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Rockingham Street


North from the Elephant & Castle, heading for the Borough and London Bridge, you’re on Newington Causeway, a name that reflects this area’s marshy history. The first right is our dog-leg street. After fifty yards, under the railway bridge, it slopes gently down into what the archaeologists call ‘the Rockingham depression’. Notice on your left the sign, skewed away, for Tarn Street, which is an inlet of concrete as broad as it’s long, going nowhere. A bit further, past Meadow Row, a blurt of Nashville echoes from the Hand in Hand and our unfrequented road takes a right angle left, back north towards the river and the ancient junction where the pilgrims gathered for their Kentish jaunt, where footsore legions came tramping up from Dover, aching for the baths. It’s lined with blank-faced tenement blocks in oxblood brick, standing back behind low railings, many of which are still what they were – steel field-hospital beds left over from the war, stood on their sides and welded end to end.

If you turned down here three hundred years ago, you’d be splashing in a stewfen, an osiery – only good for eels and willows. Or a little later, with pick and spade, to ditch the sucking clay and sink foundations, so that some thousands more could cram the last, least habitable land in Southwark.

You’re probably not wise to be wandering late in the nineteenth century. Best keep on to the Elephant, to Surrey Gardens, for the one-horned Indian rhinoceros, the circular glasshouse and three-acre lake, the pyrotechnic tableau of Vesuvius erupting every night. Go to the meeting under the railway arches, to gawp at the Children of God, the Walworth Jumpers, who say they will never die, whirling ecstatically. Or join ten thousand at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, to hear famed Spurgeon preach for two hours. The grand classical facade, which is all the Blitz left standing, conceals a standard-issue Sixties office block and looks wide-eyed and disbelieving, across the unending traffic, at the shape of things to come: Britain’s first shopping centre.

Maybe you came before the fishers and tillers of the soil settled, safe on their islands in the saltmarsh. Do you have no metal? What’s in the deerskin bag, to barter for flint at the neolithic blade factory, buried under the B+Q on the Old Kent Road? That far back you’re walking dry, the sea still locked in ice on a fine stone-age morning.

Relax. The Celts won’t be here for thousands of years, with Romans hot on their heels, and coastal raiders, dragons entwined on their banners, pointing the place out as Wealawyrd, the place that’s warded by the Welsh, that is the Gaels, the Gauls, the Celts. Walworth, Bermondsey – the names are lost in the mists of the future, and the land does not yet belong, by grant of King Edmund, to Nitard his minstrel; nor to anyone. It’s a long while yet till Faraday is born here, to domesticate the electron, and Babbage, to assemble his Difference Engine; a long while still till the Little Tramp trots down these lanes and alleys. Listen. You can hear them in the tunnels, where the echo makes them loud…



©2002 John Gibbens


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