Above: Looking east towards Vauxhall in April 2003 near Nine Elms Pier. The peaceful scene in this picture will never return to this part of the Thames.
Once upon a time – all the best stories start ‘Once upon a time’ – there were parts of London that somehow managed to remain in ‘suspended animation’, looking a bit Victorian and certainly ‘old fashioned’. I am talking about the 1960s when I first used to go exploring to get to know parts of London that I was not familiar with. From those years onwards, London has gradually been ‘sanitised’ by one developer or another and many of the unusual fragments from a bygone age have gradually been swept away. There was a time when you could walk the length of Clink Street and Bankside – from London Bridge to Blackfriars Bridge – and hardly meet another person. Nowadays that walk is rather like Victoria Station on a bad day – it is so full of people. Bermondsey has been redeveloped, so has Deptford. The Isle of Dogs is like a different planet to how it was in the 1970s.
All the above preamble brings us to Nine Elms Pier. It takes its name from the area which once had nine elm trees growing near the river. The old pier is situated to the west of Vauxhall Bridge. Until well after the dawn of the new millennium, the land between Vauxhall Bridge and Chelsea Bridge – the general area of Nine Elms – was mainly derelict as factories and warehouses gradually closed down, leaving the area empty of almost all human activity. It meant that you could go for a walk beside the Thames and hardly meet a living soul, sit by the run-down river wall and just let the world go by. The noise from traffic was far away. It was an area of tranquillity.
Above: A painting by Samuel Scott of how the bank of the Thames at Nine Elms looked around the 1750s. Dramatic change has taken place from the time of the painting. We are living through another phase of change in the same area today.
However, the years after 2000 were the ‘lull before the storm’. Nothing seemed to be changing for maybe a decade but, behind the scenes, developers were busy acquiring the land and drawing up new plans for the overdevelopment of the area. Today, unsightly modern housing blocks for the rich are defacing the area. The factories are giving way to overbearing apartment blocks. Part of this land, which most Londoners had never visited before its makeover, is being issued with a new underground station and the American Embassy is moving to the area because they see it as a desirable place to be.
At some time in the 1980s a riverside walkway, of sorts, was devised. Because the land was so derelict, it was hard to devise a permanent plan but at least it provided an unusual walk – mainly some peace and quiet for the pedestrian with open views of the Thames, some of them quite stunning. Amid all the derelict warehouses was Nine Elms Pier which had hardly been used for decades. It should be explained that Nine Elms Pier was not a commercial pier. It had outlived its useful purpose and was then mainly unused with houseboats using the location as moorings. Whoever owned it was probably making a decent income from charging mooring fees.
That was its attraction and house-boats began to colonise the space around it. They too were rather run-down but that just added to the charm of the location. There were no shops nearby and hardly any properly maintained open spaces. With the houseboats on the river, the scene was not unlike the kind that you find on country creeks in Essex or on the Thames much further upriver as it passes through the countryside to the west of London.
Since some time around 2010 the river was gradually cleared of any vestige of ‘times past’ and cleaned up so as not to look ‘untidy’ next to the well-heeled, overpriced apartment blocks that have been erected for people who have never previously lived anywhere near Vauxhall, Nine Elms or Battersea. Yet another slice of ‘old world’ London has been removed so that everywhere in Nine Elms looks like anywhere else in an up-market residential part London.