Redriff Road/Ropemaker Road junction to Salter Road/Lagado Mews junction
Words by Tony Clarke, images by Tony and Maureen Clarke
In 1982, this stretch of Rotherhithe was a run-down area. I know. I ran down it. On Sunday, May 9th, with15,268 others. The second London Marathon. Now, on a cold January Sunday morning nearly 31 years later, I’m here again, ambling – probably close to the pace to that I managed first time around – along a mile of Salter Road, SE16, between Ropemaker Road and Lagado Mews. Now, I’m a writer in search of a story. Then, I was a runner in search of… well, ‘glory,’ though it rhymes nicely, would be stretching things a bit, as precisely 11,464 runners pushed that year’s winner, Hugh Jones, all the way to the line that little bit more than I did.
Sunday, being a day of restlessness, normally guarantees the sighting of a jogger or two. They’re often those, like me, for whom the words ‘young’ and ‘fit’ are but an ’80s memory; all discordant gait and Munch-painting grimace, and seemingly motivated by a belief that their pain means no gain – yet – for that most relentless of pursuers, the cloaked man and his scythe. No joggers visible today, though, so for me it’s the loneliness of the (returning) long-distance runner.
If this was a film I’d cast a misty-eyed gaze up and down the road as a solemn piano melody carefully selected from the poignant flashback-alert bargain bin drifts slowly in. Then the music and I would be submerged beneath the sound of pounding feet, panting, talking, shouting, coughing, laughing, cheering, honking klaxons, clinking glasses and brass bands. Between banks of spectators overflowing with goodwill, a spring tide of humanity surges along the road, in the midst of which the camera picks out my impossibly handsome and athletic (this is a film remember) 28-year-old self, resplendent in full piratical beard and within a pace or eight of that year’s chief eccentric, a man who took piratical embellishment to a whole new level by running with a live macaw perched on his shoulder.
My mind is a blank reel in the real here and now, though, and no such nostalgic convergence of past self and present location occurs. In the film ‘Don’t Look Now’, after touching a Venice alleyway wall Donald Sutherland could say: ‘I know this place.’ I graze the wall of a corner house, but nothing registers; I am just clutching at bricks. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. There are plenty of iconic, tourist-magnet jewels dotted along the twisted necklace that is the London Marathon route but, worthy as little Surrey Docks Farm, the Lavender Road Nature Reserve and the Russia Dock Woodland Park are (and despite the sign for the latter bidding ‘welcome’ in eight languages), I doubt they yet qualify as such. And, having no work, family or friendship links with the area, I’ve had no occasion to revisit at all in the intervening 31 years.
But there’s another reason Memory Lane is closed off today. If I’d hit ‘the wall’ in the 1982 marathon, it wouldn’t have been made of the bricks I touched earlier. In 1982, this was a run-down area – but not by me, not quite here. Salter Road was a dotted line on a map, a twinkle in a planner’s eye. A distress of derelict docks, this was an area whose lifeblood, if not exactly drained away, was acutely anaemic. Enter the self-styled Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, and the hair-styled Michael Heseltine (the Iron Hair, perhaps?), her not-so-faithful sidekick. Unto them the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) was born, upon which wise men from the east-of-centre politics bestowed gifts of unprecedented powers, the better that it may grow to perform the miracle of regeneration.
1982, of course, was the Year of the Yuppie. Yuppies were enterprising creatures who colonised the dark, riverside streets close to the city, surviving by sniffing out money from the most unlikely of places. Like urban foxes, they divided public opinion, sometimes causing nuisance by scattering their finds indiscriminately and leaving offensive refuse in their wake. It was through close observation of their behaviour, though, that the astonishing discovery was made that what lesser creatures thought of as a mere home, was, in fact, the biggest money-sniffing opportunity of all. Thus was revealed to the LDDC the way to reverse years of decline that had seen the docks silent for a decade or more; invite the money-lenders back into the temple and replace no longer-commercial docks with newly-commercial residential props.
Though the area is still widely known as Surrey Docks, by the late 80s most of those docks had been, quite literally, buried. The signs for the residential streets erected in their stead are their headstones. I search Capstan Way, Nelson Walk, Ropemaker Road, Shipwright Road and Waterman’s Walk for the ghosts of maritimes past. (Cue more solemn piano music from the flashback bargain bin). Once, tall ships anchored here, disgorging the bounty of the empire into ‘the warehouse of the world’ and providing employment for all manner of tradesmen. I take in Norway Gate, Finland Street, Oslo Square and Bergen Road, Fir Trees Close, Mahogany Close and Teak Close, humming a famous Beatles song and conjuring up an image of deal porters stacking, Jenga-like, grand quantities of timber.
Preserving fish and meat imports was once the preserve of ‘salters’. Salter Road, though, owes its name to the memory of Dr. Alfred Salter. Damned by The Times when he stood locally as a Labour candidate in the 1918 election as ‘a highly educated idealist’ (which probably explains his defeat), he insisted on treating patients unable to afford medical fees, many dockers employed on the notorious ‘call-on’ system amongst them, for free. What he would’ve made of his name being celebrated by those marching to the Boudicca of privatisation’s drumbeat is anyone’s guess. Locals, though, have been known to complain of a loud whirring sound coming from the nearby cemetery.
Some relics of the past – a swing bridge, a capstan, a mooring chain, anchors, a cannon, even a large rusting derrick – have been left strewn along the Thames Path, an indictment of the then government’s beloved compulsory competitive tendering process, which worked like an auction in reverse and resulted in the final clean-up contract being awarded to the lowest bidder.
In contrast, nearby Stave Hill unashamedly testifies to the new. An artificial grassy mound fashioned from the rubble of the past standing on the old Russia Dock site, it affords great views of the glistening, glassy towers lining the Thames, the newest and tallest of which now offers great views that few can afford.
Of course, you don’t need to scale a hill to glimpse the Shard. Assuming any weather conditions other than a Dickensian smog, this year’s runners will see it gleaming in the distance from any number of vantage points, Salter Road among them, its urban eye of Sauron beckoning them forward as irresistibly as Mordor’s towers beckoned those brave hobbits.
These modern buildings owe their very existence to the visionary who, a decade or so ago, saw that the only way to assuage public (if not royal) fear of the new was an alliterative mission statement. Certainly, I am comforted by the sign on the hoardings of a building site straddling Salter Road and Rotherhithe Street assuring us that the work is being undertaken by ‘Considerate Constructors’ intent on ‘Improving the Image of Construction.’ No doubt within those clapboard confines labour an army of bravura bricklayers, pleasant plasterers, placid plumbers, capable carpenters, glorious glaziers, scrupulous scaffolders and roofers of rectitude.
Later, strolling along the Thames Path, I see that this wisdom has spread to other enterprises. The Thames Clipper whizzing by is not merely ferrying passengers downriver to Greenwich, but also ‘Cutting Through Complexity.’ I reflect on this new word order, and wonder how anything was ever achieved in those unenlightened days of yore. I retrace my steps, passing The Clipper pub. Its proud advertising board boasts a variety of fresh teas, prompting me to wonder how the most famous tea clipper of them all, navigating these waters 150 years or so ago, managed to deliver its precious cargo without proclaiming that it was ‘Cutty Sarking through Complexity.’
This riverside skyline used to brim with tall masts and sails, the streets awash with seamen (a phrase better read than said). Now, looking back downriver from the Hilton Hotel that stands on the old Nelson Dock, I see no ships. I fantasise about their future return, as the rising Thames reclaims the docks while climate change deniers stand atop Stave Hill, challenging the waves like latter-day King Cnuts.
Back on Salter Road, I return to 1982, remember the jumble of the elite, the good, the bad and the ugly running styles, the graceful gaits, the young, the aged and the ageless. I recall the brave souls running for charities, often in elaborate fancy-dress (take a bow, if your costume allows, pantomime rhinos) and feel guilty that, so worried was I that I might crumple under the weight of expectations alone, I sought no sponsorship. This year, as the London Marathon again bestows upon this unprepossessing mile what my pedantometer tells me is considerably more than a Warholian 15 minutes of fame, will be no different. I fully expect to see anything from a pantomime rhino to another bearded pirate with a live macaw. But, hopefully, no cloaked, scythe-bearing man. And certainly no hobbits – they just haven’t got the legs for it.
Words by Tony Clarke
Panting, talking, coughing, laughing, I follow my wife and daughter and the conga line of humanity in front of them up the stairs of Surrey Quays Station and into the bright Sunday morning sunshine, serenaded this time, not by brass bands but by the competing sounds of a PA system and a live combo; Pet Shop Boys feat. Scottish Pipers.
A sighting of the well-appointed pub opposite prompts the first cheers of the day ( I can’t help myself). 9.30 am and it’s doing a roaring trade in full English pints, in unclinking glasses. We buy coffees and strike up a conversation with a young woman. She has the usual reason for being here; supporting a participating friend. The friend, however, just happens to be a guide for an elite blind Chilean paralympian. My wife fishes out the running schedule she’d downloaded from the official website that morning and gives the young woman the predicted time for the elite paralympian runners to pass this point. It proves pretty accurate and we all cheer wildly when she and her friend spot each other as he and his blind partner hurtle past, tethered arms perfectly synchronised. We marvel at their harmony and the courage it must take to run at speed in darkness. And, a little while later, at a guide running alone.
We ready our mobile phone cameras for the arrival of Mo Farah and the elite male runners and are still readying them when they blur past. I study the video of bare tarmac I have recorded and in my head paraphrase a line from an old 1960s’ Animals hit: ‘When I think of all the good times that I’ve wasted…..trying to capture good times on film.’
At 10.30 we succumb to the temptations of a full English and, plastic glasses in hand, head up the road to ‘my’ mile. The lack of public drinking stations on this stretch makes it ideal for runners’ drinking stations. Bottles of Lucozade are snatched, briefly glugged from, then swiftly discarded. I consider this a huge waste of energy drink. The grass verges resemble rolls of giant bubble-wrap, though I still cannot help feeling guilty adding my empty plastic glass to the mess.
It’s less well-populated in terms of spectators, so those of us there valiantly try to compensate by even more enthusiastic clapping and cheering. It seems such support is much needed by some. There is no shortage of Munch painting grimaces on show and we quickly learn that ‘Only 16 more miles to go’ does not work well as encouragement.
Many runners have their names on their vests, allowing us to personalise our vocal support. Often, said names are just below their chosen charities, which, in the case of some, seems like an unfortunate invitation to spectators to engage in a more tactile response: Stroke Emma, Stroke Dave. Hopefully, Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls will have chosen a different charity. For some reason I think of him, and the potential benefits to his chosen charity, if not his career, had he the ……courage to emulate the two men who run past in curly black wigs and false moustaches and wearing, apart from trainers and socks, nothing else apart from pale green mankinis, pulled up, Borat – style, over their shoulders.
These brave, or brazen, men are a couple amongst many fancy dress costumes that, as ever, stick in the mind. Reliably, there are a dozen or so, impossibly heavy -looking rhinos. Bearded males in wedding dresses. A man wedged through the middle of a large plastic shark. A two-person pantomime camel. (Did they need to stop at any of the drinking stations, I wonder?). A couple of pirates, neither adorned with a live bird. (Close but no macaw). Someone with a sinister –looking costume, brandishing a plastic scimitar. Thankfully, not quite a cloak-wearing, scythe-bearing figure. And, as predicted, no hobbits.
Four hours or so in, the family Clarke have hit the clapping and cheering wall. We amble back towards Surrey Quays Station against the shuffling, staggering, strolling, struggling stragglers. Only 16 miles to go. Long may they – and the London Marathon itself – continue.