29 October 2009

Bike Monopoly 38: Super Tax

Benjamin Franklin's dictum that "in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes" comes to sharp focus round about the Monopoly board's square 38 and 39. Inevitably, in those final, over-mortgaged throes of a game, you land either here, the Tax square, or on someone else's Mayfair with a hotel on, the Death square.

More of Mayfair tomorrow – but how can you cycle to Super Tax?

We've chosen Custom House, historic home of the Taxman. It stares south across the Thames from the riverside, between Old Billingsgate and The Tower. You're not supposed to cycle along the Thames (foot) Path here (above), because that would obviously be incredibly dangerous, though we have to report that it is temptingly smooth and step-free between London Bridge and Tower Bridge.

Custom House has had more relaunches in its career even than me, and seems even more liable to going down in flames just when things seem OK.

The first version here was in 1275. Its super-sized upgrade in 1378 burned down and was rebuilt in 1559, only to provide more kindling for the Great Fire of 1666. Wren's magnificent replacement of 1671 was damaged in 1714 by a nearby explosion; it soon proved as flammable as its predecessors, and was rebuilt in the 1810s.

In 1825, as relief from its traditional role as large-scale tinder, part of the Long Room collapsed thanks to rotting in the wooden piles. The Long Room and facade (above right) were rebuilt by Robert Smirke (stop grinning, boy!) and – despite yet more fire-damage during the Blitz – Smirke's Custom House survives today, though its tax-collecting duties have long since been shoved out to somewhere less combustible such as Victoria Dock.

Hmm; still not immune from the efforts of a disgruntled taxpayer with a grudge and a box of Swan Vestas, which may explain the fragility of CH's previous incarnations.

Anyway, there's not much to see of the House itself – it's not open to the public or anything, and it's fenced off from the likes of us, no doubt in case we have a Molotov cocktail to hand – but this is a fascinating riverscape to explore by bike. There's a lot of boat traffic around and it really gives you the idea of the Thames as a working river. As your sodden feet will remind you, if the water's high (right).

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