A riverside walk to a famous old London pub: the Prospect of Whitby | Hiking holidays
OWhat is the best view of London? It’s a tricky question. It is perhaps from the South Bank, with the Gothic spiers of the Houses of Parliament, a building whose beauty so nearly redeems its essential absurdity. For sunsets, it’s hard to beat Frank’s Cafe in Peckham, the rooftop bar of a multi-storey car park: every time I’ve been there, the sky has shone orange, pink and purple, as bright and wild as the city below. To the question of which is the best view of London, there is a clear answer: that of the hill at the top of Greenwich Park. Nowhere else captures the history, beauty and manic diversity of the greatest megacity of them all.
It’s a perfect spring day, sunny enough for shirt sleeves and sunglasses. I leave from Blackheath, a village which does its best to hide in London. From the station, I nose down the hill towards the township, where patches of grass are bleached yellow, remnants of a charming party thrown, presumably, by those who live in the large Georgian houses on its border. Children and dogs run amok on the horizon.
I cross the A2 and go through the gates of Greenwich Park, where the atmosphere changes. It is walled up, cared for, bound by rules. We feel invited here; guests must behave. I duly followed an avenue of horse chestnut trees to the glowing domes and ginger stones of the Royal Observatory. On the roof of the main building, Flamsteed House, there is an enormous ball, cherry red, pierced by a six-meter high weather vane. Turns out it’s a clock, of sorts. Every day at 12:55 p.m., the balloon rises halfway up the mast. At 12:58 p.m., he reached the summit, and at 1 p.m. he fell back. The cycles began in 1833, at the height of British naval power. From their decks on the Thames, the sailors waited for the signal, watch in hand, ready to make adjustments. Attention was called for: one glass of rum too many and we had to wait a day for the next signal.
I’m at the top of the hill now, the incline steep enough for couples to whistle on the way up. When they turn around, they remain speechless. The park flows towards the imperial majesty, white stone and huge windows of the Old Royal Naval College, Queen’s House and the National Maritime Museum. To the right (east), nestled in the hollow of the river, is the O2 (built as the Millennium Dome), a monument to 20th century pride. Scattered around it are the remnant shipyards and wharfs of a London past, a London that traded things, not concepts. To the left, across the water, are the great gleaming temples of commerce, the Shard, the Cheesegrater, the Gherkin. Below them is St Paul, proud and proper.
When I look at him I don’t know why I think of my late Welsh grandfather, my father, wearing a tie every day, clinging to form and order as the world moved away from him. It is here that you must see both the medieval city with its stinking streets, the command center of an empire, the myth of a nation, crests, lions and sirens, and the altar of the capitalist faith. It is an ancient and modern city, a city that evolves through death and renewal.
After descending the hill, I cross the river through the Greenwich pedestrian tunnel and head west along the Thames. The water is choppy today and I feel the spray on my face from the waves more than four meters deep. Flight of gulls, pecking at fish. In the 1950s, the river was considered biologically dead. The Victorian sewers had been destroyed by German bombs, leaving the Thames a seeping and noxious drain. But post-war recovery, combined with tighter chemical regulations, led to a rejuvenation. Now the river still looks murky. But the fish returned – 125 species of them – and brought with them a variety of birds, including cormorants and herons. At Billingsgate market, Sammy the seal is a regular. Even porpoises pop up from time to time. Death and renewal.
I make a turn and Canary Wharf rears up. The view from the end of Isle of Dogs is brutal satire. On the ground floor are municipal blocks and basketball courts filled with children playing with old balls. Above are the glittering towers, all glass but unashamed. The highest goes straight up in three parallel panels, resembling a highway – and with all the charm.
To start up Blackheath Station
Distance 5.1 miles
Total ascent 50 meters
Google map of the course
Just south of Shadwell Basin is the Prospect of Whitby, a pub that’s not so much on the river as on it: when the tide comes in, the windows look like portholes. In front of the wooden bar is a row of barrels: due to regular flooding, half of the cellar had to be walled up, so there is no room under the bridge. From behind, the modest courtyard offers stunning views to the northeast and southwest along the sparkling water. The menu is less spectacular, but that’s not the point of the place. I had mushroom and beer pie – thick, warm and rich – with a pint of Black Sheep Best, and relished English.
People have been coming here to drink since 1520, making it probably the oldest riverside pub in town.
It was first the Pelican, but thanks to the crowds it drew, it was also known as the Devil’s Tavern. Outlaws gathered here before and after raids on loggers carrying goods from ships anchored in the Thames. Meanwhile, the upstairs Pepys Room was used for boxing and cockfighting. Things quieted down in the 17th century: Judge George Jeffreys lived there and visited frequently. Some of those he condemned were hanged near the execution quay (in biting tribute, a platform and noose now stand outside the pub). A little further up the path, the pirates would be chained to the post at Wapping Old Stairs and left to drown in the tide.
A fire in the early 19th century destroyed the building, leaving only the stone floor. Over time, the pub was rebuilt and named Prospect of Whitby, after a coalman who docked just outside. Charles Dickens had a drink here and Turner and Whistler sketched the sights. In the following century, Princess Margaret sometimes sat at the bay window with a G&T.
Yet the past persists. Stories of ghostly cutthroats and smugglers abound. The director tells me that he once saw a bouncing shape near the platform where the slipknot is. When I look at the water, I am not afraid. I understand: if I come back after my death, that’s where I’ll spend eternity.
Where to stay
There is no accommodation at the Prospect of Whitby, but a 15 minute walk east towards Limehouse brings you to the Royal Foundation of St Katherine, a charity hotel and retreat center with a 900 year history . It started life in 1147 as a church and hospital next to the Tower of London. Come here for airy rooms and a peaceful reflection in its central courtyard, complete with a beautiful London plane.
Doubles from around £140 rooms only, rfsk.org.uk