diamond geezer

 Saturday, August 15, 2015

A walk around the edge of Tower Hamlets
Limehouse → the Tower
(2½ miles) [21 photos]

Here's the section of Tower Hamlets' boundary you're most likely to have walked. The Thames Path from Canary Wharf to the Tower forms a popular riverside stroll, or would do if the path hugged the riverside a bit more. Instead there are lengthy diversions through the older parts of Limehouse and Wapping... but when the panoramas open up, they're excellent. [map]

Welcome to Narrow Street. It used to be narrower, especially in Elizabethan times when hundreds of mariners first moved in and opposite houses almost touched. One survivor from this period is The Grapes, a suitably narrow pub resplendent with hanging baskets, and part-owned by local resident Sir Ian McKellen (who might be present should you ever nip inside). These days the oldest houses tend to be Georgian, there's a long terrace of these near the end of Ropemaker's Fields, but much of the other housing is built on former wharves. Partway along is the exit from Limehouse Basin, now a marina for wealthier boat owners, where a swingbridge rotates to let loose any masted craft. And that gastropub overlooking the Thames is The Narrow, one of Gordon Ramsey's stable, where the riverside path allows you to peer in at what all the diners are having. It's probably reheated.

The restaurant lies directly opposite the tip of the Rotherhithe peninsula, so there's a fine view in both directions along a great bend of the Thames. Rotherhithe itself looks rather featureless, but that's because almost its housing was built before luxury highrise was the norm, so I'll take that relative dullness as a good thing. This riverside spell is brief, before returning to one of Narrow Street's more lifeless sections (look, they have Italian restaurants and drycleaners) before returning to the river. This thankfully is an extended stretch, but the last of these, so best make the most. Here two converted warehouses have been named "The Listed Building" by unimaginative developers - both were originally used by the East India Company to house saltpetre. Free Trade Wharf nextdoor is rather more memorable, a huge irregular stack of overlapping brick balconies, but all gated off because its residents are sensitive like that. Meanwhile a large wooden pier survives alongside, its boardwalk temptingly extensive, but sadly sealed for reasons of safety.

King Edward Memorial Park is the only public open space along this entire walk, opened in 1922 by George V and Queen Mary on the site of an old fishmarket. It boasts tennis courts and a bandstand, even a bowling green, plus a much loved panorama from the promenade. Unfortunately the park is under immediate threat from the Thames Tunnel, a multi billion pound sewage conduit beneath the river, and plans require the building of a shaft (for four years) on the foreshore. Local residents are furious at the disruption, so much so that Thames Water have had to amend their plans slightly and extend the park into the Thames on top of the shaft once they've finished. Meanwhile the Rotherhithe Tunnel already passes underneath, and already has a shaft, but everyone seems to like that because it's ornate and properly Edwardian.

Exit from Tower Hamlets: Rotherhithe Tunnel

At this point in my walk I checked my phone and discovered that I'd been walking uninterrupted for ten miles, so paused on a bench for a well-earned rest. At the time I had no idea precisely how much further there was to go, but it turned out that this was the halfway point, so the good news is there's only the same amount again to go.

The Thames Path emerges onto Shadwell Basin, where kids at the Outdoor Activity Centre might be out on the water learning to sail or canoe. The basin is the last surviving remnant of the London Docks, at the turn of the 18th century the closest docks to the City. Most of the land between here and Tobacco Dock became housing in the 1970s, while half of the Western Dock was later transformed into Rupert Murdoch's Fortress Wapping. As for the hydraulic pumping station beside the bascule bridge, that became a gallery/restaurant called the Wapping Project, alas closed a couple of years back after a handful of irritable neighbours complained about the noise. They probably live in some of the expensive converted warehouses along the waterfront, of which there are many, as this part of town gentrified decades before other now trendier quarters.

If you follow the signs, and know where to look, the Thames Path occasionally manages to slip back briefly to the Thames. There's one decent loop at the top of Wapping High Street, but the rest are generally accessed through time-barred gates and occasionally prove to be dead ends. However at one point I'm fortunate enough to be beside the river when something extraordinary happens... the Woolwich Ferry passes by! Its proper place is normally several miles downstream, but once a year it hosts a party on deck for disadvantaged children, complete with ice cream van and cheesy music. It's a joyful and unexpected sight, and I'll be catching up with them again later.

Exit from Tower Hamlets: London Overground (Thames Tunnel)

Wapping station marks the point where the original Thames Tunnel crosses the river, this a groundbreaking project overseen by the Brunels circa 1840, and now carrying the London Overground over to Rotherhithe and beyond. Ahead the high street is narrow and occasionally cobbled, a particular struggle when two buses meet, and lined by a mix of megawharf apartments and more mundane flats. Two of Wapping's three historic sailors' taverns are along this stretch, the Captain Kidd and The Town of Ramsgate, while inbetween (in two parts) are the Met's waterborne police station and maintenance yard. Meanwhile the two beautiful rows of townhouses overlooking lush gardens were once either side of the entrance to Wapping Basin, now filled in. So much of Wapping is so wildly heritageworthy that I feel sorry for rushing through.

At last rights of way allow me back to the river, revealing how close I suddenly am to the Pool of London and to Tower Bridge. As I wander past banks of shiny luxury apartments I spot the Woolwich Ferry again, waiting patiently ahead of the Gothic crossing for its set time to come around. A few other strollers have worked out what's about to happen and have their cameras trained on the roadway, expectantly, as the traffic is stopped and pedestrians hold back. It may not happen often, but for the benefit of the big boat blaring out Bucks Fizz the two halves slowly lift, and every foreign tourist within sight gets wildly excited. For the next minute they have the jackpot view, an iconic shot they'll be able to circulate worldwide, until the ferry slips through and normality swiftly returns.

» today's 21 photos; 214 photographs from the whole walk; slideshow
» Map of the boundary of Tower Hamlets; map of my walk
» step on to section 6 »

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