Rotherhithe Circular Walk - 5½ miles

This walk can equally well be done from either Surrey Quays or Rotherhithe Station on the London Overground (East London Line). If approaching the area via the Jubilee Line, change at Canada Water (one stop in either direction).

The walk explores the old Surrey Docks area, which has now been extensively redeveloped with a mix of new building and converted warehouses. The old heart of Rotherhithe village, with its connections to the Pilgrim Fathers, is also visited and fine areas of greenery now co-exist with the ghosts of dockland industry. The walk is an easy one on made paths, with an occasional short flight of steps.

 


 

If starting the walk from Rotherhithe Station, follow the instructions from point 9 onwards.

1. On leaving Surrey Quays Station, carefully cross the adjacent junction at the ends of Rotherhithe Old Road and Hawkstone Road, continuing on the left-hand side of Lower Road for about 50 metres, then turn left through China Hall Gate into Southwark Park.

Southwark Park covers 26 hectares and opened in 1869. Despite its name, it is on the Bermondsey-Rotherhithe border. Originally, part of the park was earmarked for building plots, hence the carriage drive but, fortunately, this never happened.

2. Take the left fork on a path that curves around a fenced running track, swinging right at the end of the fence to follow a path near the left edge of the park. Continue until level with a tall block of flats, then turn right to find a lake on your left. Take the next left in front of the gallery and continue to follow the lake edge.

3. Go past a children’s play area and - if required - take the next short path on the right to the café where toilets can be found. Otherwise, continue to the end of the lake, then turn left into the Ada Salter Garden.

The Salters were a remarkable couple. Dr Alfred Salter was a local health pioneer, well before the advent of the National Health Service. Appalled by the local squalor, he set up his Bermondsey practice in 1900. He later served as Labour MP for West Bermondsey. Ada, his wife, after whom this garden is named, had the distinction of being Britain's first woman Labour mayor.

4. Go through the gate at the far end of the garden turning right, then right again at the T-junction. The caryatides on the columns on the right came from the old Rotherhithe Town Hall, opened in 1897. After being placed elsewhere for a while, they came to the park in 2011. Cross a drive to go down the path opposite. Take the next right, then left to pass in front of a bowling green. On reaching a drinking fountain, fork left to arrive at the magnificent bandstand which originated from the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Southwark Park Bandstand 
Southwark Park Bandstand
 

5. Continue forward half-right to the corner of the park near the City Business Centre. Leave the park through Paradise Gate and go across the pedestrian crossing. Over to your right, at the other side of the roundabout, is the Norwegian Church of St Olav which is also a Seamen's Mission. The Norwegian flag flies outside and the weather vane is in the form of a Viking longship. Just to the left of the church is the entrance to the Rotherhithe Tunnel.

6. Continue forward into King's Stairs Gardens and take the left fork. When the children's play area is reached, turn left to take the curving path which joins Fulford Street. Continue to the end of the grassed area and turn left to find a somewhat unexpected view of Tower Bridge. Go past the Angel pub (originally 17th century but, sadly, no real ale), to find the mid-14th century remains of Edward III’s Manor House. The visible remains are those of the Inner Court and the now-dry moat can be seen.

Tower Bridge from Rotherhithe 
Tower Bridge from Rotherhithe
 

7. Now retrace your steps and continue on, keeping as close to the river as possible. Go through two covered passageways, then turn left along Rotherhithe Street, between refurbished warehouses. The path emerges behind St Mary’s Church. Go through the churchyard gates to reach the front of the church then turn right. (Should these gates be locked, continue to the Mayflower pub, then turn right and right again). On your left now is the churchyard extension and on your right is Hope Sufferance Wharf - this is the heart of Rotherhithe Village.

Hope Sufferance Wharf takes its name from the fact that cargoes had to be assessed for duty when landed. As trade expanded, the Custom House in the City of London could not cope with the volumes, and a number of facilities were built where cargoes were allowed or “suffered” to land.

Opposite Hope Sufferance Wharf is St Mary’s Burial Ground, flanking which are two buildings of 1821; the Engine House on the right housed the hand-drawn parish fire engine. That on the left is the Watch House from where, amongst other duties, the parish watchmen could help guard against body-snatchers - before modern research facilities became available there was a lucrative trade in fresh cadavers for dissection by medical students.

Next to the Watch House is an 18th century building which once housed a school founded for poor seamen's children. The boy and girl figures show school uniforms of over two hundred years ago. Left of the school is the substantial 19th century rectory.

Rotherhithe Watch House and School 
Rotherhithe Watch House and School
 

St Mary’s Church was rebuilt in 1714. The vestibule is usually open and affords a good view of the handsome interior. The columns supporting the roof are of tree trunks encased in plaster, and the communion table is made from the wood of the Temeraire, the subject of Turner’s famous painting, which was broken up in Rotherhithe in 1838.

Notable burials include Christopher Jones, the Rotherhithe sea-captain who took the Pilgrim Fathers to America in 1620 - the Mayflower started its voyage from Rotherhithe. Also interred here is Prince Lee Boo, a native of Palau in the Pacific Ocean. He was sent by his father to be educated in England but, alas, died of smallpox a few months after his arrival in 1784.

8.  Now turn back to pass the church. On passing St Marychurch Street, look down it for a glimpse of the famous Mayflower pub. Continue on down Tunnel Road for another 50 metres and then left along Railway Avenue to arrive at the Brunel Museum.

The Mayflower Inn is, of course, named after the famous ship, but only took this name in 1957. It was originally called the Spread Eagle and Crown. It dates back to the 17th century, although much of what you see is rather later than that. It is apparently licensed to sell both British and American postage stamps!

The drum-shaped construction on the corner of Railway Avenue marks the position of the shaft for the world's first tunnel to be driven under a navigable river. The adjacent engine house contains the drainage pumps. Both Marc Brunel and his son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, were involved and the project only succeeded after many delays and difficulties, including five major inundations. Begun in 1825, the tunnel was finally opened to pedestrian traffic only in 1843. Ten men were killed during the course of the project, including six in the second inundation in 1828, Isambard himself being injured during this incident. The tunnel was converted to underground railway use in 1865-9 and now carries the East London Line.

If joining the walk from Rotherhithe Station, immediately turn left down Railway Avenue to join the route at Rotherhithe Street. Alternatively, if finishing the walk here, turn right instead of left at the corner by the drum-shaped construction.

9. Turn right to continue along Rotherhithe Street, regaining the river opposite Swan Road. The sculpture here is titled the Sunshine Weekly and the Pilgrim’s Pocket. It depicts the astonishment of a 17th century pilgrim at a boy reading a 1930’s comic, whilst a frisky Staffordshire Bull Terrier clamours for attention. The pilgrim’s pocket contains an anachronistic A-Z, dated 1620.

10. Continue now alongside the river as far as the circular brick building. Its twin can be seen in the King Edward Memorial Park, Shadwell, across the river. These buildings mark ventilation shafts for the Rotherhithe Road Tunnel. Also across the river can be seen the white-painted building of another famous riverside pub, the Prospect of Whitby, claimed to date from around 1520. Close-by is the inlet to Shadwell Basin.

11. Return to Rotherhithe Street and cross the bascule bridge, which raised the roadway to allow access to the main entrance of the Surrey Commercial Docks. Once over, turn alongside the river again, past the Salt Quay pub. Go around a large inlet, still following the river.  Continue over another dock and go down a slope.

Across the river, three church towers have come into view. From left to right, these are St George-in-the-east (1714-29), seen just to the left of the Gherkin (more properly known as 30 St Mary Axe), then St Paul, Shadwell (1817-21) and finally St Mary, Shadwell (1848-50).

12. The way forward is now blocked by the large bulk of Globe Wharf, a grain warehouse of 1863, which was later used as a rice mill. Circumnavigate this by returning to Rotherhithe Street and walking up the other side of the building back to the river. Continue on, accompanied by a line of newly-planted plane trees. As the Canary Wharf complex comes into view, look across the river for the entrance to Limehouse Marina. This is actually Regent’s Canal Dock (Limehouse Basin), and is one of the two exits of London’s canal system into the Thames, the other being at Brentford. The low building to its left was formerly the dockmaster’s house and is now a pub.

13. The tower of St Anne, Limehouse, a Hawksmoor church of 1714-25, can also be seen. As you cross another inlet, look over to the right for the Lavender Dock pumphouse which controlled the water levels in the Surrey Docks. It is now a museum. Behind this (not visible from here) is Lavender Pond Nature Park. These ponds were a feature of the Surrey Docks, as unloaded softwoods could be left floating in them and prevented from drying out and deforming

Drop-out point: Bus C10 runs along much of Rotherhithe Street, which the middle part of this walk closely follows, and connects back to Rotherhithe and Canada Water stations.

14. Continue along the riverside, passing a sturdy obelisk, devoid of any inscription, until another former warehouse blocks the way. Descend steps to Rotherhithe Street again and turn left, soon arriving outside the Blacksmith’s Arms.

Recommended pub: The Blacksmith’s Arms is a fairly typical pub for the area - nothing special, but it is a capacious pub, with wood panelling and comfortable seats, and the beer (Fuller’s) is kept in good condition.

15. Fifty metres further on, cross to the corner of Acorn Walk. Nelson Engine House and Draw Dock opposite had a carriage by which ships could be drawn out of the Thames for repair. Next door is the elegant mid-18th century Nelson House, built by one of the shipyard owners. Go through the gate and take the forward path away from the river, forking right to take the subway under Salter Road. You have now entered Russia Dock Woodland, a meandering green corridor covering 14 hectares (34.5 acres), formed by the infilling of one of the Surrey Docks.

16. Continue on the main path, and cross the stream and, after 80 metres, turn left, recrossing it again. Keep following the stream and bear right around Globe Pond. Go forward through a gate; Redriff Primary School occupies the brightly-coloured buildings on your left - Redriff being an old name for Rotherhithe. Go around the curve and, just before the bridge, turn right by some large granite blocks. In 40 metres, turn right again towards the mound of Stave Hill.

17. If you want to explore the Ecology Park, take either of the minor paths by the posts and wander at will; although this is a surprisingly extensive area of woodland, you can keep your bearings by reference to Stave Hill. Otherwise, continue on and turn right along the base of the hill before ascending steps to the viewpoint on top. Stave Hill was created by re-excavated spoil from the surrounding area. At the summit, there is a bronze relief model of the Surrey Docks as they existed in 1896. Rather pleasingly, the relief fills with water after rain.

Surrey Docks Model - Stave Hill 
Surrey Docks Model - Stave Hill
 

18. Return down the steps and turn left, taking the second of two paths on the right, Stave Hill Path, passing a school on the right. On reaching the open, continue forward for 30 metres, pass through railings and turn left. Continue on a right curve along the main path and cross a bridge to an old quayside which still retains its granite edging blocks. The steel rails along the path on top were used by travelling cranes.

19. Once over the bridge, turn right. As you approach Redriff Road, bear right through the underpass, then through the barrier to reach Greenland Dock. Turn left, then right by the Moby Dick pub to follow the water’s edge. If time is pressing, turning right here will cut out the walk around Greenland Dock and will soon take you to point 22.

The ten original Surrey Commercial Docks were Lavender Dock, Stave Dock, Albion Dock, Island Dock, Lady Dock, Russia Dock, Canada Dock, Greenland Dock, Norway Dock and South Dock. There was also a basin (Surrey Basin), and fourteen individual timber yards, as well as wharves along the Grand Surrey Canal which ran from Greenland Dock. This dock began life around 1695 as Howland Great Wet Dock, the first of London’s docks south of the river. A whaling fleet was established by the 18th century, and the dock was renamed Greenland Dock. Whale blubber and whalebone had many uses - lamp oil, lubrication oil, soap manufacture, bones for corsets and umbrellas being among them.

Gradually, as the whaling trade subsided in the 19th century, general cargo, including timber and grain imports came to the fore. Timber especially was handled by the Surrey Docks, and four-fifths of London’s timber was unloaded here, coming mainly from Canada and the Baltic. Between the wars, Greenland Dock saw use by 'A' Class Cunard Liners, which plied between here and Canada. Surrey Commercial Docks finally closed in December 1970 and were sold to Southwark Council.

Greenland Dock 
Greenland Dock
 

20. You are now walking back towards the Thames again. Cross over the repositioned Norway Cut Swing Bridge and continue on. Barges have now colonised this part of the dock. Turn right and left where the water narrows, noting the hydraulic gear in the pit which operated the swing bridge, and gear in a further pit which operated the lock gates. Continue to the junction with the Thames, where Canary Wharf has now come back into view. Note the hydraulic capstan which enabled ships to make the tight turn into the lock.

21.  Now retrace your steps to the bridge and cross it, then turn right along the opposite side of the Dock for just 30 metres. Turn left through a short stretch of gardens by the Wibbly Wobbly floating pub to arrive opposite South Dock on Rope Street. Turn right here and continue until Steel Yard Cut, the channel linking the two docks. Once over, turn right, then left, along Greenland Dock again. On reaching the compound, turn left, then right down Rope Street again. Go past the Watersports Centre, then turn right to reach the water again. The slipway just past here marks the start of the Grand Surrey Canal, the remaining section of which was filled in in 1971.

The Grand Surrey Canal was intended to link all the way to Portsmouth but, in the event, only got as far as Peckham before the money ran out!

22. Continue along the remainder of Greenland Dock, at the end turning right to pass under the bascule bridge which carries Redriff Road. Ease to the left of the end of Surrey Quays Shopping Centre and continue on past bus stands. When the road bends right, go down the ramp and cross Lower Road back to the station. If you started the walk at Rotherhithe Station and wish to return there, follow the instructions from point 1 onwards.

 


 

© Mike Biggs, Ramblers (Inner London Area), 2008-14.

If you have any comments about this walk, or notice that it needs updating to take account of changes on the route, then please contact Mike at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.