Back to normal: Just nipping down the Spa

IT would be churlish, before turning to today’s walk, not to mention the spontaneous outpouring of sympathy that greeted my recent brief aside that a mild leg disorder had curbed my regular peregrinations.

It would also be invidious to pinpoint any single well-wisher. But the caller who took the trouble to reverse the charges from France perhaps spoke for you all when he encouraged me to “stop malingering and get off your arse and give us some more walks!”

Apparently he finds the column occasionally informative, even amusing. But mostly he welcomes it as a gentle soporific at bedtime after a hard day of housebound liaising with work colleagues on TikTok.

So here goes, although I fear the promised Rotherhithe tour proved a limp too far and will still have to await another day.

In the meantime, I made it as far as Bermondsey Spa. Now, before you start fantasising about nipping down for an exfoliation, hot yoga or ayurvedic salt scrub, I should point out that this one shut down in 1805.

Established just 35 years earlier by the still life painter Thomas Keyse, it was a place for a nice cup of tea and maybe a bit of music and fireworks on a Saturday night rather than bodily pamperping. A mineral spring had been found nearby, spouting near the River Neckinger, so why not call it a spa?

Spa Road survives, leading to Bermondsey Spa Gardens, built on the site of Keyse’s tea garden and bordered on one side by the old Bermondsey Town Hall, now converted into (drum roll) luxury flats!

There was a Spa Road Station until 1915, London’s first railway terminus on the London and Greenwich line, which opened in 1836. The legacy of the line, which still operates, is probably the longest stretch of railway arches anywhere in London. If you’re a fan, it’s arch heaven.

Over the last decade, the scrap merchants and car repairmen who mainly occupied the arches have gradually made way for upmarket food stores, wine bars, bijoux gin distilleries and micro-breweries.

The trend was started by a handful of disgruntled traders from the more famous Borough Market who gravitated to Maltby Street, a few hundred yards west of the Spa.

Around the same time, in 2000, the local Southwark Council decided to transform “a neglected corner of south London” in a £140m deal with private developers.

According to the planners: “With the neglected community at the heart of this urban renewal, we focused on creating a strong sense of place and providing the existing and new residents with the better quality connections, streets and homes they so deserved.”

Who writes this shit?

A bunch of new housing developments went up, appealing to those young professionals who like to live next to railway lines, or to buy-to-letters who live somewhere else anyway.

It could be said though that the market that grew organically from Maltby Street to encompass the arches and light industrial estates at the Spa have done more to regenerate the neighbourhood than any master plan.

There’s been that inevitable trend to prepared “artesanal” food over raw ingredients that’s the curse of London markets, Borough included. But it’s still a lively spot at the weekend and has been crowned with the accolade “hidden gem” by the travel sites.

Naturally, it has attracted some of the wrong sort. I was enjoying a mid-walk glass outside the area’s best wine bar one day, when a designer beard approached. He discreetly reached into his tweed jacket pocket for a pot of pommade to wax his moustache before entering. Whatever happened to south London, I inwardly wailed.

The old faded low-rise council blocks have survived much of this innovation. The area has one of the highest concentrations of social housing in London and some of its poorest residents.

But you rarely see the locals cross narrow Druid Street to pick up their cavalo nero at the railway arches. There have been some grumbles of discontent about the newcomers but it hasn’t turned nasty – yet.

Of course, many of their predecessors sold up under right-to-buy and moved out to Bromley or to Addington. There they pass their dotage swapping reminiscences on social media about how fings ain’t what they used to be in the new Bermondsey.

Rotherhithe update: Riverside tour temporarily suspended

AS the great Albert Camus used to say – I’m paraphrasing here – if you find something you like doing, you should keep on doing it.

A central tenet of the Frenchman’s Absurdist philosophy was that, as human existence is totally meaningless, you can either top yourself or make the best of it by repeated enjoyment of the simple things in life, rather than getting your knickers in a twist like Sartre and the Existentialists.

On this side of the Channel, the Hoxton-born music hall chanteuse Marie Lloyd put a similar message across somewhat more succinctly with the title of her 1914 smash hit ‘A Little of What You Fancy Does You Good’.

It doesn’t much matter which modest pleasure turns you on. Albert was a football mad teenager when he was growing up in Algeria, while Marie sings of the joys of an occasional glass of stout.

The problem at the moment is that even the most banal treats are, if no longer off-limits, at least constrained by the government’s latest runic “hands, face, space” injunction.

Even if Marie could find a pint of stout in London these days, she would have first to queue outside the pub and then enter via the hand sanitation station before ordering her tipple and paying for it by pressing her credit card to the barman’s plastic screen. Not what I call a night out.

Now, if your pleasure is a simple idle walk, there are no such barriers – plastic or otherwise. Albert himself, when he wasn’t playing in goal, used to like to wander aimlessly around the streets of pre-war Oran, delighting no doubt in the activity’s essential absurdity.

I bet though that he had his favourite jaunts, just as Marie no doubt had her favourite boozer.

Moi aussi, Albert. Often, as I head out, I have no idea which way my feet will take me until they hit the street. More often than not, however, they will head east along the river towards Rotherhithe – just over a mile and half an hour max if you’re not in a hurry.

I would rate it as one of London’s Golden Miles in terms of its connection with centuries of the city’s history and had hoped to take you on an extended tour there.

The trouble is your correspondent’s urban ramblings have been temporarily interrupted by a gammy leg. What would be a minor inconvenience to the sedentary is near fatal to the flaneur.

I write partly to reassure followers of the column’s imminent revival and to forestall veiled threats of subscription cancellation from among our wide domestic and international readership.

When Rotherhithe Live eventually surfaces, it will include pirates and pilgrims, a medieval royal hunting lodge, the entrance to the world’s first underwater tunnel, a pint at The Mayflower (today’s picture from our extensive archives), and a church with its own sauna.

Meanwhile, as Albert might have said, if you can’t keep doing what you did keep doing, pick something else in the meantime. Try reading a bit of Camus, he might have suggested (or “rereading” as guests on Radio 4 insist on saying). His 1947 The Plague has been selling like hot croissants since the pandemic started.

I realise that for many the temporary absence of this column will be one more nail in the 2020 coffin. But maintain a stiff upper lip and look ahead to a swift resumption of these ramblings.