diamond geezer

 Monday, August 10, 2015

A walk around the edge of Tower Hamlets
Blackwall → Island Gardens
(2 miles) [18 photos]

A walk around the Isle of Dogs anyone? The perimeter trail doesn't appear on many tourist itineraries, which is odd because this Thames meander forms possibly the most iconic physical representation of the city of London. Even the Thames Path gives up halfway round and crosses to the southern bank, abandoning Tower Hamlets in favour of Maritime Greenwich. On this section of my walk I'm going to follow the ignored eastern half of the peninsula, through Cubitt Town, which is less blocked off (and I'd say more interesting) than the more popular west. [map]

I'm starting this section of the walk at the entrance to Blackwall Basin, located roughly where the Thames finally turns to bend east. This broad channel, opened in 1802, was once the entrance to the West India Docks and thus an exceptionally important conduit for trade. The West India Dock Company dealt in sugar and spice, and many a transatlantic sailing would have ended with a ship's passage into the basin, then on to be unloaded where the Canary Wharf development now stands. The entrance's hasty construction led to numerous problems over the years, eventually being trumped by an entrance further south and falling into disrepair. Thirty years ago all waterborne access was sealed off by the island's main ring road, and today the channel is lined by lacklustre lowrise housing. But you can still walk across the gates by the river (from which the view inland is excellent), and then head out onto a restored pier overlooking the O2 (from which the view might just be better).

A brief treat follows, through one of the few remaining pockets of 18th century maritime buildings on the island. Coldharbour is a narrow kinked and cobbled street off the main drag, with period houses that back immediately onto the Thames (and are thus visible from that pier I mentioned). Two Dock Official's houses survive, each with full-height bay windows to make it easier to watch the ships, while Admiral Nelson is reputed to have stayed at Nelson House during a fleet refit (although that may just be a story). Charles Dickens definitely enjoyed a drink at The Fishing Smack, alas now demolished, but today's ale-lovers should still be able to get a pint (or a posh gastromeal) at The Gun, the almost-extremely-old pub on the corner. Compared to what's coming next, Coldharbour is Tower Hamlets at its most enchanting.

Exit from Tower Hamlets: Jubilee line

A massive lifting bridge spans the entrance to the South Dock, this still the main access to the chain of waterways on the island. Three tall cranes have been preserved as reminders of the past, but the immediate future is even taller flats, especially at Wood Wharf, the next intensive phase of Docklands' commercial-friendly expansion. A first outlier is the Dollar Bay tower, where even a tiny one bedroom studio will set you back over half a million pounds, currently rising above the back of the small Ladbrokes on Manchester Road. Indeed this crossing into Cubitt Town marks the point where the Isle of Dogs changes from bankers' playground to communal backwater, because the social housing got in first, well before riverside living became the prerogative of the wealthy.

The path heads back to the riverside here, though initially not in friendly terms: CCTV in operation, no fishing, and strictly no loitering. The fa├žade of the Isle of Dogs Pumping Station comes as a jokey surprise - part classical, part children's playground - with vivid fins atop thick brick columns, and an extractor fan winking out like a Cyclops' eye. Ahead is the Samuda Estate, one of the GLC's very first estates, consisting of four and six-storey blocks, plus a 25-floor stack of maisonettes called Kelson House. The neighbourly spirit here is evident, and will hopefully survive the complete redevelopment of the riverside quarter into five bland stacks, currently at early partial-knockdown stage. In the meantime a lengthy inland diversion is required, through the heart of a community enduring forced evolution.

Next, a beach! A long strip of sand runs along the foreshore by Amsterdam Road, easily (and properly) accessed down a parallel set of steps. Its presence made sense when this eastern shoreline was all wharves and industry (as today's entire walk used to be), while now it's simply a top recreational amenity for those who live close by and others in the know. A couple of families were taking advantage as I walked by, but buckets and spades seemed essentially unnecessary. The view's not bad either, namely the whole of the western side of the North Greenwich peninsula from the Dome down to almost Greenwich. One day that'll all be luxury highrise and yacht terminal, a fate this Isle of Dogs borderline summarily avoided, but for now it's the far shore which appears desolate and underdeveloped.

As Blackwall Reach bends round, the housing facing the Thames has a more 1980s feel, providing many fortunate residents with the chance to live on the river. One run of Dutch-style townhouses is blessed with pergolas out front, draping the waterside path with trailing greenery, in a brief splash of architectural personality. An information panel explains that this is Saunders Ness, a marshy foreland originally stabilised by a bank of earth and stones before industry moved in during the 1840s. There is a brief return to the interior at Newcastle Draw Dock, the pub at the far end once the Newcastle Arms, then the Watermans Arms - it appears in the film The Long Good Friday. Once a mainstay of the Island's working class community, it's now the Great Eastern and does Sunday Roasts and Craft Beers, because doesn't everywhere?

The management of the Luralda Wharf development go to great pains to remind walkers that they're only here under sufferance, and technically barred between 11pm and 10am, such is the nature of private public space. And this leads through to Island Gardens, the attractive strip of parkland at the foot of the peninsula, and which gives the adjacent DLR station its name. Still a popular place to sit or sprawl, there are also two refreshment opportunities, one the official council cafe, the other a smaller kiosk by the entrance to the Foot Tunnel. And this is your escape to Maritime Greenwich beneath the Thames, should you choose to enter its Stygian depths and dodge the tourists, the pushbikers, and the naughty cyclists who pretend not to read the signs. What these tourists make of Island Gardens I'm not sure, but its finest feature is probably the view back towards whence they came.

Exit from Tower Hamlets: Greenwich Foot Tunnel, DLR

» today's 18 photos; 214 photographs from the whole walk; slideshow
» Map of the boundary of Tower Hamlets; map of my walk
» step on to section 4 »

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