Guided Walk: Shakespeare Land and Southwark from Blackfriars to London Bridge by Tony Keen

College of Arms. By Andreas Praefcke, CC BY 3_0.

Our second guided walk of the season started at Blackfriars Station.  We proceeded along the Thames Embankment, pausing to admire the College of Arms which is a fine, late Georgian building with its attractive gold leaf gates and its startling embellishments, situated half way between the bridge and St Paul’s Cathedral.

Crossing the Millennium Bridge, heading south towards the imposing presence of the Tate Modern, we went to inspect the house where St Christopher Wren is often purported to have lived whilst St Paul’s was under construction, along with several other famous names from the 17th Century.  But all is not as it seems, because the house actually dates to Queen Anne, was erected in 1710, and the plaque over the door appears to have been a romantic twist dating to 1945.

Heading east, we passed Sam Wanamaker’s modern Globe Theatre replica into Park Street where the Blue Plaque on the wall proudly boasted the site of the Elizabethan Rose Theatre, where despite the modern frontage plays are performed in a time-warped atmospheric setting.  Just beyond, partially under Southwark bridge, is the original site of Shakespeare’s Globe.  There is a very good description of the site and the development of the theatre on the display boards, explaining that the theatre is known as “Shakespeare’s Globe” not merely because his plays were performed here, but because it was built in 1599 by Shakespeare’s company of players, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

We then continued to Clink Street under the railway arches and to the remains of the great hall of Winchester Palace with its magnificent medieval stone rosary window.  The famous Clink Prison dates back to 1144 was one of England’s oldest prisons, spanning over 600 years of history.  In its heyday, it was in fact a dungeon – part of the Winchester Palace estate – that provided accommodation for those who displeased the Bishop.  It is now open to the public as a tourist attraction, showcasing some of the darker and more gruesome stories of life in Medieval London.

Francis Drake’s Galleon Golden Hinde. By Jose L. Marin. CC BY 2.5

A replica of Sir Francis Drake’s astonishingly small and brightly coloured galleon Golden Hinde greeted us next, always a remarkable sight as one turns the corner from the Thames Path.  The information boards gave informed us that he had navigated under the orders of Elizabeth I to  negotiate new trade agreements with nations never before encountered, to acquire land, to discover new shipping routes and to acquire treasure from Spanish ships.  This project, led by Drake, who was accompanied by five other ships, was designed to undermine Spanish dominance in South America and improve British links across the globe.  thereby weakening the Spanish dominance of South America. He did this successfully, and to liberate treasure from Spanish ships.  As well as securing around £600,000 in Elizabethan money, Drake was the first navigator to successfully circumnavigate the globe.  He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth aboard the Golden Hinde.  Although it was intended that she be preserved as a museum to commemorate the Queen’s achievements, Golden Hinde was not maintained and had disintegrated by the mid-17th century.  Today it is a popular tourist destination and wedding venue, due both to its novelty and its link to an important historic event.

Southwark Cathedral’s Shakespeare Window. Source: The Looking At London website

Tracing our way through the streets behind London Bridge we entered the precinct of Southwark Cathedral.  This beautiful majestic and imposing monument, with its colourful effigies, is London’s oldest and finest Gothic structure.  From the early 1100s it was the church of the Augustinian Southwark Priory, dedicated to the Virgin Mary.  It was badly damaged in a fire of 1212 and the following rebuild gave it its present form.  Following the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th Century, it became a parish church dedicated to St Saviour.  Entering the building, we encountered the memorial stained glass window dedicated to many of Shakespeare’s most well beloved plays, designed by Christopher Webb in 1954, with a reposing figure of the bard beneath.  Shakespeare’s elder brother Edmund is buried in the nave and there is a memorial slab in the floor.  We were treated to a wonderful organ recital whilst we were there, the decibels alone impressing with their sheer magnificence.

Outside the group continued through the sights and smells of Borough Market. There has been a market on the site since at least 1014, and its millennium was celebrated in 2014.  More formally it dates to 1756 when the Borough Market website reports that in February 1756 advertisements were placed stating that a “commodious place for a market is now preparing on the backside of Three Crown Court on the west side of the high street of the Borough and will be ready by the 25th March next for the reception of all country carriages and others bringing any kind of provisions to the said market.”  Today it is a vibrant hive of busy stalls selling high quality food products, visited by serious buyers and tourists alike.

The George Inn, Borough. Photograph by Ewan Munro. CC BY-SA 2.5

We wrapped up our walk with a visit to London’s oldest surviving galleried inn, The George, built in 1570.  Although damaged by fire and having suffered the indignity of the loss of its north wing to the railways, the inn retains many original features and was frequented by Shakespeare, Marlowe, Pepys, Johnson, and thousands of their contemporaries.  Today it rejoices in the presence of the likes of you and I, tired and hungry after a satisfying sightseeing expedition.

With many thanks to Tony Keen for leading us through the winding streets of north Southwark and introducing us to so many superb insights into the Port of London’s rich and fascinating history and heritage.  Shakespeare was a recurring figure in our travels, but the echoes of many other voices were heard too.

Panorama of London, with Southwark in the foreground by Claes Van Visscher, 1616


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