Holy Ghost Zone, Old Kent Road. © David Secombe 2008.
When playing Monopoly my father was always determined to acquire Old Kent Road and Whitechapel, and to build on them as soon as possible. It’s the most modest portfolio on the board, with houses on Old Kent Road, as I remember, costing little more than a hotel on Mayfair. ‘You might laugh,’ my father would tell us in baleful tones, ‘but everybody always lands on Old Kent Road.’
I’m interested in the Old Kent Road as a sort of social counterweight to Hampstead, but my friend David, a South London partisan, is a genuinely keen on it, and gave me a guided tour this week.
Tesco, Old Kent Road. © David Secombe 2004.
‘When the evening sun’s like this,’ he said cheerfully, as we skirted a sofa that had been thoughtfully set out on the pavement, ‘it’s got a sort of I’m-in-a-scary-part-of-LA charm.’ We were walking past the Old Kent Road’s array of cosmopolitan food shops, beauty parlours, international cash transfer places, evangelical ministries, van washing businesses. As the cars screamed by, David would stop every now and again to photograph the lowering clouds over some light industrial unit or brutalist block of flats. He seemed particularly taken with the visual possibilities of the flyover at the southern end of the Road. ‘A friend of mine owns a flat that looks right on to that,’ he said enviously.
I looked at a price list outside one of the Road’s pubs: it advertised a cocktail called a Slippery Nipple, consisting of Sambuca, Bailey’s and Grenadine. You could have a jug of Slippery Nipple for £12.50. Another sign forbade anybody wearing a hat to enter the pub. You knew there was some insight into human behaviour behind this, and that it had been won the hard way.
Re-branding exercise, Old Kent Road. © David Secombe 2008.
‘If Dickens were alive today he’d be down here all the time,’ said David as car came crawling noisily down the Road with only two of its tyres inflated. David then attempted, with windmilling arms, to direct the dazed-looking driver to a nearby sprawling depot called Madhouse Tyres.
As he did so, I reflected that the Old Kent Road does have the look of suburban LA or Chicago – that rangy wildness – and it occurred to me that this is what happens to British streetscapes when middle class vigilance is reduced and planning controls relaxed: they begin to look American.
Chinese Elvis restaurant, Old Kent Road. © David Secombe 2002.
David pointed out East Street, which goes off the Old Kent Road. Its market features in the opening credits of ‘Only Fools and Horses’, in which Rodney and Del Boy inhabit a tower block inevitably called Nelson Mandela House. David took me to Mandela Way, which intersects with Old Kent Road, and where there is a small patch of green space occupied by a tank that has been painted pink and decorated repeatedly with the stencilled word ‘Scab’. ‘If this was North London,’ I marvelled, ‘there would be letters in the Hampstead and Highgate Express every week until it was taken away.’ ‘Really?’ said David, snapping away, ‘it’s been here for years.’*
Tank, Mandela Way. © David Secombe 2004.
In the streets off Old Kent Road, you never know what you’ll find: a battered looking Georgian house with an ice cream van parked in the front drive and a lone security camera staring at it; a tiny house with a sign saying ‘This property is protected by guard dogs’ – that’s dogs, plural; sudden bombsites with rampant buddleia, the scars of the Second World War still seemingly fresh. There are also surprising runs of pristine Georgian and Victorian houses with obviously middle class occupants.
Almshouses, Asylum Road, SE15. © David Secombe 2008.
You could argue that Old Kent Road is going upmarket. The famous old Dun Cow pub is now the Dun Cow Surgery, and the Thomas A Becket, the even more famous boxing pub, built on one of the many sites where the Canterbury pilgrims took liquid refreshment, is now an estate agency, a sign of the times to an extent almost ridiculous. ‘You’d think there’d be a plaque acknowledging what it used to be,’ I said to David. But he frowned and shook his head, ‘That’s one of the great things about the Old Kent Road,’ he said, as we trudged on, ‘a profound lack of sentimentality.’
© Andrew Martin. This article originally appeared in Andrew’s Class Conscious column for The New Statesman in 2004.
(*The tank is a Soviet T-34 placed on Mandela Way as a protest by a disgruntled property developer following the rejection of a planning application.)
Go-go dancer, The Lord Wellington, Rotherhithe, London, June 1974. © Geoff Howard.
Smut by Tim Wells:
much of it
catches my eye.
the bar top,
in her drink.
© Tim Wells.
Ship and Whale, Rotherhithe. © Geoff Howard 1975.
From Nairn’s London, Ian Nairn, 1966 ( revised 1988):
Mostly a terrible disappointment, with the dock buildings low and mean, and the horrible pre-war flats along Rotherhithe Street meaner still. But just once the conglomeration of utilities cracks into poetry, and it takes a bit of finding. In Gulliver Street, off Redriff Road, is a pub called the Ship and Whale. Beside it, a walled alley leads south. Walls give way to wooden slats with intermittent views of barges – if you run fast enough they coalesce like a movie strip. The slats in turn lead to a swing bridge, just a few feet higher than the rest, and the whole place suddenly unfolds. This is the main entrance to the dock, the Thames is only a few feet away, and the view all round the clock is water and ships, with the domes of Greenwich inflecting the horizon.
From the forward to Rotherhithe Photographs, 1971-80 by Geoff Howard:
Rotherhithe was a riverside village to the east of London in medieval times, but the real development of the area started with the major dock building in the first half of the 19th century; these docks were amalgamated into the Surrey Commercial Docks in 1864. Surrey Docks are only a part of Rotherhithe, but people tended to use the two names almost interchangeably. Surrey Docks underground station is at the south end of the docks; Rotherhithe Street itself follows the bend of the river Thames around the north side of the docks. Rotherhithe Street – the longest street on London – or was it in England – bordered by high walls hiding the docks, with just occasional gaps at a gate or bridge, with glimpses of water or warehouses, and like all the surrounding streets mostly deserted, a ghostly, uninhabited feeling, broken by small estates of council flats, a few pubs, some newsagents or little corner shops. The river on the other side of the road, often just a few steps down to the water.
While these photographs date from 1971 to 1980, the majority were taken between 1973 and 1975. It was the time after the closure of the docks in 1969 but before the complete redevelopment of the whole London docklands area, north and south of the river Thames, during the 1980s.
In 1978 Sally Williams of the Whitechapel Art Gallery put on a small exhibition of my work entitled Rotherhithe Photographs in the front gallery, and it is from those pictures that this book originated. The exhibition felt like a sort of completion to my project; I had done the things which had originally struck me and had made the area special. However, I continued to photograph from time to time, and in 1980 Tony Garrett of New Society magazine asked me to photograph the Downtown area for a story entitled Closedown in Docklands. When the London Docklands Development Corporation got round to the area south of the river, everything changed. What I had found there was gone, and I stopped photographing Rotherhithe. If I went there, I got lost; there were new roads everywhere. The mysterious passage which started beside The Ship and Whale pub and ran alongside the river, which had been for me the secret heart of the area, now no longer existed. And I still wonder, whatever happened to Dave and Carole? But the painted wall on which they marked their years together is gone too.
The lives here were more than 30 years ago. So much has changed and vanished. Time really is the strangest thing.
Town of Ramsgate pub, Wapping Old Stairs. Photo © David Secombe 2010.
From Unknown London, W.G. Bell, 1919:
Wapping High Street in the days of Nelson’s wars possessed upwards of one hundred and forty ale-houses. In a recent perambulation I was not able to count ten. Together with these reeking drink shops, inexpressible in their squalor and dirt, were other houses of resort which one may deftly pass by without too curious enquiry. In the gloomy slum area at the back, the inner recesses of the hive, mostly dwelt the people who lived, quite literally upon the sailor, and they formed the greater part of the population that was herded here. Every tavern kept open door to welcome the mariner with wages in his pocket.
You may land at the Old Stairs still … The ‘Town of Ramsgate’ stands at the head of the Stairs, where it has stood these past two centuries or more for the refreshment of sailors. Wapping was the busiest centre of the seafaring life of the port of London. Of the many landing-places, the deserted Old Stairs and the New Stairs, nearer the City, alone survive. And you may tramp Wapping from end to end without recognizing a sailor man.
Nearly a hundred years later, Bell’s assessment of Wapping remains valid, although these days the eeriness of its riverside enclave has a particularly 21st Century quality. Wapping High Street’s narrow pavements teem with joggers: driven young (or young-ish) men and women who appear from nowhere, pounding behind you silently before speeding past towards … what? Apart from the joggers, you may see a few tourists who make the journey to visit the pubs and riverside sights, and it is undeniably true that at certain times (dusk in November, for example) the environs of Wapping Old Stairs retain an impressive atmosphere: catnip for Dickens-fanciers armed with much-thumbed copies of Our Mutual Friend. However, in cold, hard daylight, the perfectly made-over warehouses and tastefully integrated new-build developments dispel memories of Dickens and recall instead the preoccupations of a more modern London writer: J.G. Ballard. Modern Wapping could be a starting point for one of his forensic studies of fear within insular communities, wherein the hot-house social conditions unleash perversity and violence behind the security gates of the ‘executive development’. In the 1970s, he set such a dystopia downriver, in a tower block that might have been designed by Erno Goldfinger (High Rise); but the make-over of ‘heritage’ environments, the loading-bays transformed into penthouses, offers a more contemporary setting for a Ballardian nightmare.
Ultimately, perhaps, the unnerving quality riverside Wapping possesses today is that of a ghost seen walking in the noonday sun: the ghost of London.
… for The London Column.