ROUND TOWER A walk around the edge of Tower Hamlets
4) Island Gardens → Limehouse(2½ miles) [21 photos]
The western rim of the Isle of Dogs is part of the Thames Path, indeed from here to Teddington this National Trail can be followed on both sides of the river. The Thames is quite wide at this point, and not at its most exciting as it sweeps past Rotherhithe and Deptford. As such today's walk may have more to excite estate agents than sightseers, but bear with me, it has its moments. [map]
Island Gardens, at the foot of the Isle of Dogs, is also the point where the perimeter road changes its name from Manchester to Westferry. The riverside was once lined with berths and cranes: sequentially Midland Wharf, Livingstone Wharf, Felstead Wharf, Parry's Wharf, Locke's Wharf... and that's just the next 200 metres. It's all housing now, of course, plus one very 70s boathouse built on top of the terminus of the London and Blackwall Railway. The Ferry House claims to be the oldest pub on the island, although the building's changed a lot since 1722, and local residents are possibly more tempted by the Thai cocktail bar on the foreshore. From here the bend of the river is clearly seen, with Maritime Greenwich now fading into the distance and the occasional Thames Clipper or speedboat zipping through. Focus your eyes on the water here, because that's where all the interest is.
Exit from Tower Hamlets: Masthouse Terrace pier
Except Burrells Wharf is rather nice, as converted ironworks go. This residential cluster was once a shipyard, and it was here that the heaviest ship of the 19th century was built, Isambard Kingdom Brunel's SS Great Eastern. Clad in iron, this six-masted transatlantic liner was so long that it had to be launched sideways, a groundbreaking approach which nearly bankrupted its manufacturers. A sizeable chunk of the 1858 slipway remains, laid out as a wedge of parallel low wooden beams, adding a little wow factor to proceedings on the promenade. The other sight of note is across the water, the enormous iron-roofed Olympia Warehouse, part of the historic Deptford Dockyard and about the only building due to be retained when the whirlwind of residential redevelopment finally hits. Oh, and the City looks impressive from here, don't you think?
Before long the riverside housing on the Tower Hamlets bank becomes too self-important and the Thames Path is diverted back inland. This provides a useful opportunity to be reminded that there's another community here, living in former dockers terraces rather than modern highrise stacks. The fabulous building that looks like a brick pumping station is in fact a church, or was until 1989 when it was taken over by a community theatre called The Space (patron Sir Ian McKellen). Ahead the far end of Millwall Outer Dock abuts the main road, on which canoes and yachts are often seen, although for landlubbers the watersports centre blocks the view. And alongside is the huge West Ferry printworks, where the Telegraph, Express and Star used to be printed until Richard Desmond sold up in 2009, hence a printworks of the same name now graces an industrial estate in Luton.
It's a relief to eventually slip back to the river, beneath the silver and bronze turrets of New Atlas Wharf. Seven windmills once stood on the waterside along this stretch, hence the name 'Millwall'. The mills disappeared in the early 19th century, replaced by factories and workshops, whose owners eventually got tired of residents walking along the embankment so the right of way was sealed off. Only in the 1960s was a park laid out between declining wharves, reconnecting residents to the river, and now the Thames Path runs all the way. Major housing developments are named after the industrial features they replaced (Ocean Wharf), or else given aspirational names (Millennium Harbour, the Cascades) to make them sound less like interconnected boxes. Some quite peculiar apartment blocks with portholes and funnels now grace the shore, as was early Docklands' habit. But look out for one nod to a more humble past, a plaque commemorating 40 people killed by a direct hit on a bomb shelter at Bullivants Wharf (of which, more here).
Exit from Tower Hamlets: Jubilee line
After a good four miles my walk has finally returned to the neck of the island, the narrow strip across the top of Docklands where the towers of Canary Wharf reign supreme. To enter the promised land requires crossing a narrow channel, once the Lower Limehouse entrance to the great South Dock, now sealed by a strategically critical pumping station. A huge tract of land to the south of Westferry Circus remains somehow undeveloped, despite being prime skyscraper territory, and of considerable commercial interest. Investment bank J.P. Morgan & Co. are the current owners of the Riverside South site, which they flattened several years ago in readiness for building a new twin towered HQ, but then moved to new offices in the City instead. At least they've reopened a footpath along the river, saving a major detour, but it's a desolate slog.
Exit from Tower Hamlets: Canary Wharf Pier
Canary Riverside is not my kind of London. Options for financial workers at leisure include three waterside terrace restaurants (attempting atmosphere by erecting box hedges), a large hotel and a Virgin Active Health Club. If it weren't for the Thames Path, and the chance to catch a clipper from Canary Wharf pier, I'd be more than happy to avoid this commercially bland cultural vacuum. But I've always loved the balconies at Dundee Wharf, arranged in a tapered iron tower, and accessed via walkways from the flats with the best river views. Alongside is the short inlet of Limekiln Wharf, where quicklime was produced in medieval times and porcelain in the 17th century. Very much a silted sleepy backwater, it's hard to imagine that the Limehouse Link (the most expensive mile of road tunnel in Britain) runs directly underneath.