A June 2004 trip
to London by Idler
Quote: John Burns, a London politician, once declared, "I have seen the Mississippi. That is muddy water. I have seen the St. Lawrence. That is crystal water. But the Thames is liquid history." After exploring this magnificent river and its surroundings, I couldn’t agree more.
"I met my girl at Woolwich Pier, Beneath a big crane standing And oh, the love I felt for her It passed all understanding."
I’ve long loved London, but until recently I never appreciated how central the Thames is to the city. Indeed, without the river, there would be no London.
"At London Yard I held her handAt Blackwall Point I faced herAt the Isle of Dogs I kissed her mouthAnd tenderly embraced her."
On this latest trip, I realized I’m happier on the banks of the Thames than I am trooping through Westminster Abbey or watching the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace.
"From Shadwell Dock to Nine Elms ReachWe cheek to cheek were dancingHer necklace made of London BridgeHer beauty was enhancing."
I’m happier exploring the once down-and-out but now thriving communities of Docklands than I am threading my way through the crowds in Leicester Square.
"From Rotherhithe to Putney BridgeMy love I was declaring And she, from Kew to Isleworth,Her love for me was swearing"
And on a sunny day, I’d rather be sitting at riverside pub, watching boats ply the water, than anywhere else in London.
"Kissed her once again at WappingFlow, sweet river flowAfter that there was no stoppingSweet Thames, flow softly."
Great changes have taken place along the Thames over the past decade, but most striking is the transformation of the Docklands. The distinct outlines of a ‘new London’ are emerging, and the visitor who cares not only about what London was but where it’s headed should look to these revitalized areas.
Learning about London’s history enriches any visit there immensely. I’ve compiled a list of useful books on London. For background on the Thames, Michael Leapman’s London’s River: A History of the Thames is a lively account of all aspects of the river.
What I’ve come to realize with each successive trip is that a lifetime won’t suffice to fully explore this wonderful city. Yet, somehow, that thought fills me with satisfaction rather than despair.
"Swift the Thames runs to the sea, Flow, sweet river,
flow Bearing ships and part of
me, Sweet Thames, flow softly."
Don’t miss out on one of London’s most memorable experiences—relaxing over a pint at a riverside pub. Not only are many of the Thames’ historic pubs delightfully atmospheric, but they often have splendid views of the river. The Dickens Inn near Tower Bridge, the Anchor Tavern near the Globe Theatre, and the Mayflower and the Ship & Whale in Rotherhithe are just a few recommendations.
London’s Docklands have never been visitor magnets, but this is rapidly changing—and for good reason. With excellent new transportation to places such as Canary Wharf, there’s little reason not to explore these rejuvenated, less tourist-trodden areas. You might be pleasantly surprised if you do.
Canary Wharf viewed from Rotherhithe
Getting to and around riverside London has never been easier, particularly with the extension of the Jubilee Line, featuring the Underground’s newest, award-winning stations.
The Docklands Light Railway (DLR) runs from the City (Bank) and branches to both northern and southern Docklands communities. Travelcards for the London Underground are good for the DLR, provided they cover the correct zone(s). A "Rail and Rover" ticket allows unlimited travel on the DLR, as well as the City Cruises leaving from Westerminster, Waterloo, Tower, or Greenwich piers (£9).
Often overlooked by tourists, the commuter river services are excellent. Travelcard holders are offered discounts for several operators, such as the useful Thames Clippers. When a tube strike threw London’s street traffic into disarray, we simply switched over to this convenient method of getting around up and down the river.
Although transportation links are excellent, walking is the way to explore the Thames. Free maps and brochures are available at London Tourist Offices, including the lively "Walk This Way" guides, detailing several unique walks near the river. (These brochures are also available online.)
Odessa Wharf features 14 apartments in a converted brick warehouse set on the banks of the Thames. Hmmm... Rotherhithe? I had to search for it on a map of Greater London, but it was such a bargain!
I finally made a five-day booking with some trepidation. How would we get all the way out to Rotherhithe? What was that part of London like? My fears proved groundless; in fact, I’d say Odessa Wharf was the best place I’ve ever stayed in London.
The apartment (really a two-level townhouse) had two bedrooms, a spacious living room, two baths, and a fully equipped kitchen. The décor was charming, with bold colors and whimsical touches such as cricket bats and teddy bears. As a bonus, there was a spiral staircase leading up to a tiny aerie with Thames views. The two teenagers promptly staked out territory, my son claiming the Murphy bed in the living room and my niece the brightly colored bedroom on the ground floor. There were two TVs, a nifty wall-mounted music system, and plenty of room to spread out. Ahh... I immediately felt it was a great injustice that we weren’t staying there permanently.
We stocked the kitchen with inexpensive fare from a nearby Tesco’s--crumpets, juice, milk, and biscuits disappeared down teen gullets at an alarming rate. I shudder to think of what we’d have spent eating out. One evening, fellow IgoUgo guide actonsteve came to dinner, and the kids made their best effort to impress, setting the table and attending to details during the meal.
Getting to Odessa Wharf on the Jubilee Line was a snap. From the sleek new Canada Water tube station it only was a five-minute bus ride or pleasant fifteen-minute walk. There was a tube strike one day–-a perfect excuse to take the water ferry from nearby Greenland Docks to the City.
But by far the best aspect of staying at Odessa Wharf, for me, were the lovely views of the Thames. We’d been given a key to the rooftop club room/terrace, and there we’d take glasses of wine and sit watching boats ply the Thames. The river rose and fell with the tides, reminding us of our proximity to the sea. One evening after a thunderstorm, a rainbow arched over the dusky waters, shafts of sunlight illuminating the glass-faced buildings on the Isle of Dogs. This was a London I’d never known and would have missed had I not stayed at Odessa Wharf.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on January 31, 2005
7 Odessa Street
London SE16 7LY
0207 237 2277
Restaurant | "The Ship & Whale"
Neither of the kids had been to an English pub before, and the Ship & Whale was a fine introduction. It’s a classic pub with a low-beamed ceiling, gleaming bar, and wide assortment of games, both electronic and traditional. Outside, the walled garden was a choice spot to relax on our first sunny afternoon. We commandeered a table and chose lunch from the chalkboard menu.
I have to confess a weakness for traditional pub fare. There are all sorts of newfangled dishes on offer at upscale pubs these days, but I’m just as happy with cod and chips or a ploughman’s lunch. My husband and I both had the former, while the kids had chicken Caesar salads. When our food arrived, everyone goggled at the massive portions. Then, of course, we dug in.
One thing I always look forward to in Britain is having a decent pint of bitter. It’s rare to find a proper bitter in the U.S.–-the closest thing is generally an I.P.A., a poor substitute in my estimation. I ordered a pint of the pub’s best bitter, but I have to confess that I wasn’t overly impressed. The Ship & Whale is a Shepherd Neame pub, one of Britain’s oldest brewers, so I was expecting something special, but this was bitter ordinaire--a nice, full-bodied brew, but lacking a certain something. More hops? Less malt? Hard to say, but it didn’t make my all time "Best Bitter" list.
On another occasion, though, we came for an early dinner of fajitas, and I sampled another bitter which was more to my liking. Alas, I don’t remember which one, but it restored my faith in Shepherd Neame. For their part, the kids enjoyed sampling "foreign" bottled soft drinks. Greg in particular gets a big charge out of the various-sized bottles that Coke is sold in around the globe. Who’d have thought the lad could derive such satisfaction from a bottle of fizzy caramel-colored water? Chacun son gôut.
There’s a rumor that Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels at the Ship & Whale, but I seriously doubt that. The rumor probably springs from the fact that the Ship & Whale is on Gulliver Street, named after Swift’s fictional hero, who hailed from Rotherhithe. There’s some debate over whether Swift chose Rotherhithe as a suitable hometown for Gulliver because of its association with seafarers or whether, as one wit put it, because the inhabitants of Rotherhithe were "notorious for telling whopping great lies."
Whatever the case, it’s the sort of thing that can be amicably discussed over a pint (or two) on a summer’s evening, especially at a place as pleasant as the Ship & Whale.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on February 1, 2005
The Ship and Whale
2, Gulliver Street
London, England SE16 7LT
Attraction | "The Museum in Docklands"
If the Museum in Docklands were in Central London, rather than off the tourist radar in Canary Wharf, it would undoubtedly attract throngs of visitors. However, I practically had the place to myself one afternoon after strolling among the gleaming modern buildings of Canary Wharf. The old West India Dock warehouses are a poignant reminder that the mercantile torch has been passed--the sailors and dock workers now replaced by merchant bankers and stock brokers.
Canary Wharf near the Docklands Museum
Throughout the museum, I never lost the sense of being in a warehouse–-the pitch pine timbers and weathered brick were left intact wherever possible. I could imagine what the place had been like in its heyday, rich with the scent of tea and molasses. Everywhere, gleaming wood display cases and brass fittings lent a distinctly maritime feel.
The first few galleries explore the ancient Roman settlements that sprang up along the Thames and trace the growth of the city through medieval times. I found the model of medieval London Bridge of special interest–-for centuries the sole structure spanning the Thames.
There are 16 galleries in the museum, and if pressed I’d have to say that the section devoted to the fate of the East End and dock areas during World War II impressed me most. Footage from the Imperial War Museum of the burning of the docks during the Blitz was one of the most affecting things I’ve ever seen. The ferocity of the fires seemed almost incomprehensible even compared to recent apocalypses.
More peaceably, there are any number of wonderful artifacts to contemplate – wooden ships’ figureheads (including a particularly fine one representing Pocahontas), models of famous clipper ships, maps and panoramas, and all the fascinating paraphernalia of the maritime life. "Sailortown," a reconstruction of a late 18th century Billingsgate area, takes visitors through a series of dark alleys ringing with the sounds of the docks; it’s an artful piece of historical legerdemain.
The last few galleries trace the renaissance of the Docklands. I was impressed by how clearly the exhibits depicted the area’s downward spiral and rocky recovery. It filled in any number of gaps in my understanding of modern eastern London, especially the political strife that accompanied the reshaping of the Docklands.
Before leaving I peeked into the lively "Mudlarks Gallery," sure to be a hit with any visitor under the age of 12. I left at closing, wishing I’d come earlier. This museum was an unexpected pleasure.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on February 1, 2005
Museum of London Docklands
No. 1 Warehouse, West India Quay Hertsmere Road
London, England E14 4AL
+44 0870 444 3855
This was Rotherhithe as described by Charles Dickens, a vile slum set in a wretched landscape. Before coming to Rotherhithe, I confess I expected something vaguely Dickensian. Instead, I found a peaceful, almost suburban, community full of shops and terraced houses, interlaced with lovely landscaped parks and byways. Where had that industrial wasteland gone? What I came to realize after several days’ exploration of the area is that there are as many chapters to Rotherhithe’s long history as there are to a Dickens novel.
Marsh to Maritime Community
Like much of the south bank, Rotherhithe was originally a vast marsh, later protected from flooding by a river wall. It was somewhat isolated by virtue of being more or less peninsular, occupying a great sweeping bend of the Thames. Rotherhithe’s fortunes were linked to the river and by extension the sea. In fact, the old Anglo-Saxon word "hithe" meant "landing place."
Here the English fleet was fitted out for war with France in the late 14th century, and in subsequent centuries, shipbuilding and associated trades became the lifeblood of the community. England’s various wars and its expanding empire fueled the shipbuilding industry. There was stiff competition between the shipwrights on opposite sides of the Thames; those on the north bank referred those on the south as "foreigners," a term merely indicating that they were not freemen of the City of London.
One notable ship built at Rotherhithe was the 60-gun warship America, launched in 1757, while another ship, with the rather unlikely name of Carcass, went on a voyage of discovery in 1773, carrying onboard a young Horatio Nelson, who even at that early stage displayed a certain boldness and cavalier disregard for his superiors’ commands. He was reprimanded for attacking a polar bear with the butt of his empty musket -- Nelson coveted the bear’s pelt, which he thought would make a fine fur coat.
Some of the first steamships were built in Rotherhithe, as well as the very first iron ship, the Aaron Manby. Many industries associated with shipbuilding, such as iron works and the manufacture of gunpowder, also sprang up in the area. Some say, in fact, that Guy Fawkes may have gotten the gunpowder for the infamous Gunpowder Plot from Rotherhithe.
Many local pubs reflect Rotherhithe’s maritime connection, places such as The Clipper, Spice Island, Ship and Whale, and the Moby Dick. The most famous pub, however, is the Mayflower, which was originally called the Shippe. From a nearby quayside, the Mayflower set sail for Southampton in 1620, where it set out with the Speedwell on a voyage to America. The latter sprung a leak and returned to port, while The Mayflower, of course, ultimately went on. She returned to Rotherhithe in 1621, along with her captain, Christopher Jones, who was buried in St. Mary’s churchyard not far from the pub.
The Rise of the Docks
By the late 18th century, Rotherhithe was dominated by vast docks. The Howland Great Wet Dock, dug in 1696, was the largest commercial dock of its time, accommodating 120 sailing vessels. Eventually, 85% of the peninsula was devoted to docks and timber ponds, as well as a 3.5-mile canal connecting the docks to the Grand Surrey Canal. The area became known, by extension, as the Surrey Docks.
The docks’ cargo reflected the changing trade of the empire. The Howland Great Wet Dock became known as Greenland Dock when it became a base for Arctic whalers. Daniel Defoe wrote of the stink made by "the boyling of blubber into oyl," a practice which Herman Melville speculated gave whalers their reputation for foul smells. Indeed, early attempts to build high quality housing at Rotherhithe failed, as homeowners not unreasonably objected to the awful stench emanating from the docks.
Less odiferous cargo predominated by the beginning of the 19th century, with timber from northern regions and grain from Canada the chief imports. Even today the place names of Rotherhithe bear witness to this trade. The flat where we stayed, for example, was on Odessa Street, while nearby streets commemorated commercial ties with Finland, Brunswick, Quebec, and Russia. Canada Dock (now called Canada Water), Greenland Dock, South Dock, and Surrey Water are the sole remnants of the once-extensive docks, now used chiefly for recreational purposes.
The dock workers of Rotherhithe had their own slang and even modes of dress. The deal porters who unloaded timber wore special hats to facilitate carrying long planks of wood. To this day, a local dockers game called "Down the Slot" is played at the Blacksmith’s Arms on Rotherhithe Street. In Victorian times, between 50,000 to 100,000 men depended on London’s wharves and docks for livelihood, most employed on a casual rather than steady basis. Children began working on the docks at the earliest possible age in unskilled jobs condemning them to a life of poverty. Thomas Henry Huxley, visiting the area in 1870, found it remarkable that the poor of Rotherhithe did not "sally forth and plunder." Indeed, in 1889, there was a bitter strike and dock workers led daily processions into the city to demand more secure jobs and better pay. The paralyzing strike was ultimately resolved in their favor.
From Shipbuilding to Shipbreaking
By the 1830s, Rotherhithe shipbuilders faced stiff competition from shipyards in northern Britain. As this happened, some yards were turned over to ship breaking, with the remnants of the great fleet built during the Napoleonic wars making their last voyages to the breakers. The painter Turner, who was a frequent observer of Thames traffic, depicted one such scene in 1838, when HMS Temeraire, which played a vital role in the Battle of Trafalgar, was brought to Rotherhithe.
However, Rotherhithe continued to be an important center for ship repair, and in 1904, the Greenland Dock was enlarged to accommodate larger ships. During World War II, the docks played a vital role in repairing the ships that were Britain’s lifeline to the outside world. Needless to say, the docks were targeted by German bombers, with the Surrey Docks suffering the most extensive damage. Many of the warehouses were destroyed, and commercial traffic came to a virtual standstill.
A Sad Decline and Remarkable Comeback
It was not the Nazis, but the rise of container shipping that spelled the end of a way of life in Rotherhithe. Containers needed larger ships than the docks could handle, and by 1969, all the docks had closed. Following this closure, the Port of London Authority filled in most of the area’s dock waters – 423 out of 460 acres – and many of the warehouses were demolished. By the 1980s, the area was an industrial wasteland, with some 5,000 impoverished residents eking out an existence.
In stepped the LDDC, or London Docklands Development Corporation, formed to undertake the challenging task of regenerating the Docklands area. With a major infusion of capital, aided by tax incentives, and the building of vital transportation links and infrastructure, new businesses and housing sprang up. Over 5,000 new homes were built in the area, and a number of new light industries, such as the new Associated Newspapers printing plant, provided much-needed jobs and economical revitalization. Happily, in Rotherhithe, the LDDC undertook the enlightened policy of giving local residents first choice of the new houses at discounted prices.
The plans for new Rotherhithe included expanses of open area and parks, including an ecological preserve and the opening up of the riverside, which had formerly been a restricted area. Today, riverside and dockside walkways make this part of London a stroller’s paradise. Rotherhithe boasts a fine leisure and shopping center and excellent tube stations now that the Jubilee Line has been extended. It is, in short, a very pleasant place, nothing like the squalid riverside community depicted in Oliver Twist.
Near Greenland Docks Today
Still, in some ways Rotherhithe hasn’t changed: it remains a place with a distinct identity. Some locals even bristle when outsiders call the area Surrey Quays, a termed invented by developers and estate agents, who prefer the more genteel-sounding word "quays" to "docks." But the locals will have none of it and insist on calling the area by its old name, "Surrey Docks."
Strolling the quiet streets of Rotherhithe, I observed that names of the former docks now commemorate rows of tidy houses, with scant reminder of the bustling past. The industrial has given way to the residential. Yet though the day of the shipyards has gone, one can still gaze out over the Thames and watch the occasional barge making its way up the river.
But just across Westminster Bridge, past the curiously sexless stone lion (who was ‘altered’ when he was moved from his former home outside Lion Brewery, which was demolished in 1950 to make way for the Festival of Britain), and then past the gauntlet of ice-cream shops huddled at the base of the London Eye, we came to a more peaceful spot near Waterloo Bridge.
Here is a favored spot for London bibliophiles, the used booksellers beneath the bridge, with neat rows of paperbacks arranged on tables. What could be more congenial than an outdoor book market? Perhaps perusing my bargain purchase, a Penguin edition of a Hardy novel, at the café nearby. That peculiarly disjointed feeling of being at odds with the time zone is soothed by that reliable British restorative, the cup of tea.
Resuming our meanderings, we noticed a large poster announcing the "Diaspora" festival, which (luck was truly with us) was taking place that day. Better yet, the Al Ahmady Group from Yemen was about to perform on a stage set up outside the National Theatre just a few steps away.
We stretched out on the artificial turf in front the stage, and I’d just dozed off when the performance began. There was no sleeping after that, as a soulful oud player serenaded the afternoon crowd and dancers in colorful Yemeni costumes swirled to Middle Eastern rhythms.
Welcome to London, I thought to myself, home to a thousand and one cultures.
It wasn’t so long ago that the south bank of the Thames was given over to the homeless and society’s outcasts. In fact, going back to medieval times, the south bank was the stepchild of the city, a place that provided the goods and services that Londoners found too noisome or noxious to have on their doorsteps.
All the vices were catered to here: bull baiting, prostitution, gambling, drinking, not to mention that not entirely respectable pastime, theatre-going. Industries that created a stink or smoke were sited here, such as dyeing, brewing, and making gunpowder and ink. In the 19th century, the pollution-spewing power stations were chiefly built here. And at one point, some thirty tanneries were centered around a vast leather market in Bermondsey. This has long disappeared, but the street names remain: Leathermarket Street, Tanner Street, Morocco Street. Alongside the tanneries, a vinegar factory was set up, "perhaps on the principle that one strong-smelling industrial process will blot out another," in the words of Michael Leapman.
Indeed, there was a time when it was said that Bermondsey residents could find their way around the area purely by sense of smell:
"In one street strawberry jam is borne in on you in whiffs, hot and strong; in another, raw hides and tanning; in another, glue; while in some streets the nose encounters an unhappy combination of all three." (Stephen Inwood, A History of London)
But the most memorable smell, by far, was that of the Great Stink of 1858, brought on by a combination of an extremely dry summer and a very large increase in the amount of sewage going directly into the river. London’s population soared in the 19th century; in 1800 there were some one million residents, but by 1881, there were 4.5 million. Sanitary conditions were appalling, and there were devastating outbreaks of cholera, especially in riverside communities.
Add to the smell of the river the raucous shouts of that clamorous clan, the Thames watermen. The watermen were notorious for their uncouth language, cut-throat tactics, and arrogant treatment of passengers. Daniel Defoe, for example, complained of the "abusive watermen" and of the "insolences and exactions they daily commit on the river Thames."
Dr. Johnson, on the other hand, fell in with the watermen’s habit of hurling insults as they passed by rival boatmen. He recounted with some pride a barb he hurled at a passenger in another boat: "Sir, your wife, under the pretence of keeping a bawdy house, is a receiver of stolen goods." Good old Samuel Johnson, never at a loss for words.
All this to- and fro-ing across the Thames was necessary because, as mentioned above, any number of diversions (however frowned upon) and necessary commodities were located on the south bank of the river. However, for an almost incomprehensibly long time - up until the mid-18th century, in fact - there was but one bridge spanning the Thames in London. And the reason why that was the case goes back to those bullying watermen.
The watermen formed a powerful guild which, much like the NRA in today’s United States, exerted an undue influence on the nation’s governing body that worked entirely against the general public’s welfare. They lobbied vigorously against any plan to build bridges, for example, and complained bitterly when improved roads and the increase of coaching began to cut into their profits. In 1614 they sponsored a bill in Parliament to have the ‘outrageous coaches’ banned, but to little avail. They were initially successful, however, in thwarting an attempt to allow theatres to be built on the north side of the river, as ferrying theatre-goers was, of course, one of their great sources of income.
Today, looking at the Thames, it’s hard to imagine there was once so much activity on the river. However, when London Bridge was the only bridge spanning the Thames, the river was very different than it is today. In fact, the river was twice as wide and nearly fourteen feet shallower in Roman times than it is today.
The Romans, of course, were the first to build a bridge across the Thames, one of several successive wooden bridges built at the same spot. One of these was destroyed in 1014 when the Vikings attacked London, and a Norse saga details the event:
London Bridge is broken down,
Gold is won, and bright renown.
This poem was the basis of the well-known nursery rhyme, "London Bridge is fallen down."
The stone bridge that spanned the river, built in 1209 and lasting until the 18th century, also acted as a partial dam. The massive piers of the bridge affected the flow of the river, the tidal action so impeded that during exceptionally cold winters the river froze over, allowing ‘frost fairs’ to be held on the Thames.
The river became narrower as progressive generations reclaimed land from the mud flats, and particularly after the building of the three Thames embankments, those magnificent feats of Victorian engineering that solved the metropolis’ sewage problem and gave it a new underground line, all in one fell swoop.
When Parliament finally overcame the lobbying efforts of the watermen and yielded to public pressure to relieve traffic by building a bridge at Westminster, it set off a great epoch of bridge building. Westminster Bridge, originally built in 1750, was followed quickly by Blackfriars Bridge (1769) and Battersea Bridge (1772). The age of the railways saw a virtual explosion of bridge building, many to accommodate trains or situated near railway stations. Then in the mid-19th century, the inventive father and son team of Marc and Isambard Kingdom Brunel succeeded in building the first tunnel under the Thames after a harrowing construction process fraught with numerous setbacks.
By the time the "Mad Major," RAF pilot Christopher Draper, attempted to fly under all the Thames bridges in 1953 to protest the government’s treatment of war veterans, there were 18 of them. (He succeeded in flying under 15 and was promptly arrested and fined ten guineas.)
Today, a pilot would have an even more challenging stunt to attempt. With the construction of the Millennium Bridge and the addition of pedestrian bridges on either side of the Hungerford Railway Bridge, the two sides of the river are connected as never before. Pedestrian traffic flows easily from St. Paul’s to the Tate Modern or from Trafalgar Square to the Royal Festival Hall.
That first jet-lagged afternoon we made our way at a leisurely pace up to London Bridge and back, but we returned each day to stroll different parts of the Thames pathway, exploring places we’d neglected in the past or getting reacquainted with riparian pleasures we’d forgotten. The revitalized waterfront is now one of London’s great public amenities, and visitors and Londoners alike are discovering that the Thames, far from being the "dirty, old river" of the famous Kinks song, is now one of the most congenial and wholesome places in the city.
(Click on the map below right for a diagram of Thames Crossings.)
The docks were indeed engineering and commercial marvels. Nineteenth century London was the richest city in the world, its wealth chiefly derived from overseas trade. It was an age of seemingly limitless expansion, accompanied by a succession of wet docks moving progressively eastward along the river. It began with the digging of the Great Howland Dock in 1697, but expansion truly picked up pace in the 19th century with the construction of eight major dock areas, continuing into the twentieth century with the King George V Dock built in 1921.
Cutting across the base of the great thumb of land lying west of Blackwell Reach, the West India Docks effectively made the Isle of Dogs just that – an island. Swing bridges, dock gates, and walls erected to prevent theft from warehouses made public transportation to the docks sparse, adding to the sense of isolation and ‘otherness’ of local residents. Geographically isolated from the rest of London, the docks stretched for eight miles east of Tower Bridge. It was, as Verlaine hinted, practically a universe unto itself.
But then came the worldwide switch to container shipping, which required deeper harbors for larger vessels and easy access to highways, both of which the docks lacked. As historian Michael Leapman notes, London’s role as a major international port ended "with astonishing suddenness." In 1964, the docks handled a record-breaking 61 million tons of cargo, but just a few years later the West India Dock closed, rapidly followed by the London Docks, St. Katherine Docks, and the greater part of the Surrey Commercial Docks. By 1970, the once vibrant docklands had become an industrial wasteland.
The question was, what could be done with over five thousand acres of abandoned dock areas, almost half filled with water?
The most westerly of the docks, St. Katharine’s, was soon converted into offices, shops, a hotel, and a marina. With its prime location near the Tower of London, this complex was an immediate success. The cost of real estate in London proved to be the spur to redeveloping other dock areas. Rupert Murdock, for one, decided that the operating costs of his newspapers based in Fleet Street were too high, and thus the exodus of London’s printing plants to Wapping and Rotherhithe began.
At the same time, a few urban pioneers began to convert old warehouses into apartments, capitalizing on the magnificent views of the river. However, though various committees and consultants made suggestions, there was no central plan for Docklands, and the land in the public sector was owned by disparate entities such as the Port of London Authority, British Rail, and local councils.
This piecemeal supervision ended in 1981, when the London Docklands Development Corporation was formed. Most of the area was declared exempt from property taxes between 1982 and 1992, and generous incentives were set up to attract investors and developers.
One worrisome obstacle to the revitalization of the area was its isolation. Lacking decent transportation links, any plan to develop Docklands was doomed to failure. Over the next decade, the building of the Docklands Light Railway, the extension of the Jubilee Line, and the construction of a regional airport addressed this need, along with several major new roads and additional ferry routes on the river.
Lest I give the impression that the resurgence of the Docklands was one unimpeded triumphal march, I should mention that there was and perhaps to some extent still is considerable resistance to various schemes to develop the area. For one thing, local residents objected being excluded from the planning, and in one memorable protest released sheep and bees at the groundbreaking ceremony for Canary Wharf. The protestors wanted to draw attention to the fact that few jobs would be created for local residents – and they succeeded in making their point.
Other difficulties concerned financing. In the case of Canary Wharf, the original arrangement fell apart when various partners disagreed over how to share costs. Shortly afterward, the project was taken over by a Canadian company, Olympia and York. Mindful of the necessity of taking local concerns into account, this group had better PR but again ran aground financially as the world property market collapsed in the early nineties. Delays in developing the Jubilee Line extension also compounded the project’s problems. It seemed that Canary Wharf was doomed to become a white elephant, a cluster of vainglorious buildings standing half empty by the water. The project once again changed hands, bought in 1995 by an international consortium.
It was the completion of the Jubilee Line, jumpstarted by ambitious plans for the Millennium celebration, which helped put Canary Wharf back on track. In 1993, the working population of Canary Wharf was around 7,000, but by 1997 it had grown to 21,000, rising to over 64,000 by 2004. This increase reflected not just the success of Canary Wharf but also the strengthened role of London as a financial center, now handling approximately one-third of the world’s financial dealings.
A view of Canary Wharf from Rotherhithe
It also had something to do with the "Big Bang" in 1986, which converted the Stock Exchange into the International Stock Exchange, allowing the merging of banking and brokerage firms, eliminating fixed commissions, and introducing electronic trading. With over 600,000 people employed in London in banking and allied services, suffice it to say that the City of London alone could not handle the explosive growth following the "Big Bang." Many new enterprises and branches of existing firms moved to Canary Wharf, which has been dubbed a "mini Manhattan."
Predictably, with some of the biggest names in finance concentrated in one area, Canary Wharf soon drew the sort of attention it would rather not. In 1996, the IRA bombed a garage near Canary Wharf Tower, killing two and wounding 100. Just last November, the London press featured a story that MI5 had foiled a plan by al-Qaeda to fly airplanes into Canary Wharf Tower, although specific knowledge of a planned attack was denied by the government.
Alighting at the Canary Wharf tube station on a sunny June afternoon, I felt much like Verlaine did when he first viewed the docks. Some of the world’s leading architects and designers had a hand in creating Canary Wharf, and the futuristic Underground station was recently voted "London’s favorite tube station." Outside the station, a central area with a corridor of green space is flanked by modern office buildings, including a trio of skyscrapers with the 800-foot pyramid-topped Canary Wharf Tower in the center. (When Prince Charles was shown Cesar Pelli’s plans for the tower, he characteristically remarked, "But why does it have to be so tall?")
I strolled through the lunchtime crowds gathering at outdoor cafes, making my way to the plaza at Cabot Place, a fine place to watch people pass by. I felt like a lone tourist adrift in a world of purposeful business people, but as I’ve never aspired to be either purposeful or business-like this was something I relished rather than felt self conscious about.
After strolling over a graceful floating bridge spanning a former dock, I made my way along a section of old warehouses converted to trendy shops, restaurants, and a museum. After visiting the Museum in Docklands and making a few inquiries there about recommended sights, I hopped on the Docklands Light Railway. As the sleek elevated train snaked through the area, I glimpsed new projects rising alongside Canary Wharf, with immense cranes and other signs of ambitious construction.
Getting off the train at Island Garden, I walked to the waterfront. There’s a fine view across the Thames of Sir Christopher Wren’s handsome Royal Naval College flanking the Queen’s House, but an even better view is gained by crossing the Thames on foot. No Biblical powers are required as there happens to be a foot tunnel running under the river here. It was somewhat spooky walking through the nearly deserted tunnel, my footsteps echoing down the yellow-tiled and somewhat claustrophobic tunnel, but I exited safely on the other side of the Thames at Greenwich, just next to the Cutty Sark. After admiring her elegant lines, I walked through Greenwich Park up to the Old Royal Observatory at the summit of the hilltop.
By then the sun was low in the horizon, but I had a splendid panorama of a good part of Greenwich, the Docklands, and the City further beyond. From this faraway vantage point, the din of the city was inaudible, yet I knew just a short distance up the River Thames, that liquid heart of the great metropolis, London awaited.