tower blocks soon became popular in the area. This is Addy House, built in 1963, and thought to be very smart and modern at the time. At sixteen stories, it would have been one of the tallest buildings in the borough then.

When I was young, the River Thames was still a busy and vibrant workplace. The docks and wharves on both sides were full of ships, and many local men worked as dockers, or on barges. You can see how close the area is to Tower Bridge, which was a short walk from where I grew up.

That area is also famous for a road and pedestrian tunnel under the river, the Rotherhithe Tunnel. Used as an alternative to Tower Bridge, (which opened several times a day to allow ships to pass) this was opened in 1908, and is still just as busy today.

One of the features of living so close to the river was the amount of riverside pubs in the area. This is one of the most famous, The Mayflower. It was originally called The Shippe, and dates from 1550, making it one of the oldest buildings still standing in the area. The current pub was erected on the site in 1620, named after the fact that the Pilgrim Fathers tied up their ship of that name there, before leaving to explore America. It is very popular with both tourists and locals, and has a very good restaurant upstairs, as well as riverside seating at the back. I had my second wedding reception there, in 1989.

If traffic was bad, and we wanted to get into the centre of the city, we would sometimes use the small tube (subway) line. This only took us to Aldgate, in East London, and from there we could change lines to get to the shopping areas of Oxford Street and Regent Street. This is the station today, unchanged since it was built, in 1869.

I hope that you have enjoyed this trip down memory lane with me. If you ever visit London, don’t forget that many of the most interesting parts of the city are south of The Thames, away from the more familiar tourist traps.

Non-Tourist London: Surrey Docks to Tower Bridge

This is another entry in my series of walks, for those visitors to London who would like to get off the beaten track, yet still immerse themselves in the history of the city. This starts in the area where I originally grew up, and then lived in for a second time, from 1985-1997. Many tourists and visitors enjoy a trip to Tower Bridge. They can look across to The Tower of London, gaze along the river, see City Hall, and the nearby park. But how many venture further east, delving into the working-class past of this part of south London?

This guide to a walk of discovery should provide a nice diversion for the interested traveller, and makes for a nice morning or afternoon, ending at a familiar place that has good transport links, and lots to do once you get there. The dockland area featured in this post has seen a great deal of transformation since my youth, yet the spirit of the past is in every step, and historical sights and buildings are there to be found, along with breathtaking views across the river, to the modern development of Canary Wharf, and some very old districts too. Links will be provided at the end.

Start the journey by taking an underground train to Surrey Quays Station. This is in Zone 2, on the East London Line. Exit the station onto the main road, and opposite, you will see the large retail development, Surrey Quays Shopping Centre. Cross at the traffic lights, and walk north onto Redriff Road. You are now in the place that was once home to the huge Surrey Commercial Docks complex, where ships from all over the world were unloaded. After the relocation of this work to Tilbury, in 1969, the docks were abandoned, until extensively developed by the London Docklands Development Corporation, in the 1980s. Walking on the right-hand side of the road, the first thing of interest that you happen across is the Dockers’ Shelter. Many dock workers had to wait each day to be given a tally, entitling them to a day’s work on the docks. These casual employees would shelter from the weather under this construction. It features a mural, highlighting the history of that trade.

Continue along Redriff Road, until you pass Norway Gate on your right. The road name now changes to Salter Road. Take the next right, into Rotherhithe Street, and bear left. On the next bend, you will see an open space, and the entrance to The Surrey Docks Urban farm. This is a valuable local resource, teaching inner-city children about farm animals, and providing a classroom for school trips too. The farm is open seven days a week, and entry is free. Walking along Rotherhithe Street, you will see a mixture of social housing that has been home to generations of south Londoners. As this existed at the time when the docks were still thriving, and was accessed by bridges, some of it is unchanged. The change in the law that enabled tenants to buy and sell their homes has brought many new arrivals, but the feel of the area has changed little since my young days, playing around the dockside. These contrast starkly with the many converted warehouses and luxury wharf-side developments, sold at prices far beyond the reach of ordinary local people.

Coming up on your right is the restored Columbia Wharf. There is a modern Hilton Hotel here, and access to Nelson Dock Pier. This was once a riverboat stop, (and might be still) and it offers great views of the Canary Wharf complex, just across the river. Squeezed in between converted warehouses, you won’t miss the timber-framed black and white facade of the pub The Blacksmith’s Arms, a little further on. This traditional drinking establishment also serves food, (until 15.00) and has an outdoor garden too. The interior is unchanged since the 1930s, and provides a real feel of what a London pub should be. Carrying on, now heading west, you will come to Lavender Pond Nature Reserve, which will be to your left. This small reserve is managed by Southwark Council, and is something of a refuge from the dense housing that surrounds it. The park was also home to the Pumphouse Museum, now sadly closed. The pond was originally used for floating the wood that arrived at the docks, to stop it drying too quickly.

Keep going until the street opens out, near the junction with Salter Road once again. You will see an old bridge across an inlet, and to your right, the modern pub/restaurant called The Old Salt Quay. The upstairs bar and terrace offer uninterrupted views of the river, and across to the district of Wapping, in east London. You can see the river frontage of the famous pub, The Prospect of Whitby, as well as the home base of the River Police. In the distance, to the west, is Tower bridge, and this is an ideal place to stop for a drink and watch the water traffic, or just enjoy the view. After your rest, (or not) continue along the old street. There are some modern housing developments on both sides, as well as the old terraced houses that have been there for decades. Some people also live on houseboats moored alongside, with footbridges giving them access to the land.

You will soon arrive at one of the oldest parts, an area that looks like something unchanged for centuries, even allowing for the modern conversion of the old warehouses. To your right, you will see the tiny pub, The Mayflower. This old building is worth a look, even if you don’t want to eat or drink there, as it is more than 400 years old, and retains many original features. It is a popular tourist destination still, despite its distance from the more visited sites in central London, and some tour groups are actually bussed there, to enjoy the experience. The small jetty overlooking the river at the rear serves as an outdoor space, and can get very crowded in peak season. Opposite the pub, is the church of St Mary The Virgin. This was rebuilt in the early 18th century, but a church has stood here since 1282. It is home to the grave of Christopher Jones. He was the captain of The Mayflower, the ship that took many of the original Pilgrim Fathers to America, in the 17th century. The church is still well-used by the local community, and has many historical connections.

Take the narrow Thames Path as far as Elephant Lane, before turning north, (right) to find the path again. At the junction with Cathay Street, you will see another old pub, The Angel. This riverside pub has some history too, dating back to an original inn in the seventeenth century. The current building was erected in 1830, and is Grade 2 listed. It is a popular pub, serving good food as well as drinks. A narrow outside terrace offers panoramic views along the river. The location also marks the boundary between Rotherhithe, and the adjoining borough, Bermondsey. Turn right, (with your back to The Angel) and you are on Bermondsey Wall East. A short walk will take you to the ruins of the riverside Manor House of Edward III, built in 1353, which will be on your right. An information panel marks the site, which is maintained by English Heritage. At the junction with Cherry Garden Street, turn right to continue along Bermondsey Wall East. On your right, you will see a sign for Cherry Garden Pier. This haunt of my childhood is now a departure point for river cruises, and makes a good spot for photographing the river, The Shard, and Tower Bridge to the west. It is also the site of the grandly-named ‘Bermondsey Beach’, where access to the riverbank reveals sand and stones, and an interesting place to walk, if the tide is out.

After this point, riverside access is restricted. I suggest you walk south along either Cherry Garden Street, or Marigold Street, until your reach the busy Jamaica Road. Turn right, and you will see signposts for London Bridge. Stay on the same side of the road, and walk west for a while. There is not much to see, but at the junction with St James Road, opposite, is the imposing St James Church, a Bermondsey landmark, built in 1829. My parents married here, in 1946. Continuing west, you will pass Dockhead and Mill Street, crossing the River Neckinger to your right as you do so. At the junction with Tooley Street, turn right into Shad Thames. This old street is said by some to be the inspiration for the site of ‘Fagin’s Den’, in the novel ‘Oliver Twist’, and you can still imagine the urchins returning to the place, after a hard day stealing. In truth, Dickens’ almost certainly set the scene in Clerkenwell, as this area is some way from the other places mentioned in the book. The restored iron walkways above, crossing between the former warehouse levels, give an accurate idea of what the whole area would have looked like, in the 19th century. Part of this street was once known as Jacob’s Island, and was a notorious area in those days. There is now an art gallery here, named after it.

At the bend in the road, you will see the Art Deco edifice of The Design Museum to the right. This is a great place to visit, and well-worth the entrance fee. It also has a very good cafe/restaurant inside, and a well-stocked gift shop. Once around the bend, the rest of Shad Thames hosts a variety of restaurants and cafes, from the mainstream coffee bars, to the very expensive; like the marvellous Le Pont de la Tour, where we once enjoyed a family meal. You will be under the south side of Tower Bridge, back on the tourist trail, and able to gaze up at this industrial marvel, the best-known landmark of London. It is accessed by steps from the street, and from there, you can decide whether to continue your journey, or make your way home from one of the nearby stations.

I hope that you get the chance to take this walk one day. You will have been steeped in history, able to take some unusual photographs, and have seen a part of London that is very dear to my heart.

http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WMDK2P_The_Dockers_Shelter_Redriff_Road_Rotherhithe_London_UK
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surrey_Commercial_Docks
http://www.surreydocksfarm.org.uk/
http://www.blacksmithsarmsrotherhithe.co.uk/
Lavender Pond Nature Park & Reserve
http://www.mayflowerpub.co.uk/
http://www.stmaryrotherhithe.org/
http://russiadock.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/the-angel-public-house.html
http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryMagazine/DestinationsUK/Edward-IIIs-Manor-House-Rotherhithe/

This is Bermondsey Beach. The photo just appeared!
https://www.flickr.com/photos/levettday/8183029025
http://www.southwark.anglican.org/parishes/027l
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shad_Thames
https://designmuseum.org/
http://www.lepontdelatour.co.uk/

Bermondsey summers

What is it about memory, that makes us remember summers as being better in our youth? Ask most people about the weather, and they will almost always agree that the summer was better when they were young.

Six weeks of unbroken sun, school holidays spent outside, with perhaps the occasional thundery shower, that helped to clear the air. Given that this might span a time period from 1958, to 1998, it cannot really have any basis in fact. Although I do not have the real statistics to hand, (and cannot be bothered to look them up) I am sure that we didn’t always have fabulous summers, with weeks of Mediterranean heat, and unbroken blue skies. So why is it that this is how I remember them?

Before we moved to Kent, when I was fifteen years old, I spent my summers on the streets of Bermondsey, a South London district, close to the River Thames. There may have been a two-week family holiday, usually to Cornwall, and there were also weekends in Essex, staying at my Nan’s caravan, but mostly, it was ‘playing out’ with mates.

This was sometimes on the still-present bomb sites, derelict areas caused by wartime raids, and often near my Nan’s house, where we played various games on the pavements, and in the roads. We might also venture into Southwark Park, where there was a good play area, with a climbing net over a sandpit, and a large roundabout. In the other direction, the smaller St James’s park boasted an unusual slide, with a closed-in top, resembling a wooden fort.

I might also wander down to the river, where the busy docks were then still working flat out, and look at the huge cargo ships, spinning cranes, and passing river traffic. This might involve slipping past the Dock Police, who were supposed to stop us going in, or just going to Cherry Garden pier, with direct access to the riverside, where we could play at low tide. Once out, we rarely returned home until the agreed deadline; if we needed to pee, we did it up a tree, and we had our pocket money, for any drinks or snacks that we wanted.

The most enduring memory, whether false or not, is of good weather that enabled us to play, however and whenever we wanted. We played cricket, with pieces of wood, and any ball we could find. Football of course, with old boxes for goalposts, and if there were not enough of us to make up teams, then it was up against a wall, or one in goal, with the ‘three goals and in’ rule applying. We would always assume the identity of the star players of the day, and would argue, until allowed to keep our choice. The playmates were generally neighbours, and any other kids who just happened to be hanging about, as we rarely ventured outside our world, the small borough that was Bermondsey.

Being boys (there were rarely girls, except sisters who had to be looked after) we liked to play at war. Although the Second World War was fresh to us, and we still had the evidence in the bomb-sites, we did not restrict ourselves. We also liked to pretend to be knights in armour, using all sorts of adapted implements and household items to simulate medieval attire. We would go to the local ‘shop that sold everything’, and buy garden canes, one long, and many short. They were affordable with our small amounts of pocket money, and with some old string obtained from anywhere, they magically transformed into bows and arrows. With these, we could be the English archers at Agincourt (we had all seen Henry V), or just as easily become fierce Apache warriors, opposing the U.S. Cavalry.

Toy guns, discussed at length in another post, would be prized in these conflicts, and those not lucky enough to have one made do with suitably shaped pieces of wood or metal. At times, there could be as many as thirty of us on each side; one group defending an area, the other attacking with screams and whoops. These battles were not without their casualties. Stones and bricks were often thrown, and the large numbers of flying ‘arrows’ also caused eye injuries. Even if you survived the skirmish, you could be sure of scraped knees, scuffed shoes, and torn clothing. Nobody got an ambulance though, or a trip to the hospital. You went home, to get Germolene on your scrapes, and a telling off for spoiling your clothes. Before getting out again, as soon as possible, to rejoin the fray.

I can still feel the heat, even now. The pavements felt uncomfortably hot when you sat down. Dogs dozed outside houses, grumpy if approached. Ants were everywhere, and sometimes, huge numbers of winged ants would emerge, their desire to fly off sparked by the increasing temperature. You were always thirsty. The parks had water fountains, operated by pushing a plunger, and then you had to try to drink from it, craning your head awkwardly. Older fountains had large metal cups, attached by chains. They were probably unhygienic, but the water always tasted fresh from them.

If all else failed, you would knock on any door, and ask for a drink of water, from a complete stranger. It was never denied, as it was a very different world then. If you had money, you could buy a drink, or better still, an Ice Pole or a Jubbly. Ice Poles were long tubes of frozen, flavoured water, encased in a polythene shell. You bit off the top, and pushed the pole up as you ate it. Jubblies were even better, but cost 3d. They resembled a pyramid, and were really frozen solid. They contained a tasty orange ice, and were in a waxy cardboard container. Peeling off one corner, the Jubbly would appear, and could be slid in and out, as required. Even in the full heat of summer, they would last a long time, and were a great refreshment.

When I moved to the new maisonette in Bermondsey, aged eight, we had communal gardens. These became my new playground. With the other kids from the flats, of all ages, we would play in the wartime air-raid shelters, on the older estate opposite. As we had a ground and first floor, we would leap from the stairwell halfway up, pretending to be parachutists at Arnhem. With earth and grass to include in our games, we would dig out tiny trenches, and place our toy soldiers in them. We even poured water into them, to simulate the mud we had seen in the films. A good game like this could involve up to six kids, with a few hundred toy soldiers, in an impressive trench network that we kept going for days, if not weeks, on end.

When I got a bike, a whole new world of summer play opened up for me. We would cruise around in large numbers, pretending to be fighter planes, attacking each other with loud machine-gun noises, covering a good few miles each day. Other times, we would ‘obtain’ broom handles, and stage elaborate jousting contests, slavishly following all the rules, just as we had seen in the films. Pedalling rapidly towards each other, we fearlessly clashed our broom handle ‘lances’; if someone fell off their bike, the other boy would get off also, and continue the contest with wooden swords. And it was still hot, always hot.

This was pretty much how it carried on, until I became too old for play, and started to read, or listen to music in my bedroom instead. By the time we moved to Kent, I had stopped noticing the heat of the summers, but I vividly remember the open doors, to let in air, and the sound of the younger kids, out playing until past 9pm, enjoying the warmth.

Nothing will persuade me that those summers are a myth, or just a rose-tinted memory.

Living for the city

Stevie Wonder once wrote a line in a song; ‘Living just enough, just enough, for the city.‘ I think I know what he was on about; at least it resonated with me, and made solid a thought long held in my mind.

When you live in a city, to a large extent you do provide for it, help to feed its needs, and by doing so, become used up, and eventually discarded. Cities don’t need individuals, and replace them quickly once they are gone. To a city, the loss of one inhabitant is of no more importance than the loss of a single termite to a colony. Think about it long enough, and you will realise that if you believe a city is there to provide you with your needs, whether they be employment, recreational, or residential, in reality, the reverse is true. You do what you do for the benefit of the metropolis, even if you do not choose to accept this fact. City living feels like survival. When someone gets home from a day’s work, they shut the doors, close out the noise, and relax. Inside, they feel that they have survived this great thing for one more day. Tomorrow is a fresh start. Living anywhere else is just beyond compare.

City life has its own pace. Often frenetic, and at the very least one pace quicker than anywhere else, and with that comes the need to compete. This competition can be for parking spaces, table reservations, theatre seats, the best view, or the latest thing. It can also be to just get through a day, to survive once again, to be able to get some sleep. If you live this city life, it is best not to think about it too much. The sense of your personal insignificance can be overwhelming, and the future stretches out in front of you, looking completely pointless. Cities seem to evolve and develop at a faster pace than the people that live in them. Modern London would look incredibly different to someone who lived there in the 14th century, yet the present day inhabitants of this city have much in common with their ancestors. Take away the electronic toys, the cars, trains and planes, and you have people who are essentially unchanged.

Their worries are surprisingly similar. Getting work, having enough to eat, meeting a partner, looking after their children. Read any stories of London life over the centuries, and you could put them into almost any time period. ( First removing the references to The Plague, of course) The diaries of Samuel Pepys give a fascinating account of life in London in the 17th century. What makes them more interesting to me, is that they show how little things have changed since then, at least in the everyday lives of the people. Living in a city defines your character, and to some extent, your personality as well. Despite my move to rural Norfolk, I am immediately recognised as a ‘city person’, by anyone who has ever lived in one, and equally by those who have not.

So why am I writing a post about city life today? Last weekend, I missed London. It was only fleeting, but nonetheless a tangible miss. I watched  a few minutes of the TV coverage of the London Marathon, and it all came flooding back; wafting over me like the smell of a familiar perfume, or the feel of an old shirt, that always fits ‘just right’.

There is little to compare with a spruced up London on a sunny day. Devoid of traffic, grand buildings of Portland stone shining, and the River Thames glistening, it really is quite magnificent. The sweeping vistas, the dramatic bridges and landmarks, and the riverside developments lining both banks. To me, it all screams ‘home’.

I am not a fan of sports generally, and I have to say that I find the Marathon somewhat pointless. When I lived in London, I regarded the whole thing as a massive annual inconvenience, that served little purpose, other than to promote the various companies that sponsored different parts of it. However, I did have one connection with it that was positive. When I moved to a house in Rotherhithe, it fronted the main road. Except for a purely ornamental front garden, and a grassed walkway, it was actually a few feet from the road itself, which was also part of the Marathon route. One of our friends was living in Kent, and she was a fan of the race. She asked if her and her partner could come up, as we could afford them a literal front row seat. They came up on the Saturday, and we all had a meal, and copious amounts of alcohol too. The next morning, after a hearty breakfast to banish hangovers, we put on the TV, and waited for the race to start at Blackheath, a few miles to the East. We placed chairs on the walkway outside, and checked with the TV coverage, for the moment when they made the turn into our road, from Surrey Docks Station. Taking position, we soon saw the leading runners go pounding by, followed by wheelchair competitors, going surprisingly fast. We had to take cover occasionally, as the flying plastic water bottles thrown by the runners, would come at us from all angles.

There was then a significant lull in proceedings, as the next large groups of runners would take some time to appear. There was time for refills of tea and coffee, or buck’s fizz. After this large group had gone past, the fun runners would appear. They would be wearing various costumes, some of which were very intricate, and also looked very uncomfortable. Of course, not everyone can compete at a similar pace, and it was not unknown for some of the less experienced, or disabled, to still be passing by late into the evening. First aid coaches went slowly by, and we could see the forlorn expressions of those inside, the runners who had already dropped out after a few miles. Some were carrying collecting buckets for charities, and we sometimes threw in a couple of pounds, for those that had meaning to us. Following on, there was a small army of cleaners, picking up all the water bottles, and other rubbish discarded by the entrants. By the time the road was re-opened, it was hard to tell that anything had happened, were it not for the few stragglers, still making their way to The Mall.

After it was all over, we would cook an early lunch, later bidding farewell to our guests. This happened only three times, as I split with my wife, and the house was sold. Those Marathon party weekends remain a fond memory now, one of heavy drinking and laughter, followed by our ritual viewing of this massive event. Although it was only once a year, for three short years, it holds considerable significance in my recollections.

There I was in Norfolk, misty-eyed in reverie, enjoying a view of London denied me when I lived there; an aerial feast for the eyes, of a city that had benefited from a good wash and brush up. I did miss it. I envied those walking on the South Bank, or strolling around the base of Tower Bridge. But inside I knew that this wasn’t my London, the city of noise, rubbish, dirt, and hard work. This was London ready for a night out, in its best clothes, freshly washed, and looking its best.

So I didn’t miss it a lot. A bit though.

London Life (1)

Until this year, I lived almost all of my life in one or other district of London, starting in Bermondsey and Rotherhithe, which were then working class districts of South-East London. Then there was a gap, when my Dad moved us to Bexley, which was then in Kent but is now a London Borough. I later moved back to Clapham, then to Wandsworth, when I married. Going up in the World, so we believed, we moved the short distance to Wimbledon, where I stayed until 1985, when I moved back to Rotherhithe, specifically the part known as Surrey Docks. This was no longer just a working class district, as the regeneration of Docklands had radically changed both the area, and the people that lived there. After many years there, I eventually found myself in Camden Town, the now fashionable area just North of London’s West End, where I stayed for 12 years, until moving to Norfolk. So, I had lived in South East, South West, and North London, missing out only the extremes of the East and West at either end.

For those of you who do not know London, it must be said that it is a vast place. From Barnet in the North, to Croydon in the South, is a road distance of almost 24 miles, and from Dagenham in the East, to Hounslow in the West, nearly 30 miles. This is an area of 720 miles, all heavily built-up, with an incredibly dense population, and severe traffic problems. That population is very diverse, with inhabitants from almost every country in the World, speaking hundreds of different languages, and bringing their own cultures to the areas where they have chosen to settle. Yet Londoners are also strangers in their own, forbidding city. Many rarely leave the areas in which they live, except to commute to work, or seek entertainment.

Crossing the Thames from one side to the other is usually done underground, on the vast tube network, as using a car in the central area is a waste of time, and parking is at a premium, day or night. Most buses run the full 24 hours, and can be a good way of getting around, providing you know in which direction to take one in the first place. Only tourists sit in the front seats upstairs though, it just isn’t cool. And you don’t talk to anyone, unless you have to, it just isn’t done. No point asking directions anyway, as chances are the person you ask will either not speak English, or be as lost as you are.

It is just too big. As a result, Londoners have learned to live in the districts, turning them into small villages inside the Metropolis, each with a unique character. Street markets still thrive, though it is doubtful you would ever see them, as only the locals would know where they are. I am not referring to Camden Market, or Petticoat Lane, as these are on the tourist trail; I mean the old London markets, such as East Street, Roman Road, and Chapel street, where crowds still flock to do ‘normal’ shopping.

The original London, The City, is a place all to itself. Housing the financial district, St Paul’s cathedral, and The Barbican, it is self-governing, self-policing, and packed full of fascinating history at every turn. Teeming with workers during the day, it becomes almost uninhabited after dark, and at weekends, and eerily quiet, except for the small area in and around Smithfield meat market. Names you may have heard but that meant nothing to you, like Tottenham, Fulham, or Hendon, are in fact areas that are busier than most large towns in Britain, with a population to equal those too. Some Londoners live all of their lives in one or other of these areas, without ever feeling the need to travel around, or to move house; some because they have no choice, others from preference. There are districts associated with rich people, and expensive houses, like Chelsea, Kensington, or Hampstead. In reality, they are home to large numbers of ordinary working people also, and many were formerly the poorest areas of the Capital.

The River Thames is more than a river flowing through a major city. It defines your part in London Life. Whether you live North or South of it, what bridge or tunnel you use to cross it, views from bridges or embankments from one side or the other, and the iconic buildings and areas lining its banks, the Thames is everything to London. The former docks and wharves that were once the lifeblood of the Capital, providing its very reason for existence, and employment for a large part of the population, are now long gone. They have been replaced with pleasant walkways and open spaces, such as The South Bank, or attractive riverside dwellings, out of the financial reach of most of the inhabitants. It is cleaner, and the views along the river are better as a result, though I am not convinced it is really an improvement. Riverboats still ply their trade up and down the Thames, but these days, they are for tourism and entertainment only, as the few commercial ships that you see will be taking London’s rubbish to be dumped somewhere.

The once bustling pubs with river frontages, are now offering nouvelle cuisine, and welcoming coach parties of Japanese tourists, to enjoy a taste of ‘Real London’. Still, there are now cormorants fishing off the piers, and fish such as salmon have found their way back to the shadow of Tower Bridge, so that is something to be thankful for, I suppose. And there are the bridges. They are mostly spectacular, and something that I genuinely miss. London at night is enhanced by its bridges. There is the simply unequalled Tower Bridge, which still occasionally rises, to let large vessels pass, and the great concrete slab of Waterloo Bridge, which has always afforded the best view of London from anywhere in the centre. Further West, the bridges of Albert, Battersea, and Chelsea, illuminated by hundreds of lights, give a fairground appearance to their surroundings. If you ever visit London, make sure to take the long walk along the embankment from East to West, as the dozen or more bridges you will see on your way (there are more of course, but you will not walk that far) will tell you as much about London as anything else you may discover.

Religion is well catered for, though many of the ‘ordinary’ Londoners are far from religious beings. There are numerous Synagogues, catering for the large Jewish population, of almost 200,000. More recently, Mosques have appeared all over the City, including the grand and imposing main London Mosque, just inside Regent’s Park. There are Protestant and Catholic churches in abundance, including large cathedrals, as well as smaller churches of every denomination you could think of. The Hindu Temple in Neasden is worth the long trip North-West, as the building is stunning, and all are welcome there. There are places of worship for Hare Krishna devotees, Quakers, Mormons, and of course, Jehovah Witnesses. Alternative religions are well catered for too, and you will find the offices of Scientologists, Christadelphians, and even the Secular Society, for agnostics. For a City that seems to have put religion aside, it is exceptionally well served, nonetheless.

For most visitors to London, whether foreign tourists, or Britons attending a sporting event, or going to see a show, it is only the centre that they experience. The Theatre District, Chinatown, Soho, Oxford Street, or the large parks. For Londoners, these are communities too. Only yards away from the strip clubs and gay bars of Soho, lives a community that has existed for centuries. Social housing, deprived conditions, drug and alcohol abuse, and unemployment, all cheek-by-jowl with wine bars, night clubs, and theatres showing the latest big musical. You only have to listen to the constant sirens, or attend a hospital A&E department, to realise that something other than entertainment and shopping is really going on all around you.

You cannot ever hope to understand London unless you live there. You don’t have to actually be a Londoner, as I am. In fact, a minority of the inhabitants of London actually originate from there. It is a magnet for the whole country, as well as the World outside the U.K. There are as many Irish people there as can be found in Dublin, and Scottish accents are as familiar to Londoners as cockney ones. It could be argued that ‘real’ locals are dying out, as they move to the suburbs, escaping unaffordable housing, or just trying to get away from the hustle and bustle. But London has always had a diverse population, since the Romans first bridged the Thames, so it is more accurate to realise that there is no such thing as a ‘true’ Londoner; residence is the only qualification.

This is the City of my youth, my middle age, and the very thing that defines me. Though I no longer live there, I have no doubt that I will always be perceived to be, and to feel inside, a Londoner.

We all have a book in us

How many times has this been heard over the years? Approaching Retirement, I was often told, ‘now is the time to write that book’. After all, I had led a comparatively exciting working life. Over 20 years in a front line ambulance, followed by more than 10 years behind the scenes working for the Metropolitan Police. I had attended bombings, and major disasters. I had delivered babies, cared for victims of terrible burns and injuries, and ended my working life deploying firearms officers in Central London. There was also the possibility to inject humour, with unusual tales of quirky events, mistakes and errors made, and the strange characters that I had dealt with, or worked alongside. I had travelled a fair bit. What about experiences behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ in Soviet Russia, or visiting East Germany many years before the wall came down?
If this did not provide fertile enough ground for that book, there were always my personal interests. History, Civil Wars, Cameras and Photography, Dickensian London, and the development of weapons through the ages. Maybe I could use my experiences with the Police, to write about modern crime-fighting in the Metropolis? There was always the possibility that my new life in Norfolk would yield great material for a book about the transition from London to the countryside. I would definitely look into it. After all, didn’t my life deserve a printed legacy, or to be available as an electronic download? Surely I too deserved to be in the remainder bins at half price, or in the window of Waterstones as the cheapest of the ‘buy 3 get 1 free offer? Failing all that, I could adapt these experiences and interests, to write a work of fiction, loosely based on something I knew a bit about.

I considered all the options, starting with the obvious. My Life in the Ambulance Service. An interesting read, with a few chuckles, and lots of gasps. From the end of the 1970’s, to the start of the 21st century. Strikes, civil disorder, changes in the NHS, advancements in care, yet the job was essentially the same. There have been a few written already. They didn’t sell well. There was one exception to this, the marvellous ‘Bringing out the dead’, the only work to ever get inside the darker aspects of the job of a Paramedic. Generally though, people don’t want to read the truth about injury and illness. It just isn’t entertaining or informative.
What about Oliver Cromwell and the English Civil War? I have always been interested in that period. I am a member of the Cromwell Association, and I live in East Anglia, so research should be easy. I was forgetting Antonia Fraser. Her definitive biography of the man and his times, as thick as a telephone directory, immaculately researched, and a great read for anyone interested in the subject. No point trying to better that.
Perhaps a crime thriller, drawing on my Police contacts? I remembered the novel ‘By Reason of Insanity’. Probably the best book about a serial killer, and those hunting him, ever written. Then there were the books about forensic detectives, pathologists, or those with a gritty, authentic feel, like the ‘Rebus’ series. Could I do better than all these?

I doubt it.
How about a non-fiction work of importance, say the history of a great city like London? Oops, Peter Ackroyd beat me to that one.
This leaves the fish- out- of- water transition to a strange land, as my best bet. Hang on, am I forgetting Bill Bryson, or ‘A Year in Provence’? My feeble musings on a life in Norfolk are never going to hold a candle to these best sellers.
So, it had to be a well-researched, thought-provoking work about the unhappy lot of the working class in Victorian London. I would start right away. I had the credentials, as I came from the poorest district in South London, Rotherhithe. Nuzzling the south bank of the Thames, this was a place that had changed beyond recognition, from unspeakable slum, it had become a fashionable, dockside development. The docks had closed, and the inhabitants mostly moved away. There had to be some mileage in that surely? No. I had forgotten Charles Dickens, not to mention Mr Ackroyd (again).

My conclusion is that we do not all have a book ‘in us’. Writers and authors have books in them. They get up early, write long and hard. They research, they study, they read other books, and they strive for excellence. They are their own harshest critics, and they give their lives to their work. Families are shunned, homes re-mortgaged, lovers abandoned, luxuries are foregone. They also have good ideas, and act upon them.

The recent meteoric success of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and its sequels, fuelled by social media sites on the Internet, is a good example. Written by a lady who waited until she had seen her family grow, and her career aspirations satisfied, she embarked on her trilogy of lust, bondage and dark love. It has probably made her a fortune, and she has the film rights to come as well.
I could have had that idea. I could imagine sex and bondage, vulnerable females, and a dark central character. It can’t be that difficult can it? But I didn’t have the idea, and if I had, I wouldn’t have acted on it. E. L James had the idea, and she did the work necessary to get it into print. She reaps a just reward, good luck to her. That is the difference between writers and readers. If you want to be a writer, you have to act on those ideas, and be prepared to work hard to make them appear on a page. They don’t always have to be new, but they must catch a mood, and be of their time. Just because you did something interesting, doesn’t necessarily make that thing, or you, interesting as well, when translated to the written page.

Keep reading, and enjoy those books. I choose to stop believing that I have a book ‘in me’. I don’t.