THERE IS A SUPERB Vietnamese eatery on London’s Bermondsey Street, called Caphe House. After eating a tasty banh mi, a baguette filled with meat and fresh vegetable, a dish no doubt inspired by the French occupation of Vietnam, and a pho, a clear broth with meat, vegetables, and noodles, we crossed the road to examine a sculpture. This eye-catching artwork had not been present when last visited Caphe House, sometime before the pandemic and well before October 2019. It consists of a row of seven piles of stone carvings of differing heights, resembling short totem poles. Made of Portland stone, Bath stone, marble and other materials found in the River Thames, this was created in 2020 by Austin Emery and members of the local community. Over 100 members of the community made carvings in a workshop, and these have been assembled by Emery to create what we saw, an artwork named “Cornerstone”. Cornerstone also incorporates fragments from Southwark Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, London Bridge Station, and bones from the Thames.
After admiring this unusual and intriguing sculpture, I spotted a notice nearby. It relates to the history of Tanner Park, where the sculpture stands, and includes the following:
“… Originally part of the grounds of Bermondsey Abbey the site of the Park was later in use as a Tannery …”
Reading this notice, I realised that this was the first time I had seen mention of an abbey at Bermondsey.
There had been an abbey in Bermondsey since the early 9th century (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bermondsey_Abbey). This was centred on the site of the present-day Bermondsey Square, about 390 yards south of the Cornerstone sculpture. The abbey to which the notice at Tanner Park refers was a Benedictine abbey, which was dedicated to St Saviour and was founded in the early 11th century. A wealthy religious establishment, it was, like so many other similar institutions, dissolved by King Henry VIII in the 16th century, in 1537. But where was it?
By 1822, only tiny fragments of the abbey were still standing. Today, nothing remains, although occasional archaeological digs have exposed parts of it, albeit temporarily. Fathome’s map of Southwark compiled in 1643-48 shows that then the abbey was still standing intact in its grounds (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol6/pp117-133). According to one writer (https://knowyourlondon.wordpress.com/2018/07/06/bermondsey-abbey/), who does not give the source(s) of his information, the site of the abbey was:
“The abbey lands extended from the present church of St Mary Magdalene, across today’s Tower Bridge Road.”
A map included by this writer marks the abbey church as lying along Abbey Street with the nave to the west of Tower Bridge Road and the chancel east of it. A wall plaque (www.londonremembers.com/memorials/bermondsey-abbey) which I have not yet seen informs that the abbey:
“… occupied ground between Bermondsey Street, Abbey Street, and Grange Walk…”
The church of St Mary Magdalen stands on Bermondsey Street just before its crossing with Abbey Street. This stands on the site of a church that existed in 1290 and which served lay workers of the abbey. This was demolished in 1680, but the late mediaeval tower was kept. It was rebuilt ten years later. During the 19th century, the exterior was covered with rendering and various other architectural modifications were made both internally and externally (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Mary_Magdalen_Bermondsey). Apparently, the church’s mediaeval arches are visible inside the tower behind the organ and the church also contains some mediaeval stone capitals that might well have been parts of Bermondsey Abbey. St Mary Magdalen is the oldest surviving building in the area. It is open occasionally. I have entered it once, but that was long before I knew about the mediaeval remnants it contains.
Despite the fact that Bermondsey Abbey is now merely a historical memory, Bermondsey Street is an interesting place to visit. Amongst its attractions are Peter Layton’s glass studio, where you can watch glassblowers creating fantastic artworks in glass; Rachel Eames Gallery, which often has good exhibitions of contemporary artists’ works; The Fashion and Textile Museum; The White Cube (Bermondsey), which hosts spectacular shows of contemporary art; and the Cornerstone sculpture, described already. I suggest starting your visit with an early lunch at Caphe House, rounding it off with Vietnamese filter coffee, and ending it with another good coffee at the cheekily named, quirkily decorated Fuckoffee café.