A tavern on the Thames

THE BATTLE OF TRAFALGAR, fought in 1805 in the waters off Cape Trafalgar on the Atlantic coast of Spain, was a major victory for British naval forces under the leadership of Horatio Nelson (1758-1805). Sadly, it was after that battle that Nelson died, having been hit by a bullet fired from the French vessel “Redoubtable”. Most people are familiar with Trafalgar Square in central London, which commemorates the great victory. Fewer people might be familiar with a riverside hostelry in Greenwich, which also celebrates the battle.

The majority of visitors to Greenwich concentrate mainly on the Cutty Sark, the Royal Naval College, the Greenwich Meridian, the Naval Museum, and Greenwich Market. The Trafalgar Tavern is, I suspect, not on everyone’s list of things that must be seen on a visit to Greenwich. It is located on the riverbank immediately east (downstream) of the former Royal Naval College (now partly occupied by the University of Greenwich).

Before dealing with the tavern, let me digress a little about the origin of the name Greenwich. In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, first written in the 9th century, the place was called ‘Grénawic’ or ‘Gronewic’, meaning ‘the green village’. The Scandinavian invaders of Britain might have given it a name meaning ‘the green reach’.  The Domesday Book of 1086 lists it as ‘Grenviz’.  In 1291, a document called it ‘Grenewych’, which is close to its current name. During the 18th century the hitherto principally  naval town also became a popular resort.

The Trafalgar Tavern was built in 1837 to the designs of the architect Joseph Kay (1775-1847), who helped to design the centre of Greenwich, on the site of an older inn, The Old George Tavern. In 1830, the owner of the Old George had wanted to enlarge his premises, but his ideas were sabotaged by the architect he had employed, who could see great potential for the inn and then decided to acquire the pub for himself (www.trafalgartavern.co.uk/history). The new owners of the pub submitted numerous plans for enlarging it until at last in 1837, they got the go ahead to proceed. The elegant building, with bow windows covered with canopies, looking out over the river, that exists today is what they built and re-named The Trafalgar Tavern in 1837.

The tavern’s name was well-chosen. After Nelson was shot, his body was returned to England, where it landed at Spithead. Eventually, Nelson’s embalmed corpse was transferred to Greenwich Hospital, where it was examined (https://www.navyhistory.org.au/the-preservation-of-horatio-lord-nelsons-body/). On the 5th of January 1806, the body lay in state in the magnificent Painted Hall of the hospital. The pub’s name was chosen, according to the Trafalgar’s website, because of its proximity to this place, which is about 200 yards away. In accordance with his wishes, Nelson was buried at St Pauls Cathedral.

Writing in 1876, James Thorne noted that the Trafalgar and other riverside inns in Greenwich were “… all celebrated for their whitebait dinners…” The Tavern’s history website explains that the whitebait were cooked after being caught fresh from the Thames. From the late 18th century onwards it became the fashion for parliamentarians to travel by boat from Westminster to Greenwich to discuss politics discreetly over a dinner of whitebait at one of the riverside hostelries, including the Trafalgar, which  was favoured by the Liberals and The Ship that was favoured by the Tories (www.foodsofengland.co.uk/whitebait.htm). The writer Charles Dickens visited the Trafalgar frequently. It is said that he based the wedding dinner scene in “Our Mutual Friend” in the inn. I did a word search of an online edition of the novel and failed to find the name ‘Trafalgar’. However, it has been noted that the dinner took place in “…a dinner at a hotel in Greenwich overlooking the Thames…” (https://victorianweb.org/art/illustration/mstone/44.html). Some of the other notable visitors to the Trafalgar include William Makepeace Thackeray, JMW Turner, William Gladstone, and Benjamin Disraeli.

After WW1, the Trafalgar became used as a home for retired sailors. Later, it was used as accommodation for serving naval officers. In 1968, the place was restored to its original Victorian glory and it became a pub once again. Since then, well at least until the covid19 pandemic, the place has been serving drinks and food including whitebait, although the source of this ingredient is unlikely to be the water flowing past the Tavern.

Far from the maddening crowd

THROUGHOUT THE ‘LOCKDOWN’, our wise leader, Mr Johnson, has encouraged us to take exercise, to get out and breathe some fresh air. And, we have been following that sound advice, walking in our neighbourhood anything from two to five miles every day. Since the ‘lockdown’ has been eased recently, we have been driving out of London far enough to escape from the hurly-burly of the city.  Our latest excursion took us out westwards to a village on the River Thames called Hurley, which is upstream from the small town of Marlow. We chose our destination, the starting point for a riverside walk, almost randomly and had no idea what to expect when we arrived.

HU 12 temple lock

Temple Lock

Hurley is a gem of a village. A ford across the River Thames might well have existed at Hurley before the Norman Conquest of 1066. Many of the older buildings near the river and including the heavily restored Norman church formed part of a Benedictine priory that was established by Geoffrey de Mandeville, who died in about 1100 and was one of the richest men during the reign of William the Conqueror. His pious action at Hurley was strongly influenced by his second wife, Lescelina. The monastery was ‘dissolved’ during the great Dissolution of religious institutions carried out by Henry VIII, Some of the buildings including the priory’s cloisters have been picturesquely incorporated into newer buildings, most of which are used as dwellings.

A wooden bridge crosses a stream of the river to reach an island where Hurley Lock is located. We watched pleasure boats being lowered in the lock that allows ships to avoid the weir nearby. At the end of the island, another wooden bridge crosses back onto the right bank of the Thames. We walked beside the river, enjoying glimpses of it between trees whose branches dipped down towards the water. In addition to boats of all sizes from canoes to large cruisers and barges, the water is populated by ducks, andgeese. We also spotted plenty of insects that rest on the water’s surface and flit about hither and thither: water boatmen and pond skaters. Much of the path was flanked by deciduous woodland, mostly private property.

Another bridge, a long sweeping wooden structure took us to the left bank of the river. A short distance downstream from it, we reached Temple Lock. The river was so busy that boats had to queue up to wait for admission to the lock. With the river on our right and fields on our left, some with grazing cattle and sheep, we headed towards Marlow. The path was flanked by a profusion of wildflowers, many of them being ‘serviced’ by a rich variety of different kinds of insects. Before reaching Marlow, we had good views of Bisham Abbey across the river. The former Abbey was built in about 1260 as a manor house for the Knights Templar. Now, much of it remains, and is used as one of the UK’s National Sports Centres.  Close by, the reflection of the tower of All Saints Church, Bisham, shimmers in the water of the river that flows close to its western end. The tower was built in the 12th century, and, later, in the 16th century other parts were added to the original church.

Soon after seeing Bisham’s church, the elegant suspension bridge across the Thames at Marlow came into view. The present bridge was built between 1829 and 1832 and designed by William Tierney Clark (1783-1852), who also designed Hammersmith Bridge. The famous Chain Bridge in Budapest (Széchenyi lánchíd), which is a larger version of Marlow Bridge, opened in 1849 was also designed by WT Clark. It was built by the Scottish engineer Adam Clark (1811-1866).

A slightly sensuous statue of a naked woman, apparently a nymph, can be seen near the Marlow Bridge. This early 20th century sculpture (1924) commemorates Charles Frohman (1856-1915), an American who was a famous theatrical manager who was drowned in the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915. According to a notice next to the statue, it was erected on the spot from which Frohman used to enjoy watching the Thames.  Apart from the bridge and the statue, there was little in Marlow’s High Street that attracted us, and we walked back to Hurley the way we came. On the way back, we caught good views of Harleyford Manor, a handsome Georgian home on a grassy rise overlooking the Thames. Designed by Robert Taylor (1714-1788) for its owner William Clayton (1718-1783), a Member of Parliament for Bletchingley and then Great Marlow, it remained in the Clayton family until 1950. Currently, this protected building houses offices.

We returned to Hurley, having had a hugely enjoyable stroll along the river and plenty of fresh air. We met numerous people along the way, all of them greeting us friendlily. Many of them had dogs, and almost all of them took care to maintain ‘social distancing’. We drove away from Hurley and about half an hour later we were caught up in the hurly burly of London traffic, which was moving at barely snail’s pace around the Hammersmith one-way system. Annoying as it was, it was worth enduring after having had such a wonderful day by the river, so far from the maddening crowds.