Bermondsey Jubilee Line station to the entrance to Tower Bridge, south side
Words by Rebecca Dowman, images by Paul O’Brien
Devon Mansions looks like just another of the housing blocks, lined up, side-by side, along Jamaica Road and Tooley Street. And there are many.
A few, like Devon Mansions, are Victorian, some went up in the early 1930s, after swathes of local homes were declared unfit for human habitation, others sprang from the bombsites the Luftwaffe left behind.
Like most of the blocks, Devon Mansions has a plain, uninspiring face. But if you go through the arch, past the signs to the seven different floors, you find something splendid. Something that hints at Bermondsey’s colourful past and humane present.
Through the Devon Mansions arch is the Fairing Green Community Garden. ‘Fairing’ denotes a gift from a fair and it harks back to medieval markets held nearby on the long-gone, Horsely Downe field. It’s a modest, tidy space, with wooden benches punctuating small triangles of grass, and walkways just a few strides long. It is an almost-secret garden, a chink of peace, history and community, hidden beneath the surface.
And, undeniably, you do have to take time to scratch the surface on this Marathon mile. Emerging from the cavernous escalator hall of Bermondsey Tube station, with its industrial breeze block walls and fluorescent lights, ‘Jamaica Road’ seems a bizarrely incongruous name for this busy dual-carriageway, with its anonymous housing estates and undistinguished parades of shops.
As you walk along to join Tooley Street, plotting a line between Canary Wharf at your back and the Shard before you, things don’t get much more welcoming. Shops are boarded up – even the functioning Co-op has bricked in windows – and the only noteworthy buildings are the hulking, red brick Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church, the spitting image of a Victorian prison, and Tower Bridge Magistrates’ Court. The roads themselves, with their constant stream of cabs, buses, vans and lorries, encourage you to keep moving, not to pause.
Since the mid 19th century most commentators have had the same idea. “The wealthier residents had left the parish by 1842 and the place had acquired a character even more repellent than that which it bears at present,” was the verdict of the 1912 History of the County of Surrey.
It wasn’t always like that. In the late 18th century this was the area to be seen in, when Bermondsey Spa, with its picture gallery, concerts and fireworks displays, was a favoured stop on the Georgian high society circuit. But the spa closed in 1804 and, with it, Bermondsey’s brief window as a fashion destination. Not long afterwards the leather industry, for which the area had been famous since the Middle Ages, went into terminal decline as firms moved up country to follow the import of hides to the northern ports. With the leather business went allied industries, such as parchment and glue making. The food industry then moved in and, by the late 19th century, three quarters of London’s butter, cheese, bacon and meats landed at the local docks and were processed and canned nearby.
This brought in money, but little of it went to local people. The docks provided work but it was casual and badly paid, leading to desperate poverty and notorious slum dwellings that were fertile ground for a 1840s cholera outbreak.
As the History of the County of Surrey puts it: “A thickly populated district along the waterside was inhabited by coal porters, whippers, longshore labourers and jobbers, corn porters, costermongers, watermen and sailors, whose earnings were irregular… Four to five persons, on an average, slept in one room, standards of cleanliness and temperance were low, and the population subsisted chiefly on bread and potatoes.”
Little wonder then that: “The wealthier residents had left the parish by 1842”.
And it’s not just the well-heeled residents who got out of town. Tantalisingly, throughout, there are signs pointing to interesting things ‘elsewhere’, beyond the limits of this mile. A Jamaica Road building site sign, part of the ongoing housing regeneration, declares that Bermondsey Antiques Market is ‘just nine minutes away’; Tower Bridge Road, the end of this mile, takes you to the edge of the most famous bridge in London, no further, and signs point to Shad Thames, with its cosmopolitan wharfside penthouses, Michelin-starred restaurants and the Design Museum – but runners don’t get to see them. However, if you dig deeper, more carefully, look up, or down, you’ll find brighter days, better things, then and now.
Keats wrote ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ in lodgings off Tooley Street. Bermondsey Tube station was built on the site of the practice of one of the great heroes of pre-NHS Britain, Alfred Salter, a brilliant, Guy’s-trained doctor, who eschewed society medicine to provide affordable, even free, healthcare to the destitute, beside his wife Ada, Britain’s first woman councillor, in 1910, and Bermondsey – and London’s – first Labour mayor in 1922. Just off my Marathon strip is the extraordinary St James’ Church, modelled on Greek temples and rated by Betjeman as the finest of the Waterloo Churches created in the 1820s in thanksgiving for Wellington’s peace.
But, like the fairing garden, landmarks and heroes can impress on a smaller scale: take Shanel’s sandwich bar. Inside, the impossibly friendly Turkish proprietor greets each customer, from a stream that reflects all London’s cultures and colours, with: “Hello darling. How are you today? Did you have a good weekend?” This does not seem like a tired ‘Have a nice day’ mantra: she genuinely seems to care how they are and what they did. And guess what? She’s so nice that everyone is really nice back: whatever their age, gender, race or appearance.
One customer, a white guy in his early twenties, turns out to be a rapper. A political rapper. On his way to the studio. The woman and her Polish assistant get even more animated. “Has he considered ‘Britain’s got talent’?” No, he’s too radical but his YouTube clips have had loads of hits. He gives them his rap name and tells them about his rapping partner, his seven-year-old nephew Red Alert…
Fronting Shanel’s, overlooking the junction of Jamaica and Tooley, are four wrought iron benches, circled by seven trees. Unusually for street benches, particularly in such a small space, they face each other diagonally, four sides of a rhombus. Encouraging you to make eye contact with strangers, to talk, to share: like in Shanel’s.
This Marathon mile has small wonders: handkerchief-sized community gardens, plants in social housing window boxes, welcoming café staff, plaques to pioneering doctors in tube stations. Nothing to rival the grandeur of The Mall, the modernity of Canary Wharf, or the elaborate outline of Tower Bridge. But things that give a city heart.
And, so what, if this part of town doesn’t wear its history on its sleeve? It’s there all the same. Maybe, on this mile – as near as dammit the mid-point of the Marathon, when resolve can be wearing thin – it’s best for runners not to dwell, but to be carried onwards, further up, further in, to the City over the bridge and the finishing line beyond.
Pausing every two minutes to toot Bring me Sunshine on a crimson bugle is no way to make the back page headlines, even if you are dressed as a red sparkly fairy.
But then, in Bermondsey, at 1pm, a full four hours after the first start, the focus is not on elite running. It’s about cheering on the less than elite, the rhinos, the pensioners, Minnie and Mickey, and the man with ‘Fat middle-aged diabetic beating you’ emblazoned on his back.
At this less-than-half-way point, when many runners have already finished their London Marathon, the stragglers are handing the baton of the streets to the revellers.
Outside Rudge House flats, the handful of people on the front patch of grass has swelled into a party: kids are playing ball games, a perky Chihuahua is ignoring the No Dogs sign, and where a woman had been belting out songs on a mike from her small balcony, the sound system is now playing the Cha-Cha Slide and 20 people are lined up on the central reservation of the facing dual carriageway jumping, turning, clapping, hopping, sliding to the right, sliding to the left…
Further down the central reservation, as Jamaica Road meets Tooley Street, a man, sitting beside his small daughter, is clapping two inflatable batons together to rally a barely walking ‘runner’. ‘Come on Steve, come on, you’re a legend. A legend!’ and Steve picks up his speed, a little.
And outside The Gregorian Arms, next to the astonishing Neo-classical Church of St James, milling crowds are drinking beer, as a bearded guy in a curly cobalt blue wig conducts a cracking steel band, whose acoustics challenge the dance music pulsing from another housing block across the street.
And throughout, at last, there is sunshine.