Saturday, 21 May 2016

At the Tower of London in the summer of 1955 and other childhood memories

Outside the Tower with Nana, 1955
I can’t say I remember this day at the Tower of London.

It would have been I think in the summer of 1955 and Nana would have been on one of her all too infrequent visits to London from Derby.

This will have been the first time I visited the place and pretty much set me on a love affair with the Tower which I have never lost.

Within a few years of this picture, I was doing the trip on a Saturday with anyone who would come with me and often on my own.

The journey began at Queens Road railway station which was an adventure all in itself.

The platform was up a tall flight of stairs past a nondescript booking counter which even then seemed past its best, and from the cracks in the wooden boards of the platform you could see down to the ground below.

The train took you into London Bridge past rows of houses, backstreet garages  and warehouses and the unmistakable landmark of the Peak Frean biscuit factory with that overpowering sweet smell which hung in the air even on a cold January day.

And then the terminus at London Bridge, the river and down that dark flight of stone steps to Lower Thames Street and the magical walk past Billingsgate to the Tower.

Peak Frean, 1891
Now Saturday morning was a good time to walk Lower Thames Street, the porters and traders had finished up and the street cleaners were out in force tidying away the refuse from the early morning trading which left bits of fish strewn across the road.

Even now I have not lost the memory of that all pervading fish smell which along with the stone sets in the road and the twisting side streets were almost as they had been a century before and with not much imagination could place you back in the same spot in the time of Pepys.

This of course was just a prelude to the Tower itself, which on a Saturday back in 1959 was free to children which was an opportunity I exploited to the full.

Perhaps it’s one of the down sides of my character that I could and still can revisit a place week after week, do the same tour, stop at the same places and continue to be totally absorbed in all there is to see.

The Tower, circa 15th century
And like most of us it was also the sheer excitement of touching the stones and climbing the narrow spiral staircases of the White Tower that transported me back to some moment in the high Middle Ages.

Then there was that musty cold and sometimes dank smell that came out of the stone work along with the absence of much natural light in some of the towers which added to the sense that here you were walking history.

Now they say you should never go back and on occasion returning to some magical place of my childhood has been a disappointment which somehow spoils what I remember.

Of course I try not to wallow in nostalgia and I am fully aware that the developers, the City of London and the custodians of the Tower were never going to let my childhood memories get in the way of their view of progress.

The River, the bridge and Lower Thames Street, 1872
So the Tower is far busier than I remember, the walk from the station over the river and along Lower Thames Street resembles little of what I saw as a child and the cranes, ocean going ships with the warehouses that flanked the river are now as much a bit of the past as is the swirling fog, costermonger’s cries and the smell of the fish market.

Ah well as they say nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.

Pictures; a young Andrew with Emilie Hall at the Tower, 1955, from the collection of Andrew Simpson, the Peak Frean poster derived from Kennington's painting The Toy Shop, of 1891. Wikipedia Commons, The White Tower, a depiction of the imprisonment of Charles, Duke of Orléans, in the Tower of London from a 15th-century manuscript. The White Tower is visible, St Thomas' Tower (also known as Traitor's Gate) is in front of it, and in the foreground is the River Thames.
late 15th century from a manuscript (British Library, MS Royal, 16 folio 73) of poems by Charles, Duke of Orléans (1391–1465),  Wikipedia Commoms and detail of the River Thames and Lower Thames Street from the OS of London, 1862-72, courtesy of Digital Archives Association,

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