My journey begins on the south side of Vauxhall Bridge. I’m on the bridge looking across the Thames to the opposite bank. I am looking in that direction for traces of a tributary stream, the Tyburn. According to the “street-map with rivers superimposed” supplied in the second edition of Nicholas Barton’s The Lost Rivers of London (Barton, 1992) there are three arms of the Tyburn that feed into the Thames.
As I make my way across the bridge, I can see what looks like an outlet, and I am curious to stop and record what I am seeing and then investigate it. But when I take out my camera to capture the scene, I feel conscious that I am now the observed, for people walking past are looking at me. But who is the real observer? Those looking at me, or me observing those looking at me. I guess the only real difference is that I am stationary for the moment, where as they are moving, perhaps on their way to work. But now I need to move on myself, towards the building above the arch, identified by the white arrow, in the picture below.
I continue across the bridge heading north, looking to my left across a big expanse of water towards Battersea Power Station. There is a lot of redevelopment in process on the south side of the river, and it becomes more noticeable once I reach the Thames Path on the north bank. Housing and lots of it, I bet it is housing that the builders say is affordable, but affordable to whom? I reach the building above the arch where the Tyburn enters the Thames, I am pleased to see the Rio Cottage.
Now it is time for me to walk back north-east along Grosvenor Road, towards Millbank. As I continue my journey, walking at a leisurely pace, one might even say strolling, I find myself in ‘the crease’ between two currents, that is, the peace between the river on the right and the pedestrians and traffic on the left. By the time I realise that I am not part of the chaos either side of me, I find myself in Riverside Walk Gardens, where I see a concrete buttress that is a reminder of bygone years.
It is said that from start to finish about “162,000 men and women were transported to Australia” (McConville, 1995, p. 135). It is ironic that a nation built by, and of convicts, has such a tough system of border control, nowadays convicts have to pass a ‘good character’ test to be allowed entry. Nonetheless, Millbank was an operational prison for just over seven decades, and it had a bad reputation for overcrowding, health problems and high cost of running. It was eventually raised to the ground and today it is the sight of the Tate Britain.
Tate Britain has recently undergone a refurbishment made possible by the Sainsbury family’s sponsorship of art and heritage, who also contribute to the rehabilitation of prisoners, through their work with The Monument Trust, thus there is still a link between the site of the old prison and the rehabilitation of prisoners.
I choose to stop here for a break, a cheese roll and cup of coffee from my flask provide me with the opportunity to look across the river to the Albert Embankment and take in the view of the old and new buildings from afar. London is a changing city, it needs to change to keep up with the growing needs of its people. New buildings sprouting up everywhere and old buildings being refurbished. The old headquarters of the London Fire Brigade from 1937-2006, now hosts a ‘pop up’ museum. The Great Fire of London 1666, changed everything back then; the wooden houses were swept away like dust under a broom taking with it 80% of London. Samuel Pepys, a man who chose to walk almost everywhere wrote “what a sad sight it was by moonlight to see the whole City almost on fire”, later he “walked into the town and [found] Fanchurch Street, Gracious Street and Lumbard Street all in dust”. (Pepys, 2000, p. 168-169). Roy Porter tells us that insurance companies developed after the 1666 fire, and it was those whom were responsible for running the first London fire brigades (Porter, 2000, p. 176). It is time for me to move on now, as I pack my flask in my bag i take out my journal, for right in front of me is a most imposing building.
This building is called Thames House and starts from where Thorny Street meets with Millbank and continues east along the north bank of the river to the roundabout with Horseferry Road and Lambeth Bridge. When I present myself square to what appears to be a main entrance I receive a spectacular view of an archway, above which are inscribed three separate words in what I think is Latin; IMPERI DIRIGE CIVITATEM.
This building was once the headquarters of Imperial Chemical Industry.But before then Charles Booth’s map shows us there was a ‘Westminster Brewery’ on this site.
But nowadays it is the HQ for the Government Security Services MI5. And it has been used as a location for Spooks the TV series.
McConville, Sean, ‘The Victorian Prison’, in Norval Morris and David J. Rothman, eds., The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995)
Pepys, Samuel, The Illustrated Pepys: Extracts from the Diary (London: Penguin, 2000)
Porter, Roy, London: A Social History (London: Penguin, 2000)