Tourists in our own town

18 May 2015
Ben Pentreath

It was a bright and sunny Saturday.  We were in London, for no particular reason other than we wanted a change of scene. Charlie got up at dawn for Portobello; I stayed in bed. But when he was back, and we were both up and about, we decided we needed to do new things.  It was time to be tourists.

One of the things about spending a lot of time down in Dorset is that we can tend to ignore things right on our own doorstep in London. Bridie had been telling Charlie about Maltby Street Market. Breakfast beckoned.


At the entrance to the Market is a branch of fantastic salvage and antique dealers Lassco; beautifully arranged and displayed, always worth a visit in its own right.


I loved the Aloha sign at the door of Lassco, left over from the Blackpool Illuminations one year. One for the office wall perhaps?

Under the arches of the old Brick Railway viaduct opposite, where Lassco keep their flooring and other stocks, a range of market producers, from smoked-salmon sellers to gin blenders, have opened up stalls over the years.  Maltby Street Market is perhaps too grand a name for the assembly of bespoke London food-producers who gather here every Saturday and Sunday, but as an alternative to the frantic ebb & flow of Borough Market on a weekend, it couldn’t have been nicer.P1110509
P1110511 P1110512 P1110513  I suspect the throbbing heart of hipster London has already moved on (after all, it was years ago that Maltby Street market got really cool) but it made me think how much things have changed in London in 20 years.

This is exactly the sort of graffiti you’d expect to find chalked on the wall of the Maltby Street brick arches:P1110516

I love proper old market barrows, looking straight out of an illustration by Barbara Jones:P1110518

with superb hand-carved Victorian lettering.P1110519

Bermondsey is not an area I know at all well. Our weekend wanderings tend to be in Bloomsbury, or Marylebone, I’ll be honest. The streets and streets of Georgian and Victorian Bermondsey are superb.P1110553 P1110559 P1110566 P1110575

We walked up the road to Shad Thames. I love the streets of brick lined warehouse buildings, with great iron bridges linking buildings high above the street. Rescued and converted in the early 80s to flats, shops and restaurants, in part by Terence Conran, in part by the then 23-year old developer Andrew Wadsworth, the Shad Thames development is one of the conservation triumphs of London of 30 years ago. P1110586 P1110609

I must admit, I’d have loved to have known these buildings pre-conversion; either in their declining days as the shipping port for the Pool of London, or in their subsequent gradual decay and degradation, when artists like Hockney had studios here in the early 70s.P1110616

But it’s beautiful to see the buildings retained and re-used, rather than being destroyed and re-developed like so much else Thames-side architecture.

We were intrigued by this little floating corrugated iron hut, which looked like a town hall shipped in from New Zealand:P1110619

And even more by the Floating Gardens on a community of river barges, next door, which I’d love to find out more about, or visit one day:P1110620

Being tourists in our own town for a day, it was quite appropriate that we were at the Tower Bridge as the two arms opened up at midday to allow the boats through:P1110635 P1110637 P1110639 P1110640

I can’t really think of the last time that I looked at Tower Bridge close-up. It’s an extraordinary building; ultimate High Victorian Gothic, but curiously French for such an English monument.

I particularly liked the vaulted arches beneath the bridge, with their beautiful white and eau-de-nil glazed tiles.P1110650P1110652

We crossed the bridge and meandered up the side of the Tower of London; I had never been on this path before. Traitor’s Gate loomed over the murky green river water. P1110653

I would have preferred it without a ‘heritage’ sign attached directly to the gate, in faux-18th century script, but there we are.

Immediately adjacent was this little tiny building, part of the London Hydraulic Power Company work, which a quick look at wikipedia reveals was a major part of the infrastructure of late 19th century London. High Pressure water was piped through the centre of the capital, to run workshops, lifts, cranes, and theatre machinery.

For those that are interested, the cornice of this building is exactly the same as the Pantheon in Rome… a slightly larger circular building.  You can catch a glimpse in the first photograph of what I think might be my favourite blog ever, here. P1110667

Next stop was The Monument to the Great Fire of London…. That strange, beautiful Doric column, topped by a flaming orb, built by Wren next to the the site of the baker’s shop in which started the devastating fire of 1666.P1110670

The stairs to the top are very narrow, and not ideal for those (like your writer) who suffer from vertigo.P1110671 P1110672 P1110673 P1110674

But we made it up. It’s amazing how little about the Monument has changed. No health and safety, to speak of.  There is one way up and down, and as you get the top the stairs get narrower and narrower.  So you are grateful that there weren’t lots of people coming down at just the moment that you were arriving at the top. The views across London are beautiful.P1110675

The skyline, as ever, is filled with cranes.P1110676

The curious, unlovely form of the ‘Walkie-Talkie’, the most hated building on the London skyline:


a solitary window-cleaner dangling off the side:P1110680 P1110681 P1110682 P1110690 P1110691 P1110694 P1110695 P1110696 P1110697

And then to St. Pauls, Wren’s greatest construction, the old cathedral also being consumed in the flames of the Great Fire.P1110702 P1110703 P1110708 P1110709

We went first to the Whispering Gallery, which gives this extraordinary view of the dome:P1110712 P1110713And then to the external gallery at the base of the drum, with remarkable views across London. I tried to imagine what it must have felt like looking down on the early 18th century city, at small houses, city churches, farms and then fields stretching away forever.
P1110715 P1110718 P1110719 P1110722 P1110726

This sign was ominous:P1110727

And then we went the next level up, on tiny, precarious cast iron spiral staircases that wind their way between the two shells of the dome.  Suddenly you emerge on the gallery right at the lantern.P1110728 P1110729 P1110732 P1110734 P1110735 P1110737 P1110740 P1110745 P1110746

I was quite relieved, ultimately, to be back on the ground. Although curiously the Monument did a little more for my vertigo than St Paul’s, I couldn’t quite say why.P1110751 You are not allowed to take photographs inside St. Paul’s, which I suppose is fair enough, but I had to snap this row of stacking chairs against the magnificence of Wren’s stonework, and military monuments. I love how every church, however grand or small, always seems to have a pile of stacking chairs somewhere.

It had been a long day of visiting new things and new places. In the evening, we went to a new restaurant, too, with an old friend, and on the way Charlie and I walked via Regent’s Park.

Clouds of Cow Parsley filled corners of the park, which glowed in the late afternoon sunshine.
P1110757 P1110758 P1110767

For a minute we were not in London at all, and dreaming of Dorset, but it’s good to see how easily you can get lost if you know where to go.

25 comments on this post


Perhaps you should publish an illustrated follow up to ‘Nairne’s London’ The most poetic guide to a sense of place.

I live near the old brewery so I entirely agree with article

Where these parsley plants grow in Regents Park once stood a cottage. But, not sure when / why it was demolished.

Great tour, love that part of London too – although more familiar with the Thames banks, must look at the Georgian architecture in Bermondsey next time I feel the need for a London wander. I have a lovely old book about walking in London and under Bermondsey it says – bygone Riparian haunts of pleasure!


Wonderful photos and commentary. There’s a book in this: maybe something like “Pentreath’s Little Known London.”

oh god. gorgeous post! great shots of the skyline and the bridge at the tate. too bad about that walkietalkie cheesegrater. they should have stopped at the gherkin with those gimmicky shapes.

thank you thank you. weren’t you lucky with the weather!


I pine so much for the rural SW these days, that I sometimes forget London, which was always my big passion, and now you have brought it back into view. I felt rather tearful reading your post; I’m not entirely sure why – possibly because the skyline has changed so much since I lived there. The sheer size of the new buildings and the self conscious iconoclasm of some of them brought up in me very ambivalent feelings. I’m not sure whether I love or loathe them.

And then you landed us safely within St Pauls, which always reminds me of a peeled boiled egg at night, and which I love hugely. Thank you for that. Thank you also for Regents Park, which I used to live around the corner from, and rather thought of as my back garden. And for the reference to eau de nil – which is a colour you don’t often hear referred to now, all watery elegance as it is, with a bit of middle class frumpery thrown in.

Loved Lisa’s story about the columns at St Pauls. Go Wren! What a plump and satisfying little secret that must have felt to have tucked away in your pocket!

Kindred spirits, we. I got stuck halfway up a tower in Lucca, the one with the trees growing on the top. My friend, fearless as ever, charged to the top and, after gazing around for a while, turned to say something only to find herself addressing the air. She retraced her steps and found me clinging to the wall of the staircase. After peeling my fingers off of it, one by one, she then cheered me on (aka begged, pleaded and bullied) as I inched my way down.

You don’t fool me for a moment, BP. Dollars to doughnuts, Charlie took those vertiginous photographs. :->



A lovely day out! Thank you for sharing.


Vertigo? What vertigo? Just looking at these beautiful photographs triggered mine, let alone climbing to the top and taking photos. My heart was in my mouth and I’m sorry to report that I had to wait at the bottom whilst my husband climbed to the top of both St Paul’s and The Monument. Must run in the family; rumour has it that my grandmother got stuck up in the Whispering Gallery and had to go round on her hands and knees. Brave man!


How lucky for me to have found your blog! You write for the senses. I was moved by the care and respect the man and woman had for the Pantheon and grateful you linked that post. I laughed quite loudly at your subtle humor infused in your storytelling.


Excellent photographs – you really capture the dense collage of decay and development across different historical eras so visible along that stretch of the Thames. I recently did a similar walk from the sensory overload and annoying modishness of Borough market across tower bridge (which also raised its tarmac in a timely fashion) and eastwards towards Whitechapel. I’ll make sure stop by Maltby Street market on my next walk.

If you’re looking for as-yet-unredeveloped ‘decay and degradation’ of Victorian dockyard London, I recommend getting the Thames clipper downstream to the Old Royal Navy College in Greenwich, and from there follow the river path as it winds its way towards North Greenwich and Woolwich. On the way you will pass all manner of rusting barges, groaning cranes and junkyards piled high with old double decker buses. If you get tired there’s always the spectacular pointlessness of the Emirates Skyline to whisk you back into twenty-first century London.

Thanks for the post,



Phew! A heady mix, in all senses of the phrase. Need a lie down in that cow parsley after just reading about your outing. Very instructional, very good. Best, Nicola


Apparently Wren’s plan for his dome were without support from below. The powers that be refused to allow him to build it unless he put up support columns. So the columns were built, the dome was in place. It survived WW2, and about twenty years ago, workmen were sent up in a cherry picker to look for damage at the top of the columns. They found that the columns had been built to one inch below the dome.! Wren had won.
Another point I remember from the BBC radio 4 programme…Brunel designed the Box tunnel so that the morning sun would shine all the way through to the other end, on his birthday. What an engineer to have worked that out.


That was fun. I imagine a city dog, GoPro on his collar, roaming town and sneaking into the most interesting places. Could be, except for the skillful camera work and your uncommon eye.

Anna, That biscuit recipe sounds like it may be for hardtack meant to stay edible on long sea voyages. Edible only after sailors soaked in paunch (punch) for a bit, I think.

p.s. Just a thought, Ben. If you ever raffled off an afternoon wander with you and Charlie, you could raise heaps of money for your favorite project or charity.

Thanks again.


Lyn Coombssays:

While this was, as always, a very enjoyable post, your Pantheon Polisher post remains my all time favourite. I deeply appreciate your eye seeing a special beauty in juxtapositions others would overlook. You’ve helped me search for the poetry in what I once might have seen as mundane. Thank you for that.

You are a braver man than I, Mr Pentreath, when faced with precarious cast-iron spiral stairs – I could not have gone near them, let alone attempted to climb. You did, and these wonderful views of my favorite city are a real pleasure this morning as I sit with my coffee brooding on the day.

Living in Atlanta, a town that seems to have little respect for the idea of adaptive reuse or preservation and where I M Pei’s first building was torn down only recently, it is good to see old warehouses converted for modern use. I visited an old machine shop at Georgia Tech last weekend – now part of the College of Architecture – a reuse of an old building that is superb. Ironic, really, from an institution not known for its positive effect on the architecture of the city that hosts it.

Thank you Ben- I am swirling around the heady sunny skies of London instead of working in cold, blustery Co. Monaghan…

Pierre B.says:

Dear Ben, I’m starting to wonder what life would be without your weekly post. This architectural London tour is breathtaking, Some great pictures, must I say, as usual? Yes!!! Thank you.


Thank you Ben for brightening this rainy Monday with your fabulous words and photos. I took similar photos of The Monument a few weeks ago. Cow parsley lasts a good few days in a vase and I often pick a few stems before the local council flail it to smithereens!

Jennifer Pascoesays:

Two points. How does a street in London come to be called after a small mining village in South Yorkshire -Maltby- just off the M18?
In the late 60s there was an old fashioned grocers in Tower Bridge Rd where I would buy a scoop of spice or dried herbs measured into a brown paper bag. As a medical student I lived close by in Long Lane in a house declared unfit for habitation in 1947. I cooked making the most of all the small local shops which served the local population of tanners and dockers. A fascinating place.

Andrew Beansays:

I am a great fan of your work and blog but I really thing this latest blog has even surpassed all the others.
Your pictures reminded me of a walk along the Thames when I was in London in January….I only wish the pictures I took could be half the quality of yours…


Thankyou Ben- I hope you enjoyed your weekend. A good moment to re-visit David Gentleman’s wonderful book of illustrations ‘Britian’, which includes drawings of many parts of London now changed and transformed in one way or another, including Shad Thames. He draws the warehouses when they were falling into disuse, disrepair, weeds growing out of the crumbling mortar, ghostly. Conran was a visionary. I have a strong memory of walking around Shad Thames in 1988, stepping over pavements stained with spices, as some of spice warehouses were still fully functioning – I was on my way to the Design Museum. Juxtaposition. Enjoy your week and thanks for posting. s:)


I always enjoy your blog & pix, Ben, but I think this one is one of the most memorable ever. Thank you!

Little known fact: you will see on the Monument, that Thomas Farryner, in whose shop the great fire began, is described as ‘The King’s Baker’. This doesn’t mean that he baked loaves for the king but that he was one of the bakers appointed to make ship’s biscuits for the sailors of the Royal Navy. I found a recipe and baked some out of curiosity but they were so hard only the jaws of Molly, next door’s Labrador, could crunch them.


London has so much is so diverse with so much to see & do. Ben I love reading your highly readable blogs – this one is a favourite, the photos are superb!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *