The Scenery of London

Mitton, G. E.
1905

CHAPTER IX: The River

CHAPTER IX: The River

 

 

A LONDONER'S love for London may be tested by his regard for the river. If he remark that he has seen rivers wider, and that he cannot discover any beauty " in all that rubbish," indicating the wharves and chimneys of the Surrey side, give him up; he is hopeless, and time will only be wasted on him. You might take him to at night, when the river is full to the brim, flooding up to the Embankment in great swirling pools, and the three-quarter moon hangs low in the sky, making a clear pathway of silver down the water; beyond which in the uncertain light the houses on the farther shore are transformed into shadowy castles. You might point out the spires and pinnacles -of the Houses of Parliament rising against an indigo sky, and the solemn yellow light of Big Ben hanging midway in air; you might show him the ripples of gold starting from the reflections of the lamps on the bridge, and lapping against the sides of the ebony barges, and he will turn away and light a cigarette and say, "It's a jolly night certainly."

For those who love the river there is ever something new, something wonderful, and for the first time disclosed, whenever they see her. They never noticed before just that point of view, or just that effect; the whole course of the river may be likened to a gorgeous picture-book, of which each leaf in turning displays itself in familiar outlines but with new colouring, a fairy book indeed.

The river belonging to London may be said to begin at Hammersmith Bridge, and Hammersmith Bridge, with its airy outlines and general openness, seems fitting amid its surroundings. On the south side, higher up the stream, stretch long, low green banks, and the sheets of water of a water company's reservoirs glitter in the sun. The characteristic moment of Hammersmith Bridge is on a fine Sunday morning, when the ground is still touched by the lingering rime of a night frost, when the sun is getting higher every moment and diffusing around a yellow watery splendour, when cyclists race past to Richmond, and the ripples lap gently against the boats drawn up in Sunday peace on the strip of muddy foreshore.

The Mall on the north side was once a very fashionable place, where Catherine of Braganza came when a widow; and where a celebrated court physician lived in the days of Queen Anne. It is still desirable, and has some fine old houses and two elms of respectable antiquity. The river takes a great turn below Hammersmith, sweeping round on one side past Barn Elms, a favourite place for picnics in the days of the

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Stuarts, and on the other passing near Brandenburgh House, where lived the unhappy Queen Caroline, wife of George IV., whose treatment by her husband made England contemptible in the eyes of the nations. Market gardens still stud the Fulham bank, though in greatly diminished area. Soon the red roof of the old part of the Bishop of London's palace rises above the trees, and we can see the windows of the rooms occupied by Laud.

Putney Bridge is, like , of white stone, with wide arches,-a fine bridge. At either end the square towers of the neighbouring churches stare at each other with a half-defiant, half-subdued expression, and on Sunday mornings, when the congregations are dispersing, there is a double stream of people coming and going, and not one passes without a look up or down the stretch of shining water. It may be merely a personal idiosyncrasy, but to the writer the atmosphere always seems to be clear at Putney, clear though soft. The lines of the wall embanking Bishop's Park stand out distinctly ; every rope and stick on the barges lying by the Putney side is clearly noticeable; even far up the river a boat with its rhythmic sweep of oars can be distinguished. There is a wide stretch of clear grey water, sometimes even blue in the summer sun; the air is fresh, clean, and invigorating, with no smoke hanging in it, and the wind blows free at Putney Bridge.

The green banks of Hurlingham come next and the gas-works and wharves of Wandsworth on the other side; it is a dull bit of water until we reach the dullest of

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the bridges, namely Wandsworth, and so far as Battersea there is nothing to make an impression, nothing to remember. We must solace ourselves by thinking of the water-picnics that Pepys went, sometimes with Mrs. Pepys, but oftener by himself; and of the barges of the bishops with their richly decorated canopies and the long steady sweep of the oars in times considerably earlier than Pepys'. The river pageants and the old barges have been described so often, and so much has been written about them from time to time, that we are here concerning ourselves more with the river as it is than as it was.

B y , however, history asserts itself with a force that cannot be denied. We see in mental reverie the gardens of Sir Thomas More's house, gay with roses, reaching down to the water; we see the gorgeous barge of the king, with others in attendance like a flock of gigantic and unknown birds, waiting by the stairs, while the monarch himself strolls up and down the greensward with his arm round his chancellor's neck.

Just above Battersea Bridge, where the river makes a little bay, is a small house, sunk below the level of the ground and dingy in appearance. Here Turner came, under an assumed name, to revel in the sunsets and their reflections on the river. But the scene does not always show a smiling face at ; there are days when a thick haze obscures all but objects that are very near; when the river itself is flat and discoloured like a bad looking-glass, with scarcely a ripple on its oily surface; when the sun, a pale golden globe, shifts

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about in it with the slight wash; and sea-gulls swoop lazily to meet their own reflections on the surface.

The quaint old church with its brown brick tower --and white clock is a well-known object. The tower was built in the latter part of the seventeenth century, so Sir Thomas, who added a chapel to the building, would hardly know it again were he to return. The green trees of the gardens in Cheyne Walk hide the narrow Row where Carlyle lived. The high, light suspension bridge called Albert Bridge reminds us of that at Hammersmith. The long green line of Battersea Park is on the south, and the trees on the side rise above the solid granite, giving only glimpses of the charming houses of red brick in ancient style already toned by age that are behind them. At this part we may see in mid-stream a string of barges with burntsienna sails and hulls painted Noah's Ark greens and reds, laden perhaps with piles of hay, floating lazily, or it may be dragged by a fussy little black steam-tug, and so low in the water that the wash laps over at every yard. We used to see the pleasure-steamers with their cargoes of people making black their decks, but now these are no more a familiar sight. Bridge also is a suspension bridge, a fine piece of work, and as we near it we catch a glimpse of the old men's hospital standing back behind a long expanse of grass, and bearing in every line its date of the reigns of William and Anne. Scarlet-coated pensioners may linger to watch us pass, and the traffic of the 'buses flows unendingly across the bridge.

I have seen Reach bathed in the misty light of a summer evening, when the rough-hewn barges are softened by the opalescence of the atmosphere, and again on a baking day of midsummer, when everything is hard and staring. By the side of a hideous iron railing and glaring footway is a clay-coloured working-man, with his loose voluminous clothes lying on him in disorder, and the red handkerchief falling from his furrowed, sun-baked neck, sleeping a dead sleep of drink or exhaustion, and down below on the foreshore, uncovered by the receding tide, children paddle and bathe, shrieking with delight at the feeling of the slimy ooze, from which, so tradition goes, the lowest kind of margarine is made!

Water-works, gas-works, and chimneys line the next part of the river, and, pity that it is, the Embankment ceases, the road running inland not to emerge again, with the exception of a strip near Lambeth Bridge, until is passed. If the Embankment stretched along the whole of the river's length we should have a promenade unrivalled in Europe.

The new bridge at Vauxhall, and the Tate Gallery are conspicuous before Lambeth Bridge is reached, and then we come to a spot dear to artists, and to all who have an eye for scenery. Here we find a bay and a foreshore. The dull blues and greens and rusty browns, associated with barges, are seen in plenty on the muddy, shingly incline, and beyond rises the Victoria Tower of the Houses of Parliament, grand and stately.

The less said of Lambeth Bridge the better. As we

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pass under it, the dark red brick and stone-capped battlements of Lambeth Palace are close at hand. Close in one sense, but much farther than they were in the days when the water lapped up around their base, and the empty niche in St. Thomas's Tower held the image of the saint almost overhanging the flood, to which the boatmen used to touch their caps. The grey stone of this tower and of the adjacent church contrasts well with the brick. In mid-stream are strings of barges at anchor, laden with coal and timber and other commodities. Between Lambeth and unhappy wretches, who had incurred the penalty of the law by a heinous crime, were dragged across at the tail of a boat! The ferry here has made this a crossing-place from time immemorial, and before that was, in harder, more reckless times, the ford, when men waded through thinking little of the danger and discomfort. The river was much wider then and shallower, and stakes guided the pilgrim from where the marshes began, about where Buckingham Palace is now, down to the river near the Abbey. The quaint towers of , " an elephant upside down," appear on the northern bank, and is seen in a blue-grey haze behind the Houses of Parliament. If it be the time of sunset, and the sun be going down in a sky of angry yellows and reds, then every buttress on the Houses stands out in gilt on sepia. We have a picture showing us the river just below as it was in -a gay scene. Two fine ladies fan themselves in a small rowing-boat

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in the foreground, while several barges shoot about on the stream in various directions; in some of them men stand up at the prow to " discourse sweet music," if they were capable of it. A gallant hands a lady into a boat at the steps where now are the neat little pier houses, and work-a-day barges and boats are bestrewn in quantity sufficient to satisfy the artist's fancy. The Houses of Parliament, up to the rebuilding, seemed a medley of buildings seen from the river. Dominating all the roofs rose , and at the south end, no mean rival, St. Stephen's Chapel. But trees and roofs at every angle and height fill in the foreground.

was the second bridge at London in order of time, and it was not built until , so up to that date was the only one. The river seemed to know when the question was first mooted, and rose with a strong spring-tide, so that it flooded to a depth of two feet into . This was by no means the first time it had done so; in the reign of " was drowned and moche fishe left there in the pallace yard, when the water returned to her channel, for whoso list to gather up." The walls of the palace of Whitehall, with the stairs and piers, have long vanished, as also the line of palaces succeeding, whose garden walls curbed the flood of the river in the same way as an embankment does. Charing Cross railway bridge is frankly hideous. Beyond it the river gives a great sweep round, so that for the moment the first sight of St. Paul's leads one to suppose that it has been landed by mistake on the wrong

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side of the water! But as the course of the stream curves, it shifts back imperceptibly, and we have a vision of its beautiful dome and lesser towers, rising, it may be, in the clear blue of a spring sky, itself softened with the blue-grey cloudiness to be seen in an opal. Of the Strand palaces that formerly lined the water-side, some mention has already been made; not one, alas, remains.

The long range of the upper storey of Somerset House looks as if it were covered by hoar-frost; and a medley of smoke-coloured stone, red brick, and green leaves carries us onward to Blackfriars, where the London that most people know ceases, and the sternly work-a-day commercial line of wharves begins. Poor Thames Street, how hast thou fallen from the days when princes of the blood, royal dukes, and mighty men walked thy stones! From the days of palace and fortress and noble tower and turret! Thames Street can still show some beautiful peeps, -note that at Queenhithe, with St. Michael's spire behind,-but it is overweighted, crushed, by the huge monster of Cannon Street station, which lies behind Southwark Bridge.

With Southwark Bridge we are reminded of the London over the water, of which so far, since Lambeth, there has been little or nothing to say. Now we are passing Bankside, where stood some of the earliest theatres in London, also bear-baiting and bull-baiting gardens. The Southwark side was the resort of numbers of the citizens, who very commonly employed

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the watermen to row them over, thereby causing great prosperity to the fraternity, who at a later date cried out bitterly, when they heard that theatres were to be built on the north side of the river, that it would ruin their trade. Nevertheless Southwark cannot claim the first theatre, for when plays were no longer allowed in the City in the time of , Burbage built a theatre at or near Holywell Street in Shoreditch, and at the end of the sixteenth century this house was taken down, and all its building materials transferred to the Globe, across the water at Bankside. 's company rented the Globe in , and the great dramatist himself lived near the bear-garden. Other theatres, the Rose, the Hope, and the Swan, soon followed the first, and Bankside became noted for its amusements and its taverns, most famous of which was the Falcon. Like all theatres of the time, these were constructed of wood and only partly covered, so that the rain could fall upon the audience, who stood in the pit or "yard." At the other or east end of Bankside were the houses of the Bishops of Winchester and Rochester. Winchester House was magnificent, having ten courts and a park of seventy acres.

The pinnacled tower of St. Saviour's rises conspicuously near , marking the old religious house of St. Mary Overies. The present is two hundred feet farther westward than its predecessor. With St. Saviour's at one end and the Fishmongers' Hall and the white tower of St. Magnus' at the other, it has a splendid position, of

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which it is well worthy, its wide flattened arches of white stone being graceful and simple. Not until we have passed under it do we see the finest modern building Thames Street can show, that is, the Custom House. The frontage to the Thames, as it is now, was erected in the worst period of style-,-but it is nevertheless fine and dignified, and with the foreground of the forest of masts and funnels belonging to the ships that have come up through the Tower Bridge, it presents a fitting picture of the receipt of custom belonging to a great sea-nation.

Of all the reaches we have passed, the next, between London and the Tower Bridges, is the noblest; for, see them at what point of view we may, under any conditions, at any hour of the day, these two, the ancient Tower and the modern bridge are picturesque and satisfying to the eye of man. The great gateway of the bridge guarding the entrance to the river, the fortress that so long was stronghold, palace, and prison, each in its way is symbolic of the sovereignty of the great city.

Below the bridge we are in the Pool, which has been always a favourite subject with artists. Here are the colours of the river in abundance, her beautiful livery of olive-green and silver-grey, with its facings of russet and drab. Steamers and barges, boats and wharves are all alike clad in these tones, and all alike softened and refined by the atmosphere. Fussing steam tugs, clumsy leviathan dredgers, stupid slowmoving barges, busy industrious steamers, make a

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world in miniature, and each vessel has a character of its own. Where St. Katherine's docks now are, was once the cloistral shade of a religious house for nuns. Beside their ancient church, under the shadow of the trees, within sound, it may be, of the rippling water, lived women whose lives were secluded from all active interests. They beheld the life of the water, but were not of it. But before the day of the great outburst of energy, the days of glorious " Eliza," their house had been taken from them, and they had been dispersed. When down the water started the ships that went to fight the Spanish Armada, the ships on whom the existence of England depended, they were no longer there to see. When such men as Drake and Frobisher, and Gilbert and Ralegh went out to find new worlds, so that the heart of every boy leapt with longing, St. Katherine's stood dismantled, but still beautiful, a ruin that we should have treasured and jealously guarded had it remained until our time.

By glimpses of forests of tall masts resting mysteriously inland, by glimpses of vast stretches of blue water explaining their presence there, we traverse the Pools, upper and lower, and dive due southward by the Isle of Dogs ere we reach the last great building London shows on this side, Hospital, with its domecapped towers. Here once stood Palace or Placentia, from which the dying boy-king, ., watched his ships go down to the east captained by men who were carrying the name of England far and wide, and building up that great dominion that he would

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never live to see. They were going to new lands, to carve out careers of splendour for themselves; their sun was rising, his was setting; and as the vessels melted into the greyness of the distance the boy perhaps turned his face to the west, a symbol that his own short day was drawing toward its evening-time.