Out of my Dept(ford)

The fact that I’ve never visited Deptford before is nothing short of… not very good. As a matter of fact, my experience of East London beyond Bermondsey is somewhat lacking. I’m familiar with various pockets of the area and I can find my way around the docks, but that really is about it.

So when the Directrix said she was putting on a play in Deptford, a huge cartoon question mark appeared above my head. I knew roughly where it was (opposite Wapping, right?) and I knew it was on the East London Line (currently out of action) and the railway out of London Bridge.

In fact, according to some accounts, it’s actually the oldest station in London. It opened in 1836, part of the London and Greenwich Railway, and was the first station designed primarily for commuters rather than goods. So already we’ve got a fairly notable historical fact right there.

Anyway, after hastily consulting my trusty Collins Street Atlas (not only do I not own a phone with satnav, I do not even know what a phone is), I discovered that the Albany Theatre is remarkably close to the station. The Albany is a theatre that holds various exciting and varied arts events for the benefit of all, and (so says Wikipedia) hosted 15 Rock Against Racism concerts. At the time of writing, it was hosting the Directrix’ latest offering.

A halal butcher next to a butcher that sells nothing but pork, Deptford High Street, Thursday.

This was a short-ish piece (well, an hour) called 300 Friends, exploring questions of adulthood and the conflict between ambition and reality. Unfortunately, being susceptible to bribery with booze (and due to knowing the director and some of the cast), I am unable to write an objective review. Suffice it to say that I enjoyed it myself and, as everyone knows, my opinions are considered Highly Significant by sources.

We headed after the performance to the Bird’s Nest, which I was informed is “the least crap pub” in Deptford. It certainly didn’t seem very crap, although the live music was causing hell of tinnitus and so we moved on to the Royal Albert. This was much more to Yr. Humble Chronicler’s taste, due to the more exciting range of beers and the fact that it had huge leather  armchairs in which I could sit and pretend to be the host of an anthology programme.

Having become a total lightweight, I was about ready to leave after three pints, and we went our separate ways. I and two other folk headed to Deptford Bridge on the Docklands Light Railway. One of my fellow-travellers complained that she thought Whitechapel was cursed, and so I bored her with the psychogeographical theory that actually, it is (something to do with ley lines, I believe).

Deptford Bridge was the site of a battle in 1497, at which Cornish rebels led by Michael An Gof, who had taken exception to Henry VII’s taxation, came up against Royalist forces. Unfortunately, the Cornish army was a total bloody shambles – for instance, they captured Henry’s best general, Lord Daubeney, then just released him – and received a massive smackdown. These days the area is pretty damn ugly.

I decided I would have to return and explore the place a bit further. I was advised to come by on market day, when the High Street “smells of fish and incense.” So I did on Saturday, finding myself with time to kill and a mild hangover resulting from a trip to St Albans.

The market was pleasant – it’s generally described as being fairly lively, and I’d say my experience matched up to that. For instance, at one point I saw a gentleman tip an entire table of glassware on to the ground. Ah, Cockney tomfoolery. It didn’t smell of fish and incense, though, so that’s cool.

I didn’t have quite as much time as I’d hoped for exploration, so I limited myself with a stroll up the hill and down the other side towards Greenwich. I’d have liked to explore a bit more, though, as the place has hell of history attached to it. For instance, you know the story about Sir Walter Raleigh putting his cloak over the puddle? Happened here. Sir Francis Drake? Knighted here. The docks were kind of a big deal, founded by Henry VIII, so basically most of the major Elizabethan expeditions would have started from here. Tsar Peter the Great (he who introduced the beard tax) studied shipbuilding here and, like all students, made a nuisance of himself. Trinity House, the lighthouse people, got started here. The East India Company, you know, the evil tea people, had a yard here back in the day.

Away from the docks, Christopher Marlowe was killed here in an apparent row over a bill for pub grub. I say “apparent,” there’s a popular theory that Marlowe was a spy and that this was an assassination. It’s true that there’s a lot about his life and death that doesn’t add up, and this is a lot more plausible than most conspiracy theories. What is certain is that we lost possibly the second greatest Elizabethan dramatist after Shakespeare – indeed, given the quality of the work he did produce, it’s possible that had he survived and continued writing, he’d be regarded as the greater playwright.

Marlowe’s remains are buried at St Nicholas’ Church, a fine building in the Baroque style just a couple of streets away from the main railway station. Take a look if you’re in the area – I didn’t, but I think I shall have to return once again.

Let’s see, what else, what else? Well, more stuff I missed included a Joseph Bazalgette pumping station and the site of the rather glorious Deptford Power Station, which was in architectural terms a sort of East End version of Battersea – alas, long gone.

All in all, another return trip is warranted, this time when I don’t have to dash off to Camden. The stroll to Greenwich was rather pleasant, and included a trip to the most incredible junk shop (I believe it was actually called The Junk Shop) and a bookshop two doors down whose name I forget (but it’s just visible in the picture above, with the clocktower, near Greenwich Station). Greenwich Station itself is pictured immediately above these words here and, as you have probably worked out, was the original terminus of the London and Greenwich Railway. I’ve read a couple of books that claim the LGR appeased people’s objections to the railway by building a locomotive in the shape of a Roman galley, but as most detailed histories of the line make no mention of such a thing in their stock lists, I’m forced to put this one down as “apocryphal.” Put it this way, one of the books that does mention it is the same one that had that Joseph Manton story in it. Regular readers will know the one I mean.

And so from Greenwich, I returned the way I had come to London Bridge. But that, as they say, is another story…

Further Reading

http://www.whitespacetheatre.com/ – The company behind 300 Friends.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Out of my Dept(ford)

  1. Max

    Your experience of the East End beyond Bermondsey cannot be described as lacking as the East End is and never has been south of the river. The East End is bounded by the Thames to the south, the Old City walls to the west and the River Lea to the east although the northern boundary is somewhat debatable but generally agreed to be vaguely in Hackney.

  2. Grumpy B.

    “Regular readers will know the one I mean.” – no we won’t as you’ve never found it 😉

  3. TGW

    The East End thing has been corrected. In my defense, I only learned South East London was actually habitable last year. I’d been told there was nothing but dust and ghosts.
    The book in question is ‘Eccentric London’ by Tom Quinn and Ricky Leaver.

    • Grumpy B.

      I don’t believe it! ((c ) Victor Meldrew) This book has been sitting on my shelf since September last year – I haven’t had time to open it.

      • TGW

        It’s not all BS, but it’s definitely in the “entertainment” field rather than the “scholarly work” one.

  4. david foster

    how the hell you managed to research Deptford and still think you were in East London is beyond me as a south londoner i think you have made a compleat ass of yourself we have great history for a small place and in one article you have managed to give all our history to what i would consider our most hated neigbours put this right re write this article and give us back our history 😦

  5. Pingback: VandAlism | London Particulars

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