Wapping and the old London Docks
The Viewing Platform
You should now be standing outside the the viewing platform, which is near the Tower Hill underground station, and over-looking the Tower of London.
Today we will walk through the former London Docks, constructed in Wapping in 1805. The docks were closed in 1969, but many of the former wharves and warehouses have been preserved and converted into modern apartments. This ancient village which stretches between the Tower of London and Limehouse has always been associated with seafarers. They tended to live a life apart from the rest of London, although in the eighteenth century the 36 pubs along the riverfront attracted many visitors.
Now let me explain how VoiceMap works. It uses your location to play commentary automatically. I’ll give you directions to keep you on track, so you can just put your phone away and focus on your surroundings.
Let me introduce myself: My name is Brian Cookson. I spent all my working life in London, but until the 1980s the area east of Tower Bridge was largely inaccessible to the public as the London Docks were being closed down and redeveloped. After retirement I qualified as a London Blue Badge Guide and am now fascinated by all the history and sights to be found in the former docklands.
Now, we’re going to get started. If you’re facing the Tower of London, turn right and walk down the steps from the viewing platform. Once at the bottom of the steps, turn left.
Under the Underpass
Now turn left to walk down the ramp, and cross under Tower Hill Road via the underpass.
Tower of London
As you emerge from the underpass, you have a good view of the Tower of London and its moat.
Veer left to walk alongside it, on the pedestrian path, keeping the tower on your right.
William the Conqueror built the original 'White Tower' in the 11th Century. This is the central structure which was surrounded by outer walls and towers by later monarchs. Here many famous people were imprisoned and executed, including Anne Boleyn, Sir Thomas Moore and Lady Jane Grey.
Today, people visit the site to see several of the towers, which have historical reconstructions from different periods of history, as well as the execution block and the Crown Jewels. The moat was drained in the 19th Century due to pollution. It was famously filled with red ceramic poppies in 2014 to commemorate all the members of the armed services killed in the First World War of 1914-1918.
Just keep walking along the path until you reach a tunnel.
To St Katharine's Dock
Now go under the tunnel. You will pass several murals describing the history of St Katherine's Dock. I will tell you a bit more about this later. At the end of the tunnel, turn right immediately.
Right between Bridge and Building
Turn right now, to walk between the bridge and the large glass building.
Turn left here and keep going, with the dock basin on your right.
St Katharine's Dock
Stop here while I tell you about St Katherine's Dock.
Thomas Telford constructed the dock in 1828. The name St. Katherine's comes from the twelfth century religious foundation, which has always been under the patronage of the current Queen. The foundation provided refuge for a community of poor people. It was relocated in 1825 when the dock was built here, but it still exists in Limehouse. The aim of this dock was to take business from the earlier docks that were constructed to the east, further from the City of London. Unfortunately the railways were built soon afterwards, and so it was more convenient to unload cargoes further downstream, where there was rail access. So ships didn't come all the way up to the Tower Bridge area, and the enterprise was not successful. It was soon taken over by the London Dock Company.
St. Katherine's was the first to close after the collapse of the docks in the 1970s, and the first to be converted to modern use - in this case a marina. As you stand facing the dock basin, look behind you to your right up to the entrance gates. You’ll see an elephant on the side of the gates, reminding you that this was once the centre of the ivory trade in London. The demand for ivory was very high as every lady was expected to play the piano in Victorian times.
Now, look to your left to the centre of the dock. Can you see the yellow brick building with prominent clock towers? That’s the Ivory House. This is the only original warehouse left, now converted for leisure use.
Go underneath the Ivory House to emerge at a second dock basin with more boats.
To the Coronarium
Turn right and walk to the round building ahead.
The cast iron columns of this round building, now a cafe, were originally supporting columns of the warehouses of the former docks. They have been painted white. You can keep walking now.
Take the first left here to walk around the dock, keeping it on your left.
Many impressive boats are moored here. There are modern luxury yachts, and if you’re lucky you might see several traditional Thames Sailing Barges. These used to sail up the Thames with cargoes of hay and other goods, and could be controlled by a man and a boy. They still occasionally sail the Thames, and are a magnificent sight on a sunny day.
Left over the bridge
Turn left to walk over the bridge.
St Katharine's Dock entrance
Stop here and look at the lock gates by the river to your right.
They control the water levels so that ships can enter and leave the dock. Except at high tide, the water level of the dock is considerably higher than that of the Thames. In fact the difference in the level of the Thames between high and low tide is over six metres. The fine yellow brick house just by the river on the other side of the lock gates is the original Dock master's house, designed by the architect Philip Hardwick, who also designed Euston Station.
Now, let’s carry on across the bridge. The road forks here. Take the red brick road down the hill.
Walk to Tower Bridge Wharf
Now, branch right and continue along St Katherine's Way.
To the River
Turn right down this path, and follow the riverside walkway. Follow the sign for the Thames Path.
Tower Bridge Wharf
Here you have fine views of Tower Bridge from the less familiar eastern side, as well as Shad Thames on the South Bank. Stop to take it in.
Over there the former warehouses have been converted to leisure and residential use. Terence Conran's famous Pont de la Tour restaurant is more or less opposite you. The inland basin you see to the left of the Design Museum is the mouth of the River Neckinger, which has been largely covered over except for the small stretch you can see.The name comes from the 'Devil's Neckinger', or noose used to hang pirates in the old days.
Turn left at the end of the walkway to return to St Katherine's Way.
Go onto Hermitage Basin
Now branch right down Wapping High Street.
The green space on your right is the Hermitage Riverside Memorial Garden. Developers had tried to use this derelict land to build luxury apartment blocks, but local people objected. Instead they persuaded the authorities to force the developers to construct a park, commemorating Wapping inhabitants killed in the two world wars. The modern Apartment Blocks at the far end of the park were then allowed to be built. On the other side of the road on your left is the Hermitage Basin. This was originally a dock entrance but is now closed off to the river. You can still see a narrow stretch of canal which terminates at the red brick building which used to control the entrance.Now carry on along Wapping High Street. I’ll meet you a few minutes down the road.
Stop here to look at the former entrance to the London Docks. It’s now covered over but it was between the yellow brick houses. The dock entrance was designed by John Rennie in 1805.
Daniel Alexander built the yellow brick houses on either side of the entrance in 1813 for dock officials. They were converted into luxury homes in the 1970s after the closure of the London Docks in 1969. The dock entrance and two of the three dock basins were covered over during redevelopment in the 1970s.
Keep walking up Wapping High Street now. Just ahead, you can see the pub sign of the Town of Ramsgate, showing a picture of Ramsgate harbour in the nineteenth century. The pub is named after the fishermen from Ramsgate who came to sell fish at Wapping Old Stairs, which are just by the pub.
Town of Ramsgate
Just before the Town of Ramsgate pub, you will find a narrow alleyway on your right. Walk down it to the end to the river bank. If the tide is out you can descend the steps on to the riverbed, but be careful, as it is slippery. These stairs have a gruesome history. Pirates were hanged nearby in Execution Dock and their corpses brought here so that they were washed over by the tide three times. This caused them to be swollen and people said 'What a whopper!' - hence the name Wapping. It was also here that the notorious Judge Jeffreys was apprehended in 1689 when trying to escape to France disguised as a sailor. He was taken to the Tower, but died before he could be executed. Walk back to Wapping High Street. When you get there, cross the road and enter the churchyard through the little metal gate.
St John's Churchyard
Walk through the small churchyard to the other end where you exit by the church tower to the right.
This was the churchyard of St John's Wapping. The church itself was built in 1756 in red brick with white stone dressings, so that it would stand out amidst the dark and murky atmosphere of the area. It was bombed in the Second World War and only the tower remains. The building was converted into apartments after the removal of over 100 bodies from the crypt. Next door you can see the former charity school with the figure of a boy over one entrance and a girl over the other. This building is now also privately owned.
Turn right as you exit the churchyard and return to Wapping High Street.
Walk to the River Police boatyard
Turn left on along Wapping High Street. Up ahead is a white and blue building. Carry on past it.
River Police Boatyard
Veer off the road here, to walk alongside the blue and white building stretching out into the river. This houses the police boats of the Thames River Police. The Thames River Police was established in 1797 and was the first uniformed police force in the world. At the time crime was a major problem on the river and was one of the reasons for building the inland docks enclosed by high walls. Today the main problems are stolen yachts and attempted suicides. The open area by the river was known as Execution Dock and is where many pirates were executed up to 1814. Look across the river and you can see the tall tower blocks of Canary Wharf in the distance to your left. Canary Wharf is the modern redevelopment of the West India Docks which were opened just before the London Docks where we are now. Now get back onto Wapping High Street and turn right to carry on the way you were going.
Captain Kidd pub
The second of the historic riverside pubs commemorates the famous pirate, Captain Kidd. If you're ready for a break, go into the pub and stop for a drink. We only have another 10 minutes to go, so you can also just carry on straight. We’ll end the tour at another historic pub, and one of my personal favourites.
Captain Kidd was in fact was a wealthy man, having married an heiress, and so did not need to resort to piracy. After his marriage, he was sent to the Indian Ocean to capture pirate ships. On this voyage he killed another sailor in a drunken quarrel. Fearing to return to England where he faced trial for murder, he turned to piracy. He was finally caught and executed in 1701.
If you go inside, you'll see a board on the right of the entrance passage that records Captain Kidd's story. There is also a gibbet in the pub riverside garden. When you're ready to carry on, just return to the road and carry on the same way you’ve been going, to Wapping Station.
You're now coming up to Wapping Station. Just keep walking past it, along the road while I tell you about the station's history.
The station was originally the North Bank entrance to Marc Brunel's famous tunnel, which was the first tunnel built under a major river since Roman times. After two previous attempts at building a tunnel under the Thames had failed, Marc Brunel undertook the project using his invention of a tunnelling shield. This allowed the workers to bore manually into the subsoil and line the walls of the resulting tunnel shaft as the work progressed. This method is still used today, except that manual labour is replaced by machines.
It was dangerous work, and 10 people died in the construction of the tunnel. Marc Brunel himself was injured and his son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, nearly drowned when the partially completed tunnel was flooded.
It was opened in 1843 by Queen Victoria to great acclaim. But the money had run out before the planned ramps were built, which would have allowed horse-drawn carriages to use the tunnel. It was used as a foot tunnel until in 1869. Then the East London Railway Line took it over to transport passengers by rail under the river between Rotherhithe and Wapping. Today the service is part of London Overground and extends as far south as Croydon.
Keep going straight for about another minute. I’ll meet you further along.
New Crane Wharf
Ahead of you is one of the most spectacular warehouse conversions in Wapping. You see three Victorian warehouses surrounding a cobbled yard. You can still see the letters F, G, H on the outside of the three buildings. Those were the original designations of the warehouses.The old warehouses here were of course not designed for residential living. During the 1970s artists and designers set up studios in the derelict building before the developers moved in to completely transform the interiors. Today a two bedroom flat here will cost about £800,000. Now turn left and walk a short distance up Garnet Street. This street gave the name to the famous east end character, Alf Garnet, in the TV series 'Till Death Do Us Part'.
Walk to the Prospect of Whitby
Turn right along the street called Wapping Wall and walk to the end. We’re heading for the Prospect of Whitby pub. It’s a few minutes further along, and it’s our last stop.
This street, called Wapping Wall, is so named after the tidal defences built in 1571. These were constructed following a serious flood when the area first came into maritime use during the reign of Elizabeth I. Shortly on the right you will find Metropolitan Wharf which was the first Wapping Warehouse to be listed - that means the building that has to be preserved. It has been converted into about 150 small firms. I am especially interested in this building as one of the artists came on some of my walks and showed me his pottery designs. All his mosaic pots are made from ceramic pieces he found when 'mudlarking' on the riverbed of the Thames.
The transformation of this old dockland area is amazing when you consider that it is now home to designers and relatively wealthy people. In the old days over 90% of the population lived in Local Authority accommodation and Wapping was a hive of activity. Today less than half of local inhabitants live in subsidised housing. The architectural atmosphere of the docks has been wonderfully preserved but it must be admitted the buzz of the docks has vanished and the area seems strangely quiet.
Carry on till you reach the pub at the end of the road. I’ll meet you there.
The Prospect of Whitby
The Prospect of Whitby is the last stop of our walk today. Stop outside it, and I'll tell you about its history. It claims to be the oldest riverside pub in London. It was first built in 1520 and preserves much of its original interior, but the outside was rebuilt in the nineteenth century.
Look at the front of the pub, up to the left of the sign. Can you see the list of all the monarchs who have been on the throne throughout the life of the pub, starting with Henry VIII? The pub's original name was the Devil's Tavern as it was associated with thieves and smugglers. In the riverside beer garden is a gibbet to remind you of this history. The name was changed in the eighteenth century because the landlord did not want it to be connected with crime. So it was named after a collier ship called The Prospect, which regularly brought coal here from Whitby in Yorkshire.
The coal was used for the Hydraulic Pumping Station whose red brick tower you can see up the road on your left. The bridge just past the Pumping Station was built in the 1930s over the entrance to Shadwell Dock Basin. It was originally controlled by hydraulic power from the Pumping Station on the south-east corner of the dock basin. Power from here was also piped to the centre of London to raise theatre curtains in Leicester Square. This was probably the last operating hydraulic pumping station in the world and only closed down in 1977.
Today it contains a café and is used for theatrical performances and exhibitions. Shadwell Basin itself, to the left of the bridge, is the only remaining basin of the London Docks. Colourful housing surrounds it. The houses are privately owned, but a special 33 per cent discount allows teachers to live near their inner city schools.
Cormorants often sit on the raft in the middle of the water waiting to catch various fish such as carp, bream and roach.
Our walk ends here. You could of course enjoy a drink in the historic Prospect of Whitby. You could also follow the Thames Path signs to walk along the riverside to Limehouse where there is a Docklands Light Railway station which takes you back to London. Alternatively you could return to Wapping Station for the London Overground trains.
I hope you enjoyed this walk through an area which still has many traces of its history as a working dock, but today has been transformed into a residential location and has three historic pubs with wonderful views up and down the River Thames.