Nine people are gathered outside Bermondsey tube station, braving the weather on a cold Sunday morning, writes Kit Heren…
We don’t have much in common – some of us are from London, others from the home counties, still more from continental Europe and even further afield – but there is one thing that binds us. We are all listening to Katie Wignall, our guide for the day, who runs tours called Look Up London.
“I try to make my tours different from what you would see on a more sanitised tour”, Wignall told me in an earlier conversation. “That’s why I call them Look Up – there’s so much even locals don’t see because we are generally only focused on what we see in front of our eyes. I try to help people take a second to appreciate the amazing things that might be just out of our sightline.”
Wignall, a born-and-bred Londoner, has been running tours in the capital for around three years, including one called Southwark’s Saucy Secrets in the area around London Bridge and the Globe theatre.
But today is the first day of a new tour dedicated to the history of Bermondsey. Originally called Bermondsey Behaving Badly, Wignall says she decided to rename the tour Bermondsey: Off the Beaten Track to avoid “blemishing Bermondsey’s reputation.”
In truth, the original name might have been a little unfair to Bermondsey, given the local sights that Wignall shows us. Rather than behaving badly, Bermondsey seems to have behaved remarkably well over the thousand years of history that we cover in our walk from the tube past Bermondsey Spa Gardens, along to Tower Bridge Road and down Bermondsey Street.
Indeed, running through the tour is a theme of human decency amid often dangerous and squalid living and working conditions down the centuries.
Wignall tells us about the medical and social work of Alfred and Ada Salter, well-known to most Bermondsey residents even today, but also about the Bermondsey Medical Mission, near the Old Kent Road. Founded by former missionary Selena Fox in 1904 to care for destitute people in the area, the building still serves local people as a care home.
Talk on the tour soon shifts to social change in the area. It’s perhaps symbolic that Dr Salter has a commemorative plaque in the tube station. His and Ada’s work in the early 20th century, which did so much to help people living in Bermondsey, may also have paved the way for changes to the area that have seen some local people priced out.
This change was accelerated by the arrival of the tube in 1999. Having a station made the area much easier to reach from central London and helped push up house prices: according to estate agents Knight Frank, property values in the area rose 114% between 2006 and 2018.
Although the tube only arrived relatively recently in Bermondsey’s history, public transport has long been a feature of the area. As we walk under the railway line, still dripping from last night’s rain, which stretches over Bermondsey from nearby London Bridge, Wignall tells us about the Spa Road railway station, London’s first rail terminus.
Opened in 1836, Spa Road soon became less popular after trains began running from London Bridge later the same year. The station finally closed for good during the First World War. All that remains today are some small plaques.
Although Wignall calls her tours Look Up London, the highlight of the tour involves looking down. The abbey was dissolved under Henry VIII and much was soon demolished to make way for a new mansion. What remains of the Bermondsey abbey, originally built in the eleventh century, is mostly hidden from sight – underneath the Turkish restaurant Lokma on Bermondsey Square.
Wignall shepherds us into Lokma for a quick look at the remains of the abbey tower, set beneath thick glass at the back of the restaurant, before we are shuffled out again.
The tour ends outside Maltby Street market. As perhaps Bermondsey’s most popular attraction, it doesn’t seem the most appropriate place to finish an ‘off the beaten track’ look at the area. But after a fascinating, and at times harrowing, morning walk through local history, most of my fellow tourists appear pleased to be confronted with some hot food.
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