This weekend we were lucky enough to be invited to take part in the annual Sheep Drive across London Bridge for Freemen of the City of London and their guests, and our time at the event and walking along the Thames Path nearby got us thinking about links between city and the countryside.
We wandered along a stretch of the Thames Path from near the Monument, heading west along the north bank of the river.
The route was a mix of tarmac and pavement, taking us past impressive stone buildings dating back several hundred years, as well as very modern office buildings and luxury flats built within the last ten or twenty years. Where was the countryside in all of this? The names of the buildings and streets revealed a history of trade providing very direct connection between land, sea and city, including the Fishmongers Hall, Fish Street Hill and very close by, the Fruiterers Hall and Fruiterers Alley.
Although the tide was in, when we walked a bit further we could see the indent of Queenhithe dock, which dates back to Saxon times and is now the only remaining inlet on the City’s waterfront; thanks to a handy information board, we found out that in the thirteenth century Queenhithe became the most important London dock of the time for handling grain and other foods which would all go to feed the people of London.
And then, of course, the sheep. This weekend’s Sheep Drive across London Bridge was organised by the Worshipful Company of Woolmen, which is a guild that dates back to the twelfth century, set up originally to oversee woolpackers and wool merchants, and today still focussing on the wool industry. While nowadays the Sheep Drive is a charitable fundraiser which happens just once a year, historically, sheep drives across London Bridge happened much more often as the animals were taken regularly to market in the City, and London Bridge was the only possible route across the river. Freemen were traditionally permitted to bring their stock across the bridge without paying tolls.
Yesterday’s sheep had been brought in from a farm in Bedfordshire, and we were pleased to see the livestock trailer was an Ifor Williams, manufactured not far from us in Wales.
The sheep were North of England mules, apparently favoured by many farmers because they lamb easily, produce high quality meat and good weight of fleece. The smell wafting on the breeze reminded me of our own Jacobs sheep that until recently we raised on our smallholding on the Shropshire-Wales border, although the view was very different this time, replacing pasture and woodland for Tower Bridge and the Tower of London!
Sheep in the centre of the city is a very odd thing in today’s world, as Alan Titchmarsh commented shortly after opening this year’s Sheep Drive. But he also made the point that it was one way of reminding people about the connections between cities and farm production. From what we found out through brief conversations, it seems that many of our fellow sheep-drivers either worked in the City in office jobs or lived in London, so it’s likely that most of them very rarely - if ever - get so close to a sheep. For all of us that took part, I think it was a unique experience; what a way to explore Londo