“It isn’t picturesque, it isn’t quaint, it isn’t curious. It has not even the questionable merit of being old. It is simply Low. It is sordid, squalid, and the truth must out, disreputable… everything is second hand, except the leviathan gin shops, which are ghastly in their newness and richness of decoration. It is the paradise of the lowest of costermongers, and often the saturnalia of the most emerited thieves. Women appear there in their most unlovely aspect: brazen, slovenly, dishevelled, brawling, muddled with beer or fractious with gin. The howling of beaten children and kicked dogs, the yells of ballad-singers, death and fire-hunters, and reciters of sham murders and elopements; the bawling recitations of professional denunciators of the Queen, the Royal family, and the ministry; the monotonous jodels of the itinerant hucksters; the fumes of the vilest tobacco, of stale corduroy suits, of oilskin caps, of mildewed umbrellas, of decaying vegetables, of escaping gas, of deceased cats, of ancient fish, of cagmag meat, of dubious mutton pies, and of unwashed, soddened, unkempt, reckless humanity; all these make the night hideous and the heart sick…one of the most unpleasant samples of London that you could offer a foreigner.” Notwithstanding this latter day Trip Advisor account, we decided to have lunch there on Saturday.
To be fair, it was 1859 when George Sala painted his inelegant picture of Lower Marsh. He was a correspondent for the Daily Telegraph so was probably tainted by the stench of social class. Or just by the general rank of what had emerged from the steadily reclaimed Lambeth Marsh. Today, having physically moved nowhere, the place nonetheless finds itself on the far more geographically desirable South Bank and has assumed an acceptable veneer of ‘vintage’ and ‘retro’. The banks of the Thames being historically soaked by wave after wave of immigrants, Lower Marsh is now reaping the benefits of being home to that component of incomings that today’s xenophobes conveniently forget: a diverse range of ethnic fare. We opt for Cuban street food: a spicy fusion of rice, black beans, tender beef and plantain all served in an avant-garde cardboard box. At which point, I wipe the dribble of facetiousness away from my chin as this is surely the tastiest grub I’ve experienced in many a hungry day, guvnor.
Speaking of the disreputable poor, this Cuban fantasy is a precursor to an afternoon in the company of the sublime Timothy Spall who is currently playing Davies the tramp in Pinter’s Caretaker at the Old Vic. Spall has been critically derided in some quarters for introducing humour into this previously sinister role. Ever heard of old hat you critics? Why not be like Lower Marsh and move with the times? Who wants three hours of doom and gloom after a plantain-topped feast? We’re in it for the laughs and, flanked by the superb Daniel Mays and George Mackay, our hero receives an enthusiastic standing ovation.
The following day is more of an elongated stepping stone between the contrasts of old Londinium and the rural tranquillity of the Kennet and Avon that awaits me on Monday. The account of my four hour walk into a geological and historical past will, therefore, be necessarily brief. What with trains and theatres, yesterday’s outing involved an awful lot of sitting down. My aged hips are feeble communicators devoid of joy. If I sit down too long, they complain. If I walk too much they’re uproarious. There’s no pleasing those two moaners. Knowing that they’ll get plenty of activity on the morrow, I feel I should get them in the mood and head off for Hengistbury Head. The weather is glorious as I trudge up Warren Hill knowing that the view will be worth the agony. Actually, the impending smugness is what really drives me on.
Every dog has its day and today’s clearly the day. Every breed seems to be present, although some are not as daring as they might be. I am passed by a sour-faced Jack Russell who is being transported in a box on the back of a bicycle. Worse, a Westie in a baby’s buggy is being pushed up the incline by his owner. The ancient carer is of indeterminable age but has clearly seen at least one century’s events. The bloody dog can’t even be bothered to open its eyes and look at the scenery. Later, I meet William the boxer who’s become trapped in about two inches of water and is too frightened to get his feet wet. His owners send in a scruffy terrier called Wilbur to rescue him but William just tells him to ‘stuff off’.
Walking down the hill and along the spit, I decide to take the ferry over the water. I am inexplicably drawn by painted toenails to the feet of a woman who has lost the bloom of youth. Good for her to highlight the tips of toes but why draw attention to all those bunions? Life on the other side is equally unattractive, swarming as it is with hundreds of day trippers. I stop for a hasty cup of mint tea without the mint and head back for a walk round the bay. Last night’s rain may have contributed to the high tide which is reticent to recede and I must remove my walking boots and socks and paddle in knee high water in order to regain the high ground in more than one sense.
The road from Bath to Warminster was once managed – and I use the term loosely – by the Black Dog Turnpike Trust. Established in 1752, they took their name from the inn where the trustees held their meetings. This crowd, like many of today’s so-called authorities, were not economically sound. A cursory glance at the accounts sheet shows that the clerk ran off with nearly £2000 – a heady amount in those days. Further, an investigation by even higher authorities seems to suggest that the trustees were aware of ‘pilfering’, thus inferring they were all in on it. I discover all this through my own research. However, this is only because my truly informative chauffeur finds it necessary to contextualise every step we take together. Derrick is driving me to Bathampton to look at canal-side vegetation.
Down at Bathampton, local folk still jump out unexpectedly and demand 70p for the privilege of using their road to avoid the inner-city traffic. Not so on the old turnpike which we’re currently traversing. Just past the place called Dry Arch in fact. Derrick assumes I know about Dry Arch. I don’t so here’s a picture I found of the spot when it was more than just a long forgotten name. Quarried stone from Coombe Down was once lifted by horse operated cranes and brought down the hillside on a tramway that crossed Dry Arch on its way to the canal where barges transported it on to Bristol and London.
We’re also on our way to the canal and here’s Bathampton swing bridge to the side of which, if you choose to look carefully, you can see some industrial archaeology in the shape of the old stop gate. Stop gates were used in times past if a breach occurred in the canal. This is the site of one of the old wharves where the Bath stone was lifted onto barges.
We’ve come to look at foliage and vegetation and I’m about to learn everything a person needs to know about glyceria. Actually, I’ve written about this elsewhere in greater detail for a more specialised and probably more interested audience. However, dear reader, I will just point out that Derrick’s volunteers have done a brilliant job of clearing the offside bank of unsightly and potentially dangerous (to boaters) brambles and branches. In fact, this photo shows a water course outlet they discovered that no-one’s seen for years. Vegetation clearance allows breathing space for the glyceria to regenerate naturally thus maintaining the structural integrity of the canal bank and providing handy living quarters for water-side creatures. I might sound like a bit of an anorak, but if you’ve ever had the misfortune to walk along the Grand Union Canal at Southall, you’ll appreciate what a joy it is to stroll along the carefully tended Kennet & Avon in these parts.
Finally, here’s Graeme, another of my heroes of the canal. At the close of these eventful three days, I find myself aboard the Barbara McLellan once more. This time, I’m in the company of forty members of the Trefoil Society of Royal Wootton Bassett who have chartered the boat for a trip down to Avoncliff . I had wondered if they might be a bit heavy on the gin optic but they turned out to be a well-behaved party. I’m supposed to be a volunteer galley crew member but, yet again, I find myself at the tiller for most of the journey back from the aqueduct. Graeme’s the most patient of teachers although, if you overheard most of the instructions, you might not think so: ‘to me, to me; don’t fall off; stop looking at the swans; to you, to you; we’re not here to look at buzzards; don’t fall off…’ I’m going back to work tomorrow for a rest.
Photos not taken by the author are courtesy of: wikisource.org; cubana.co.uk; lovethetheatre.com; bathintime.co.uk