London Old and New

One of my favourite London walks is along the south side of the Thames Path between London Bridge and Waterloo; an enjoyable route full of strange and mysterious corners of the city’s history, world-famous London landmarks, colourful street performers and, of course, the magnificent River Thames itself.

I’ve been meaning to have a wander down there with my camera for a long while, and I finally got round to doing so a couple of weeks ago (you can see more photos from those wanderings here).

However, if it wasn’t for the fact that the Thames Path is currently closed and diverted at Blackfriars Bridge I would have probably never even walked down Hopton Street, let alone snapped this particular photo – so you could say that this is yet another blog post inspired by an unexpected, accidental discovery!

And a fascinating discovery it is too. The pretty grey and white brick buildings you can see at the centre of the picture are the Hopton’s Almshouses, which have been continually occupied since they were completed in the early 1750s.

Built with money provided in the will of one Charles Hopton (a mysterious man about whom little is known, except that he was born into a well-to-do merchant family some time in the 1650s and was an almost lifelong member of the City of London Guild of Fishmongers), these almshouses were originally constructed for the use of poor, single men from the local area at a cost of some £2700.

That may not sound like very much, but at today’s prices that’s the equivalent of approximately £229,932 (see the interesting currency converter on the National Archives website for more details), which suggests that Hopton must have been a relatively wealthy man when he died in 1731.

Another, much wealthier man is responsible for the huge modern building partly visible in the background of the photo. This building is one of the four tower blocks which make up the NEO Bankside development, designed by the (in)famous architect Richard Rogers and his firm.

You may already be aware of Rogers via his responsibility for the design of the Millennium Dome – possibly the most pointless piece of architecture in Britain’s history – but he does seem to like building tall, as this list of his firm’s projects shows.

Construction on these four towers is not yet completed, but they already loom over the centuries-old almshouses, which appear tiny by comparison – these visual contrasts of size and modernity immediately drew me in for a closer look with my camera. Part of what fascinates me about London are such contrasts; that (as with every city of any age) the urban environment exists in layers.

London’s history dates back at least as far as the Roman invasion of Britain, and the city slowly evolved out of that settlement, building up layer upon layer as the centuries progressed. In some parts of London you can still clearly see the way these different historical and architectural layers continue to coexist, albeit often uneasily.

Both Hopton’s Almshouses and the NEO Bankside development are part of this ongoing process, but, interestingly, the differing motives behind the building of each also add an additional layer of contrast. Whether the dominance of the historical built environment by such huge modern constructions is a good thing is a continuing matter for debate. I know which side I’m on.

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