Thames Pathway

Journal of a Walk Down the River Thames

by Keith Pauling

Gabriel’s Wharf

Gabriel’s Wharf is a complete contrast. A square set back from the river, next to the old warehouse wall, it offers a welcome delight compared to the previous concrete monsters.

Gabriel’s Wharf
Gabriel’s Wharf

A bandstand occupies the centre of the plaza, and the surrounding area is covered with café tables and chairs. All around the perimeter are small boutiques selling fashion, crafts and a wide assortment of eats and drinks.

The brightly coloured facades are all old garages that have had shop-fronts fitted to them, making ideal shops and studios. Closer inspection reveals that the upper storeys are not genuine, but paintings on the old warehouse wall. This imaginative use of the surrounds gives a more permanent appearance to the scene.

The square provides a welcome haven from the bustle and stark surrounds of the arts complex. Time to indulge in an excellent Panini and two cups of coffee while watching the world go by.

Gabriel’s Wharf and the neighbouring OXO Tower are a triumph for the little man over the developer. For centuries this area of the South Bank had been a marshy wasteland, but during the 19th century it became packed with cheap housing as people flocked to the capital from the countryside. The housing was generally poor, and it could be said that during the war the Luftwaffe made improvements by demolishing some of it. After the war the government cleared a lot more of it for the Festival of Britain, and developers put up some more unattractive offices. There were few jobs for the locals and the population crashed from 50,000 at its peak to less than 4,000.

In 1977 another developer wanted to build a huge hotel and yet more ugly offices. What housing was left would be cut off from the river. Something snapped. This was the proverbial last straw. It was the thing up with which the remaining residents would not put.

The residents formed the Coin Street Action Group. No hotel; no offices. What they wanted was affordable houses for local people, local shops, and they wanted their river back. They must have been a formidable group. In 1984 they formed the Coin Street Community Builders, bought the land and set about demolishing the hated offices, redesigning the Thames Walkway and laying out a riverside gardens. The park is named Bernie Spain Gardens, after Bernadette Spain one of the original Action Group members.

Not content with that they set about rebuilding the housing, and then took over the derelict OXO Tower and turned that into flats and designer boutiques, not to mention a fashionable restaurant on the top floor. There are now over 200 dwellings and 60 shops in the complex.

The OXO Tower is, in its own way, another triumph of ingenuity over authority. The building was originally a power station and constructed around 1900. It soon became outdated and was purchased by the Liebeg Extract of Meat Company, who owned the OXO brand. They wanted to display a big advertising sign, but the council refused permission. Then the architect, one Albert Moore, had a bright idea. What if he designed some decorative windows for the top of the tower? He could design two circular patterns one above the other and put a crossed design in the middle. Who could object to that? Nobody did, and when it was finished and the lights were switched on in a particular manner, (just at random, naturally) it just happened to display OXO to everyone who looked at it from across the river. Brilliant!

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