One of our favourite Londonphiles and co-curator of Curiocity Henry Eliot is planning a Pre-Raphaelite Pilgrimage to accompany the launch of the next issue. We asked Henry about planning the walk from the George Inn, Borough High Street to Red House, Bexleyheath on September 7 and what to look out for on the way. Over to you, Henry…
It’s not every day that someone asks you to create a pilgrimage from scratch. There are so many prerequisites that are tricky to arrange, like a dead saint, a shrine, a cathedral, and above all, pilgrims. But I like a challenge, and when the National Trust suggested a secular pilgrimage between two of their London properties I jumped at the opportunity.
Having led a reconstruction of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and devised various routes through London for the map-magazine Curiocity, I was confident that an unexpected pilgrim path could be plotted. The saint would be the nineteenth-century designer, writer and socialist, William Morris, the cathedral his Red House in Bexleyheath. The final piece of the puzzle, and really the only place the route could start, was the George Inn in Southwark, next to the site of The Tabard, where Chaucer’s fictional pilgrims gathered in 1387 before setting off on their pilgrimage.
Winding forward, preparations are now in full swing for a Pre-Raphaelite Pilgrimage on Saturday September 7. 300 walkers and cyclists will make the 13-mile journey through southeast London to an after-hours party in the Red House garden, with guest speakers, a hog roast, live music, and kayles on the bowling lawn, an early form of skittles that Morris played with his daughters.
The route is more beautiful and surprising than I’d expected, weaving through Southwark, Deptford, Greenwich and Charlton. At waypoint stations along the way, pilgrims will get their passports stamped, create Morris-inspired artworks and hear stories that he printed on the Kelmscott Press in a tribute to The Canterbury Tales.
There’ll be a hand-drawn route map and an audio app with contributions from Robert Macfarlane, the William Morris Gallery and the London Wildlife Trust among others, and the map and app will continue to circulate after the event, hopefully preserving and propagating the route for future generations of Pre-Raphaelite pilgrims.
Here are six highlights along the way:
The George Inn
The George Inn is the last galleried coaching inn in London, built in 1676 but based on the ground plan of an earlier incarnation. It hit the headlines recently as ‘Shakespeare’s Local’, the subject of Pete Brown’s book of the same title. It also had a cameo mention in Dickens’ Little Dorritt. Today it’s one of the most atmospheric watering holes anywhere in London. Try to get there before the London Bridge offices spill over, and sit outside with a pint of their house ale. Just next door is Talbot Yard, where a blue plaque confirms that it was once the yard of The Tabard Inn, immortalised by Chaucer.
Dilston Grove is an exhibition space and deconsecrated Italianate church in Southwark Park. The building dates from 1911 and is one of the earliest poured concrete constructions in the country; in other words, it’s one single object. The lofty interior is stunning, with circular windows at each end that send rays of sunlight peppering the simple wooden floorboards. Having fallen derelict, Dilston Grove was rescued by the Café Gallery Project, and now houses regular site-specific art installations. Ackroyd and Harvey transformed the interior into a ‘verdant green chamber’ in 2003, planting the vertical walls with luscious grass.
Sayes Court Park
Sayes Court Park doesn’t look much now, but it’s all that remains of the celebrated house and gardens owned by John Evelyn, the seventeenth-century diarist. Now only a mulberry tree remains from the gardens that were once a precursor of Vauxhall and Ranelagh, attracting glittering throngs. Peter the Great of Russia rented Sayes Court in 1698, and destroyed the flowerbeds in a wheelbarrow. In 1884, the social reformer Octavia Hill was approached to help save Sayes Court and its gardens from dockside development. She proposed an organisation called the Commons and Garden Trust, which ten years later became fully constituted, too late unfortunately, to take ownership of Sayes Court. The final name for the organisation she created was The National Trust.
Charlton House is the finest Jacobean building in London. When there isn’t a wedding going on inside, there’s a convenient cafe in the main hall and outdoor seating overlooking the ha ha. The house was built for Adam Newton, tutor to Prince Henry, the eldest son of James I. Prince Henry was much more popular than his younger brother Charles, but when he died of typhoid fever aged eighteen, Charles became the heir and later king. Charles’ popularity didn’t increase and he was of course beheaded. The ancient Horn Fair took place in the grounds of Charlton, a riotous fair that was the culmination of an anti-pilgrimage from Cuckold’s Point in Rotherhithe. Daniel Defoe described it as a ‘collected rabble of mad-people’.
Oxleas Woods are some of most ancient deciduous woodlands in London, and three or four times older than the city. The path weaves through beautiful oaks, silver birches and hornbeam, and there are a few surprises. The remains of Jackwood Terrace Garden are an unexpectedly red-brick formality after the wildness of the preceding stretch; and the Oxlea Wood Café has one of the best views anywhere in the capital, definitely a place to stop for a brew. My favourite spot, however, is the forbidding, triangular Severndroog Castle, a huge folly built in 1784 to commemorate Commodore Sir William James, who successfully captured the pirate island fortress of Suvarnadurg off the west coast of India.
The Red House
The Red House was commissioned by William Morris and designed by Philip Webb. It is a stunning example of Arts and Craft architecture in glowing red brick that manages to be monumental yet homely at the same time. Morris wanted his miniature medieval castle located as close to Chaucer’s pilgrimage route as possible. Rossetti called it ‘more a poem than a home’ and Burne-Jones thought it ‘the beautifullest place on earth’. Morris envisaged a Palace of Art where his friends could stay and produce artworks in convivial surroundings; he designed many of his iconic wallpaper designs in the studio on the top floor. The centrepiece of the garden is a distinctive well with an elegantly pointed roof. Morris called the tiled portico behind the well ‘Pilgrim’s Rest’. Henry Eliot