Old Barge House Alley, SE1

Courtyard in/near South Bank, existing between 1507 and now

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Courtyard · South Bank · SE1 ·

This is an article about Old Barge House Alley.

Before the streets of London were constructed of durable materials they were so pot-holed and ridged that travelling along them could often be a hazardous business. Apart from this, the movement of traffic about the City was thoroughly disorganised – farmers driving herds of cattle to market were a constant obstacle and accidents were a frequent occurrence. Although the problem was not so much volume of traffic, as it is today, travelling only a short distance in the chaos took a long time. The Thames offered an escapement route and those who could afford to hire a sculler and oarsman travelled in relative comfort and at reasonable speed. In those days all the major activities were centred reasonably close to the River and only a short walk away from the innumerable jetties along the waterside. Royalty and noble lords built their houses close to the Thames with easy access to private stairs where they boarded their luxurious barges.

The Monarch owned barges for different occasions, just as the Queen today travels in a style of coach fitting of the event. The barge-house, conveniently situated about mid-way between the Tower and Westminster was where the King’s barges were moored. It was located alongside Barge House Stairs, approximately on the site of the present jetty, and here the Royal Barge Master attended to maintenance and preparation for state occasions. The barge-house was probably in existence before the reign of Henry VIII and survived until the mid-17th century when it was left unattended and eventually rotted away.

There is still a discernible alley here today although it has now taken on a form more likened to a yard and is filled with lock-up shops, ranging from a sandwich bar to a jewellers. There are also shops of florists, milliners, hairdressers and many more, all situated alongside Gabriel’s Wharf. It is an unimaginable venture back in time to remember this area as jungle of high gloomy warehouses closely sited along the waters edge. In the wildest of dreams one would not have envisaged that in the passage of years this place would be half way along the road to becoming a tourist attraction. At the northern end of the Alley a riverside walk has been laid out and to the east there are pleasant gardens of shrubbery with seats dotted here and there. There are plenty of reminders of the old barge house in this area: Bargehouse Street is still here, and as though determined that the name shall be preserved, a new building is named Barge House Crescent.


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