A historic River Thames walk through Shadwell and Limehouse

by Jeanne on May 30, 2004

in London Life

One of my favourite things to do in London when the weather is good is to walk along the River Thames. Maybe this is because South Africa does not have many large rivers and certainly no cities built on rivers the way that European cities are. I love the towpath between Hammersmith and Putney, especially in spring when the trees are in bud. I love the South Bank from the Design Museum to the Festival Hall. I love the industrial landscape from Woolwich to Greenwich. Take me to the river and I am happy.

So last Sunday, because the weather was sunny and I wanted to take some photos, we went exploring the Thames Path between Limehouse and Tower Hill. Took the Docklands Light Rail (DLR) to Limehouse station – immediately as you come down off the platform you find the Docklands Garden Centre below the station. I’d always seen the sign from the train but had never stopped by – what a lovely place! The floor area of the nursery is not that big – in fact it sits largely on a pavement – and there seems to be no brick & mortar structure – they have simply built upwards using wood so the whole place has a delightfully organic feel to it. The shade plants are at the bottom where water from the top level can drip down onto them and upstairs are the trees, shrubs and garden furniture. Beautiful plants, a vast selection of terracotta and glazed pots of all shapes and sizes, loads of terracotta pot feet in all shapes and loads of soil & gravel. Some of the painted and glazed pots would make fabulous presents with herbs or flowers in them! Note to self – gift ideas for future reference!

So after Nick got me out of there without having bought anything (!) we walked to the Limehouse Basin (formerly the Regent’s Canal Dock). The dock was originally built n about 1820 as a barge basin which would link the Regent’s Canal (a branch of the Grand Union Canal) to the River Thames at Limehouse. The idea was to build the dock large enough to accommodate sea-going vessels so that cargo could be transferred from these vessels onto narrowboats which could then transport goods, particularly coal, the length of the Grand Union Canal. Unfortunately the advent of the railways in the 1850’s provided a cheaper means of transporting coal to the interior of England and the dock’s economic lifeblood diminished. The focus shifted onto transporting other goods, particularly timber. With the general decline in waterborne transport, the dock was eventually closed to commercial shipping in 1969, but remains open for leisure craft. Today the basin is managed by British Waterways, unlike most of the other docks which fall under the authority of the Port Of London Authority. In 1983 the London Docklands Development Corporation started an intensive redevelopment programme which involved building a number of residential blocks surrounding the basin. Today the basin is surrounded by extremely expensive and ultra-modern apartments and there are dozens of pleasure boats moored on the water – some yachts and some permanently moored longboats. It is a great area to live in if you work in the City or Canary Wharf – beautiful accommodation and 10 minutes by DLR to work!

We walked right around the dock, took a few pics and chose which apartment we will buy when we win the lottery. (As Andre P Brink said, “not a question of imagination but of faith”!!) Incidentally, if you are in the area and want a good pub on the river, the Barley Mow in Narrow street just off the basin is right on the water and has an outside terrace for summer days – we have spent many happy hours there! We then we made our way back to Limehouse DLR station, got back on the train and travelled one stop to Shadwell station, which is in Wapping. The area around the station is not very promising – it is full of soulless council estates and a population made up largely of struggling immigrant families. But this is an improvement – in the 18th and 19th centuries the area between the highway and the river (where we were walking) apparently became one of the most wretched slums in Victorian Britain. Its squalor was also remarked upon by Charles Dickens who described a Wapping workhouse in Oliver Twist. But if, like we did, you walk two blocks south and duck through a little churchyard , you emerge through a small archway onto the edge of the Shadwell Basin.

It is quite different to Limehouse in that it is not visible from the train – in fact if you are not specifically looking for it, you wouldn’t know it is there. I didn’t even know it existed! It is the same size as or bigger than the Limehouse Basin and the main difference is that it is only open to the river – it does not lead into a canal in the way that Limehouse does. I guess this explains why it is totally devoid of boats! Nothing, nada, zip. Not one. So there is just this big expanse of water & rather nice low-rise apartments all around it. Walked around the dock and then into the bowels of Wapping. It is a really fascinating part of London – sandwiched between the economically depressed area around Shadwell station and the economically over-endowed St Katherine’s Dock and very, very old. Wapping was a thriving part of the London docks for hundreds of years, although today there is not much remaining evidence. We walked along Wapping High Street which is still largely enclosed by Victorian warehouses, many directly on the river and some recently converted to expensive apartments. When the warehouses were in use, they would almost all have had metal walkways high above the streets, to allow for goods to be carried from one warehouse to another, but today only two such catwalks remain and we saw these on Wapping High Street. I love the feeling of the area – the catwalks give it something of the flavour of Shad Thames on the opposite bank (where more of these catwalks have been preserved) and despite the modernisation, you really get a feel for how old London is.

We passed quite a few pubs – the two that stick in my mind are the Town of Ramsgate and the Captain Kidd. The former is not on the river but is built on a site where there has been a public house since the 1500′s. It is reputedly the pub where Fletcher Christian and Captain Bligh dined together while planning their ill-fated voyage on the Bounty. The latter, however, is on the river and is named after the famous pirate captain Kidd. Kidd was hanged for his crimes in 1701 at Execution Dock in Wapping. (The gallows were moved from St Katharine’s Dock to Execution Dock on the site of the present day Wapping Tube station.) As with other pirates of the time, his body was left on the gallows until it had been covered by the tide three times! Something that you don’t fully appreciate about the Thames until you live in London is the extent of the river’s tidal fluctuation – the difference between high and low tide is in the region of 9 metres, so it is quite feasible that someone hanged at the water’s edge would be covered by the rising tide! After three tides, his body was covered in tar and hung in the streets as a warning to others – clearly deterrence was the primary aim of punishment in those days!! Incidentally, the last men to be hanged at Execution Dock were George Davis and William Watts, who were hanged for murder and mutiny on the High Seas on the 17th December in 1830. Anyway, back to the pub. There are tables both inside and outside and you are literally on top of the river so the view is great. It was not that warm by the time we got there but I certainly see us going back on a sunny day for a drink! Upstairs from the pub area there is also a restaurant area – the menu looked lovely and fairly reasonably priced – a bonus in the Docklands. And you certainly don’t get to have a beer on the site of a hangman’s gallows every day!

My one gripe about the area is that the Thames Path which, in theory, runs along the Thames for pedestrians, has to twist and turn behind buildings for much of this stretch of the river. I realise that the much of the reason for this is the Victorian warehouses that front directly on the water to that there is no space for a path, but in some cases apartment blocks have been built and they simply gate off access to the river to preserve their exclusive stretch of river front – this really riles me and is also a problem further east on the Isle of Dogs. It means that for stretches you are barely aware that the river is one building away from you. But it does mean that the river makes a grand entrance when you do see it.

Just before St Katherine Docks we came across the Alderman Stairs – a positively Dickensian narrow staircase from the road between two buildings right down to the river. The tide was about halfway in so the Thames was splashing energetically at our feet and you could look upstream and suddenly see Tower Bridge across the water – too marvellous! You could also see how many stairs are covered in algae and take a rough guess at how high the water is at high tide – it never ceases to amaze me! Took a couple of pictures and continued our walk. Ended up shortly afterwards at St Katherine Docks – once again, if you don’t know they are there, you would never know to go and look for them. They are right beside Tower Bridge but cut off from view by the large & rather unattractive Tower Thistle Hotel.

There has been a dock on this site for over a thousand years, but the present-day docks were built in the 1820’s and were hugely successful at the time. Sadly, much of the original development was destroyed during the Blitz in WWII (all of London’s docks suffered appalling damage). The docks continued to operate commercially until their closure in 1968 and subsequently they have been developed sensitively and now contain residential and retail property as well as a yacht basin. Nothing to leave you feeling deprived like walking around there – huge yachts, beautiful apartments, lovely views of the yacht basin, restaurants bedecked with pansies & petunias – just lovely. Made a note to go back to the prettiest pub, the Dickens Inn. By this time, though, our energy was flagging so we hopped back on the DLR at Tower Gateway and headed home after a great walk through London’s history.

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