Every year at about this time I do a long ramble across London. Usually I head out from home, stick my nose generally in one direction or another and see what I stumble across. Today's was a touch more organised - a trip to Limehouse and Blackwall on the north side of the Thames flanking the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf. Come with me!
From Mile End tube, a short cut down the wonderfully named Eric Street through a very Bengali corner of the East End. Travel shops advertise flights on Bangladesh's Biman Airways - London-Sylhet return for £525.
I resisted the temptation to call at Rocky's for a quick trim - or indeed at the neighbouring corner shop, Amin's Hamlet Express. This area is not always quite as soothing as I found it this afternoon. A web search reveals a news story about a clash here last year between rival machete- and knife-wielding Asian gangs.
Burdett Road takes you across the Limehouse Cut, a canal of eighteenth century origin that links the Lee navigation to the Thames. Its main contemporary claim to fame - it was along the Limehouse Cut that David Beckham travelled by motor boat with the Olympic flame as part of the 2012 opening jamboree.
At the end, turn right on to Commercial Road and there are two of Limehouse's most impressive public buildings - the Town Hall built in the 1880s, long superfluous as a seat of local government, and now distincly forlorn. In 1909, the Liberal Chancellor David Lloyd George made a fiery speech here in defence of the People's Budget and denouncing the House of Lords for trying to block it. 'Limehousing' was a term subsequently used for particularly strongly worded or polemical political oratory - one of two Limehouse usages in the political lexicon (keep on reading for the other).
Next to the Town Hall, the elegant Hawksmoor-designed St Anne's, consecrated in 1730 - and, sadly, chained and locked even on a Sunday afternoon.
From there, down Newell Street and Three Colts Street to the magic of Narrow Street which backs on to the Thames - the best known street in this part of London and deservedly so.
The wharf frontages are splendid - a relic of the area's industrial past, and almost too well conserved to be entirely convincing. The other side of these one-time wharves front a Thames creek - which at low tide, as it was when I walked by this afternoon, is an unappetising amalgam of mud, shingle and washed-up rubbish.
On the western end of the street is a row of stunning Georgian residential buildings alongside The Grapes, which claims even greater antiquity. The pub's hugely atmospheric interior, first floor dining room and terrace make it one of the most unmissable of riverside drinking spots.
And that other political coinage of Limehouse? The Limehouse Declaration of January 1981 - issued from David Owen's home in Narrow Street in the name of the 'Gang of Four' (the others were Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and William Rodgers) and signalling their intention to split from the Labour Party. The Social Democratic Party was established two months later and was for a while a power in the land, but by the end of the 1980s most Social Democrats had merged with the Liberals and those that held out as a separate SDP were a marginalised rump.
From Narrow Street, along the Thames Path, Canary Wharf is only a few minutes away. It has a certain architectural majesty - that may not be a fashionable view, but there you go.
My mission, though, was to navigate through the high rise maze to the other side of the Isle of Dogs. To reach Blackwall, a district now condemned to being known for the Tunnel and little else. This was once a centre of shipbuilding on the Thames - and ship repairs were conducted right down to the 1980s. I remember visiting many years ago a street called Coldharbour, parallel to the Thames, a last vestige of Victorian and earlier riverside housing. Was it still there?
As I headed east from Canary Wharf, scouring for a way out, a security guard asked if he could help. 'Coldharbour? It's years since anyone's asked for that.' Although I was within quarter-of-a-mile as the crow flies, he had to radio to ask for directions. This little enclave of riverine London is spitting distance from Canary Wharf but sealed off from it by dock basins, new developments, and sturdy boundary walls.
So Coldharbour is not easy to get to on foot from the financial district but, yes, it has survived - with modest late Victorian terraced housing and a handful of grander, earlier, buildings. The Gun, which claims a history stretching back 250 years, has been through a terrible fire since last I visited and was closed for three years. But it's reborn, now up-market, and still with a natty riverside terrace at a bend in the Thames opposite The Dome. It offers spectacular views ... as you can see.
Delighted to be reacquainted with Coldharbour, I had no great desire to walk any further. So I jumped on a bus which decanted me at a place I have never been before, never knew existed - All Saints in Poplar.
The church was built in the 1820s, so it's later than St Anne's and doesn't have a resonant name such as Hawksmoor attached to it. But it is an imposing structure with a delicate needle-style steeple - though, as with St Anne's, it was padlocked shut. What a pity!
From there, I jumped on a bus heading to town. Along East India Dock Road I noticed a street sign, Canton Street - half-a-dozen street names are about the only indication that Limehouse was London's first Chinatown. I remember going for a Chinese meal more than thirty years ago at a restaurant opposite St Anne's - a self-proclaimed survival from the initial Chinese settlement. It's gone now.
But from the top deck of the bus , I spotted a sign on a side street: 'Chun Yee Society: Chinese School on Sundays'. An internet search suggests this is indeed a remnant of the earlier Chinatown. I love such unexpected reminders of London's past - I didn't have time to whip out my camera, but I've taken this photo from the 'net.
Thanks for accompanying me on my tour of this stretch of the Thames and the old East End. Do come again!
Towards Gallions Reach
To the farthest reaches of Docklands in the past week - and the University of East London's Docklands campus. It lies well beyond Canning Town, not far off Beckton. A windswept spot on the north side of the vast Royal Albert Dock, which opened in 1880 - with a full three miles of quays - and closed about a century later.
The photo above, taken from the campus and looking west and south, shows the old Silvertown Tate and Lyle plant (there's a close-up below), the focus of a marvellous piece of oral history The Sugar Girls, and to its right, City Airport, also on the south side of the Albert dock. In the distance you can just make out the Dome and the towers of Canary Wharf.
UEL's campus is adjoining the Cyprus station on the Docklands Light Railway. I was told that the station was named after the Cyprus dock. Not quite.
The station took its name from a Victorian housing estate, the Cyprus estate, built for workers at the Royal Albert Dock, and in turn named after Britain's acquisition of the Mediterranean island of Cyprus in 1878.
These pages from a 1917 London street map - with a close-up above - show just how isolated the Cyprus estate must have been. Even thirty years after the docks opened, it was a few streets in the middle of nowhere. The dock opened into the Thames at Gallions, and Gallions Reach is the name of a DLR station lying between Cyprus and Beckton, the end of the line.
Andrew Whitehead's blog
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