Monday, August 31, 2015
For my Local History Month this year I'm going to walk around Tower Hamlets.
That's all the way around the edge of Tower Hamlets, starting in Bow where I live, and heading clockwise around the perimeter of the borough. You will not believe quite how far it is.
I'm fortunate in that Tower Hamlets has a better defined border than most boroughs, with the eastern edge delimited by the River Lea and the southern edge by the River Thames. To the west it butts up against the City, before following Hackney Road, the Regent's Canal and the northern rim of Victoria Park. And there are some cracking places of interest along the way. The cobbles of Limehouse and Wapping, for example, and the Tower of London, and the heart of Spitalfields, and even a central slice of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. On a less well known note there's London's only lighthouse, the launchslip of the greatest ever Victorian steamship, the former liberty of Norton Folgate, an alcove rescued from a previous London Bridge and an actual Blue Peter garden. If you'd like to view this fascinating boundary in full cartographic detail, click here.
A few rules. I'm not walking dead ends, so if the closest path to the boundary requires me to retrace my steps, I'm not going there. I'm sticking to public rights of way, so there'll be no trespassing along someone's back passage to take a shortcut. And I've decided to stay within Tower Hamlets at all times, never straying to the other side of the boundary, even if that requires a lengthy diversion because the obvious path lies just outside the borough. For example the Regent's Canal towpath runs along the Hackney bank not the Tower Hamlets bank, alas, while the better path down the River Lea is usually across in Newham. And finally I reserve the right to break these rules if there's something really interesting nearby I'd otherwise miss.
And for a sneak peek of what's coming up, here are 214 photos.
A walk around the edge of Tower Hamlets
1) Bow Roundabout → Bow Creek (2½ miles) [20 photos]
For my August extravaganza this year I'm walking clockwise around the edge of Tower Hamlets. And for reasons of local convenience, not least so that I can collapse into an armchair when the twenty mile circumnavigation is over, I'm kicking off at the Bow Roundabout. [map]
The entire eastern edge of Tower Hamlets runs down the centre of the River Lea, so for the first few miles all I need to do is stick as close to the water's edge as possible. Thankfully at the Bow Roundabout that's easy, thanks to the floating towpath slung beneath the flyover. This was installed in 2011 to continue the Lea Valley Walk without the dangers of rising to cross the traffic, and has been an overwhelming success especially with cyclists. I usually have to dodge out of the way of a couple of them when passing through, and at the start of this journey there are pedestrians and a canoe paddling too.
Exit from Tower Hamlets: Stratford High Street
A phenomenal amount of building work is underway around the roundabout, especially on the Newham side, with the 34-storey core of investo-luxe Capital Towers rising from the northern quadrant, and Strand East beginning to emerge to the east. But the Tower Hamlets shores aren't immune, the Calor Gas yard doomed to become a car dealership, apparently, and the Bow River Village scheme preparing to replace the remaining commercial premises with yet more not-especially affordable brick boxes. Apologies, I'm likely to bemoan the tedious nature of modern apartment architecture several more times before this circuit is complete.
For now the riverside footpath is a peaceful backwater, with industrial premises and building site screened behind an old brick wall. A few moorhens swim through this summer's algae, and even the occasional narrowboat chugs through. Give it a year or three and there'll be chair-sized balconies opening out above the river facing chair-sized balconies on the opposite bank, plus a narrow bridge solely for a bus service to cross the Lea.
Exit from Tower Hamlets: Three Mills Lane
At Three Mills the first downside of my Round Tower walk becomes apparent. Here the towpath switches to the other side of the Lea where it passes the oast-like Clock Mill and the 18th century House Mill (report: 2010), reputedly the largest tidal mill in the UK. But that's across the boundary in Newham so I'm not allowed to go that way, the rules of my challenge forbid it, so instead I face a lengthy diversion away from the waterside via the closest available road. Regrettably it's a diversion that'll last the entire remainder of today's post, but bear with me.
While the Tower Hamlets boundary countinues through Tesco's (dead end) car-park, I'm forced to walk round the front and up to the Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road. This GLC-planned dual carriageway was driven parallel to the Lea to minimise community division, which was fine in the 1970s but now rather more people live to the east of it and there are thousands more to come. I'm plying the pavement on the southbound side, past the crumbling office block opposite Bromley-by-Bow station and the freshly-relocated (and kaleidoscopic) Bow School on the corner with Twelvetrees Crescent. Breathing in the A12 air too deeply is not necessarily advised.
Exit from Tower Hamlets: District line, Twelvetrees Crescent
What I'd like to do next is cross down to scenic Bow Locks, because that's on the border, but the narrow towpath arrives through Newham, and anyway there's no way down. Meridian-based sculpture trail The Line has a similar problem, and has just tweaked its route to take in Bow Locks rather than the A12 pavement. Alas they've made another mess with their signage, just as they did when they launched in May, with several signs missing, one pointing in the opposite direction and those at the top of the Limehouse Cut affixed unreadably to a open gate. A great way to lose all your potential punters en route, I fear.
South of the canal a pre-1970 road called Gillender Street survives. And that's just as well because there are some gems along its eastern flank, including (somewhat unexpectedly) the oldest brick building in London. This is Bromley Hall, at the end of the 15th century the local manor house, and once home to Elizabeth Blount - one of Henry VIII's mistresses. Also now used as office space are the old Fire Station (circa 1910) and a rather grand public library (circa 1906), beside which are tucked the rather less gorgeous headquarters of Fridgehire.co.uk.
At Lochnagar Street my route at last departs the A12, but not before I've had a chance to admire the handiwork of City Wood Services. Here Danny and Suraya carve timber into whatever shape you fancy, generally furniture, but also a splendid collection of 'Chainsaw Art' (including bears, bees and fungi) arrayed on the pavement. The environment gets a bit glum on the roads beyond, all breakers yards and recycling dumps, where once were terraced streets and vibrant (if poor) communities. Leven Street beyond was once lined by a clothing works and trolleybus depot, the former now modern housing, the latter now Iron Mountain secure storage.
I've arrived on the Aberfeldy Estate, a lowrise 1950s community with a challenging reputation, now with plans for sequential redevelopment as a "mixed-income" neighbourhood. Parts don't look too bad, brightened by a Millennium Green, and the occasional leftover Victorian terraced street, ironically now seen as utterly desirable rather slum clearance. Other parts are drearier, hence the local housing association's desire to replace the whole lot with this decade's trademark brick apartment blocks, whose characterlessness will no doubt look just as dreary soon.
Leven Street lies in the shadow of the mighty No. 1 gasholder at Poplar Gasworks (the UK’s only surviving gasholder with curved and tapering box-lattice girders). Its large riverside expanse was once covered with gantries, conveyor belts and Retort Houses (the latter where the coal was burnt to produce gas), and is now chock-a-block with containers and old cars, and not yet flats. For a well connected site, close to the point where the A13 swoops across the Lea, there's considerable potential for this edge of the borough to be so much more.
Exit from Tower Hamlets: East India Dock Road
A walk around the edge of Tower Hamlets
2) Bow Creek → Blackwall (1½ miles) [25 photos]
Having kicked off my circumnavigation of Tower Hamlets by following the Lea south, today I'm manoeuvring around the contorted peninsulas at the mouth of Bow Creek. [map]
The final meander on the River Lea is a natural wonder, twisting and turning back on itself (twice) before exiting into the Thames immediately opposite the Millennium Dome. The bends create two thin tongues of land, interlocking like thumbs and forefingers, with land access from completely opposite ends. The westernmost peninsula is in Newham, and is home to the Bow Creek Ecology Park. There's just room for the DLR to pass through the middle of the reserve on a lofty viaduct, with reedy watery pools to either side, and a series of benches that once had views before the surrounding vegetation grew too high. And the eastern peninsula, somewhat counter-intuitively, is in Tower Hamlets.
It's always been a dead end, this strip of creekbound land, and human activity took some time to move in. The northern tip was once called Goodluck Hope, a marshy and rural spot, while a little further south (presumably by some fruit trees) lay the single dwelling of Orchard House. The estate was sold to the East India Dock Company precisely 200 years ago, after which time timber merchants, cooperages, shipbuilders, shipbreakers and a whale blubber factory were established on the peninsula. The largest plate glass factory in southern England was established at the far end, and a small inward-looking community built up, propped up by a pub called The Crown. Their slums are long gone, but even ten years ago Pura Foods were still piping vegetable oil from a refinery on the shore.
How places change. Next year the London City Island development opens up, described as a "Mini-Manhattan" by its developers, and "a bunch of primary coloured investment towers" by me. 1700 flats will be crammed in for the benefit of foreign investors, and the English National Ballet are taking up residence to give the place artistic credibility. For those of us who'll never be able to live there, the estate offers one great bonus which is a new way into Tower Hamlets. A red (raisable) bridge has been installed across the last bend in the creek, and a bespoke mothballed exit from Canning Town station awaits the official opening. (Report: 2013)
Exit from Tower Hamlets: Lower Lea Crossing, Crossrail (to Custom House)
My walk around Tower Hamlets is half a mile shorter while Leamouth's inland isthmus remains sealed off for building works. Instead I get to walk past the council's main transport depot (all gritters and minibuses), follow a slip road underneath a giant red advertising hoarding and head beneath the concrete pillars of the Lower Lea Crossing. Orchard House used to be around here, where the hastily imported planters bloom, and a taxi repurposed as art sits on a cobbled traffic island with a sparkly tree emerging from its roof. And what I should do here is pass through the gates into the East India Dock Basin, but instead I'm going to break the rules of my walk for the first time and head down the cul-de-sac of Orchard Place.
This backwater street has been here for some time, lined by the decaying leftovers of wharves and shipbuilding yards. Thankfully historians and artists have been out to liven it up, with a large painted buoy at one end, a flimsy-looking bream hanging part-way down, and numerous heritage panels all the way down. The latter are truly excellent, and you can read much of the information contained within on this mini-website. This post-industrial remnant is the East End's most remote corner, and as far from trendy Shoreditch as Tower Hamlets gets. And at the far end is Trinity Buoy Wharf, which you must visit.
Established at the start of the 19th century as a storage space for navigational buoys, Trinity House built London's one and only lighthouse here, used for lighting trials rather than for the avoidance of rocks. It's still here, and at weekends you can step inside and climb an especially narrow staircase to the lantern to stare out across the Thames. The tower is also the auditorium for a 1000-year-long musical composition called Longplayer, designed never to repeat, and playing out from a turn-of-the-century iMac in a case at the back. Alongside is a large display of singing bowls used to play the piece, which runs until New Year's Eve 2999, and can also be heard in perpetuity here.
Longplayer's not the only cultural gizmo on site. Down by the river is a double-ended bell that rings at high tide, and in the corner by the mouth of Bow Creek is the world's first tidal powered moon clock (which looks like a flashy digital speak your weight machine, but is much geekier than that). All of this science is highly appropriate because Michael Faraday used to work on site, testing out electrical apparatus in the lighthouse, and there's a hut with a pebbled floor laid out in his memory down below.
Oh, and lots of people work here. The management company pioneered the concept of a Container City, with workspaces inside brightly-coloured stacked metal boxes. If you ever get the chance to look inside, say for Open House, then do. The latest arrivals are the temporary broadcasting containers from London 2012, now combined to create the Riverside Building (you can rent a studio here for £1150 a month). And all these people need somewhere to eat, so there are two, one the Bow Creek Café, the other Fatboy's Diner, and both open seven days a week. I dropped into Fatboy's for a superthick American milkshake, just as I did at the end of my walk down the Lea in August 2009, and slurped it in the shadow of a lightship. Did I mention that you really ought to visit?
Enough diversion, let's nip back to the East India Docks and continue around the borough. This is a treat in itself, the former entrance basin now filled with shallow water and a seasonal home to migrating birds. As for the remainder of the system they were the first of London's docks to be filled in, and various homes, offices and council headquarters now reside where spice ships once moored. One such site is slightly upriver at Victoria Quay, where a monument commemorates the departure point of the first American settlers in 1606 - one of their captains would later bring back Princess Pocohontas (report: 2006). And here too is one of my favourite Greenwich meridian markers - an avenue of trees between apartment blocks, leading from a mosaic circle by the river.
Exit from Tower Hamlets: Blackwall Tunnel
The next stretch of waterside is private and blocked, forcing a diversion inland along Blackwall Way. This area is becoming increasingly dominated by residential skyscrapers, once only the thin slanty Ontario Tower, but more recently the bulbous Providence Tower, unashamedly targeted at rich bankers seeking a luxury lifestyle. I felt completely out of place walking through artificial streets beneath premium balconies, dodging suited property consultants and smug clusters of outdoor yoga. I take comfort from the fact that Tower Hamlets' main Waste Transfer Station is located nextdoor. And with the return to more ordinary housing, at the entrance to Blackwall Basin, the long trek around the Isle of Dogs finally begins.
A walk around the edge of Tower Hamlets
3) 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 façade 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
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.
A walk around the edge of Tower Hamlets
5) 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.
A walk around the edge of Tower Hamlets
6) the Tower (¾ mile) [21 photos]
In case it ever needed confirmation, Tower Hamlets gets the first word of its name from the Tower of London. William the Conqueror's defensive fortress was built just outside the walls of the City of London, hence its administration has always been separate. For centuries the immediate area around the fortifications was known as the Liberties of the Tower of London, independently governed, and bolted into Whitechapel District as late as 1889. And it's this which explains why Tower Hamlets pokes its nose to the west of Tower Bridge, including both Tower Hill the Tower itself, and its this ancient boundary I get to follow today. As historic as Tower Hamlets gets. [map]
I left you last at St Katharine Dock, the luxury marina and tourist trap to the east of Tower Bridge, brimming with people who've had their fill of the Tower and are seeking local entertainment. The perimeter path misses the livelier bits, bad news if chain restaurants are your thing, diverting instead down the exit channel to the Thames. Here you'll find a fine modern sundial, 1973-style, consisting of a large stainless steel ring supported by three thick iron cables. More to the taste of the selfie generation is a somewhat twee fountain of a girl with a dolphin, seemingly unsupported in mid-splash, installed on the waterfront in the same year. Perhaps they were meant to divert attention from the monstrosity behind, the Tower Hotel, whose sole architectural saving grace is that guests can't see the hotel from within.
Exit from Tower Hamlets: Tower Bridge
Which brings us to Tower Bridge proper, the uber-Gothic river crossing whose unique form makes it one of the capital's most well-known visual icons. Opened around 120 years ago, the central span of this bascule bridge used to lift far more frequently than it does today, hence the walkway positioned 42 metres across the Thames. Pedestrians were directed this way if tall ships were passing through, which meant a lot of steps and dark passages, and in 1910 the upper route closed through fear of crime. Nowadays the main deck shimmers with tourists, photographic devices in hand, while the upper walkway (and its new glass floor) can be accessed on payment of £9. Although the bridge is run and maintained by the City of London Foundation, the northern half is in Tower Hamlets and the southern half in Southwark.
The cobbled walkway between the Tower and the Thames is one of the capital's visitor hotspots where Londoners themselves rarely go. At one end of the cobbles a semi-posh restaurant offers 'traditional' sit-down fish and chips, at the other French pastries have them queuing. Meanwhile the view across the Pool of London is impressive, past helmet-shaped City Hall and onwards upriver, though increasingly filled with modern apartments and offices taking advantage of the World Heritage panorama. Tower Millennium Pier marks the western edge of riverside Tower Hamlets, unbelievably the end of almost eight miles I've been walking along the Thames within this single borough. Here too is the main entrance to the Tower of London, where HRP staff check your bags before allowing you inside to meet the Yeoman Warders.
And at this point, because I can, I'm going to take advantage of Tower Hamlets' biggest perks. Residents of the borough are allowed go into the Tower of London for only one pound, which is brilliant, given that everyone from everywhere else gets to pay £24.50. All you need is an Idea Store card or Leisure Services card, and proof of name and address, and then simply turn up at the ticket kiosks. The lady behind the screen barely blinked when I presented my credentials, but she did attempt to charge me £1.10, including a tiny Gift Aid uplift, but I told here where to stick her extra 10p because, sheesh.
I recommend turning up at the Tower of London when it opens, which most of the week is 9am, because that way you get to see the internal courtyards almost devoid of people. In particular you can get into the Crown Jewels exhibit straight away, and see the sovereign's bling before the queues outside start to get silly. If you ever needed proof that our royal family is seriously loaded, the cases of crowns and ornate giltware will soon ram the point home. Incidentally, my top tip when you reach the twin moving walkways past the shiniest regalia is always to ride the walkway on the right, else you'll miss the Cullinan and Koh-i-Noor diamonds, and that would never do.
The White Tower is a treat for anyone who likes stairs, because there are many, including some proper twisty spiral staircases. It's also amazing to think that this building is over 900 years old, and still playing its part in telling the story of the Tower to visitors. The Line of Kings has been a tourist attraction here since the 1600s, essentially a sequence of royal armour on horseback, while the tower's history as a mint and armoury is also thoroughly explored within. Other towers are also available, at least a dozen, including the infamous Bloody Tower (whose stairs are ridiculously narrow), the empty crowns of the Martin and the prisoner-scratched walls of the Beauchamp. And yes, last year's poppies get a reverential look-in via a WW1 display in the Flint Tower, plus there's a child-friendly look at the Tower's days as a menagerie two turrets along.
To walk the walls of the Tower requires locating the right start point, after which you can stroll round peering down into the Yeoman Warders' quarters and out across the City. Alternatively you can follow one of the stocky gentlemen (or ladies) around on a free tour, assuming you don't mind standing at the back of a huge throng. There are ravens of course, but not up close, and costumed actors popping up on schedule to tell their historical stories in context. Another treat is King Edward's medieval palace, on the outer wall above Traitor's Gate, plus the site of the Tudor scaffold on Tower Green, plus tons of different nooks and crannies to explore. I was done by noon, having explored pretty much everywhere, but then I've been before, and a proper tourist would take much longer. Maybe £24.50's a bit steep, but then this is absolutely Heritage Central so what the hell, and for ONE POUND, get in, almost worth all that council tax in itself.
And back outside again to continue my circumnavigation of Tower Hamlets. The borough boundary runs up the far side of the piazza, officially known as Petty Wales, where once a row of householders lived under the jurisdiction of the Liberties of the Tower. The squat cylindrical shaft below the ticket kiosks used to be the entrance to a narrow gauge railway, quickly converted to a public subway, then (once Tower Bridge provided a toll-free alternative) closed and handed over to a water company (it still carries a water main beneath the Thames). Modern tourists ignore it, drawn instead to Starbucks and Wagamama (fractionally in the City) and KFC and Eat (fractionally in Tower Hamlets). Indeed few spots are quite so depressingly foreign-currency-oriented as the souvenir honeytraps and refreshment pits of the Tower Vaults locale.
Across the main road was once Tower Hill, conveniently located outside the fortress walls, where over 100 unfortunate prisoners lost their heads. Now Trinity Square Gardens, it contains two large memorials to those with "no grave but the sea" and a big lawn surrounded by trees. The Tower Hamlets boundary runs round the northern edge, past the front of Trinity House, then takes in the whole of Tower Hill underground station. This opened as recently as 1967, replacing a gloomier portal located just inside the City, and is currently undergoing major external works which require a substantial pedestrian diversion. Expect a new hotel to go up in the gap between the District line and DLR, while the Emperor Trajan looks on (beneath the building site) in front of a chunk of Roman wall.
A walk around the edge of Tower Hamlets
7) the Tower → Shoreditch (1½ miles) [19 photos]
For the last ten miles or so the edge of Tower Hamlets has followed the water - first the Lea, then the Thames. Now it breaks off to follow man-made boundaries, historic in origin, which makes for a completely different kind of journey. The next mile and a half straddles the dividing line between the City and merely Middlesex, hence some of the contrasts are quite sharp, after which it's Hackney alongside and the two almost merge. A planning battleground lies ahead... [map]
After dallying with the delights of the Tower, the Tower Hamlets boundary slinks back into relatively mundane territory. Shorter Street is a good example - to one side one of the City's peripheral multi-storey car parks, on the other an anonymous office block, as one-way traffic slipstreams through the middle. The Royal Mint used to stand on the corner of Mansell Street before escaping to Wales, now an adjacent site awaits rebirth as Royal Mint Gardens, bringing "luxury lifestyle living" to 500 fortunate apartment owners who'll get their own private cinema on site. Best not mention the seafood outlet and eel slaughterhouse lurking beneath the railway viaduct alongside, where the proper East End survives somewhat uneasily, for now.
Mansell Street is peculiar in that the Tower Hamlets side is lined by offices while the City side is all residential. Almost 15% of the population of the City of London live in Portsoken, the small eastern ward that's essentially Aldgate. The two long slab blocks here are Guinness Court and Iveagh Court, built around 1980 by Guinness Trust Housing on the site of a railway goods depot. The business premises opposite aren't especially prestigious, such is the effect of a Tower Hamlets postcode, running in occasionally-Georgian sequence from a bland Wetherspoons to an even blander Sainsbury's. The Aldgate gyratory is in considerable flux, enduring yet another remodelling in an attempt to finally remove all trace of gyrating. Braham Street has already been replaced by so-called public realm, essentially a semi-green strip with mounds and fountains where workers come for a fag. Soon every scrap of traffic will be forced through the Aldgate High Street crossroads, along with a remodelled Cycle Superhighway, while the former pedestrian subways are bulldozed out of existence. It's not somewhere I'd choose to linger.
Zealous restructuring also means that Middlesex Street will be sealed off, indeed already has been. Originally known as Hogs Lane, the first hints of urbanisation came in Tudor times, and by the 17th century it had become a commercial district specialising in second-hand clothes and bric-à-brac. Petticoat Lane market survives to this day, indeed is world famous, although if you've ever turned up you'll know it's more poundshop than boutique. Sunday is the big day, when Middlesex Street teems with life, while adjacent Wentworth Street market also bubbles away on weekdays (and never come on Saturday). Again the two sides of the road are very different, the City flank all 1970s residential, while Tower Hamlets boasts older smaller more run-down retail units. In amongst these are various traditional textile outlets, and several modern ethnic restaurants out to entice local office workers.
The boundary next follows a really narrow street, Sandy's Row. This kicks off at Frying Pan Alley and bends in the middle at Artillery Passage, with much to explore up perpendicular alleyways (including the last Jewish synagogue hereabouts). Walking this way is a reminder of long-ago London, both its street patterns and its buildings, which is in disappointing contrast to what lies ahead. I'd like to walk along Fort Street but it's closed for construction works, and has been for some time, the adjacent block a depressingly inoffensive brick cuboid with no redeeming creative touches whatsoever. I've arrived at Spitalfields Market, once a characterful trading hub, now a heritage shell whose retail units exist solely to empty tourists' pockets. If your idea of a good time is a hot drink and a browse and a meal and a fashionable purchase you'll love this heritage-lite marketplace, but in reality it's sheep like you whose anodyne tastes are sucking the life out of this corner of the East End, and indeed have almost succeeded.
Rather than approach the piazza we turn left to reach Broadgate, where RBS and Nat West choose to occupy major offices on the non-City side of the street. This busy financial canyon peaks in the shadow of the Broadgate Tower, 33 storeys tall, while the buildings on the Tower Hamlets side are considerably older and lower. They form part of Norton Folgate, another of London's former Liberties, again under considerable threat from developers. British Land would like nothing more than to bulldoze the block they've bought and sequentially boarded up, but last month campaigners successfully persuaded the council to refuse the planning application that would have expanded the commercial district inexorably northeast. A conservation area runs alongside, and a mighty fine one too, including the very marvellous Dennis Severs House, its Georgian setting at least temporarily preserved.
After a brief spell following the railway, the boundary breaks off through the heart of another controversial building project. This is the Bishopsgate Goods Yard, a derelict site surrounding a listed railway embankment, on which it's obvious something should be built but nobody's quite agreed what. Plans for a massive development with two forty-something floored towers have had local residents up in arms, so the masterplan keeps being rewritten to reduce the heights of things and knock down less of the existing structure. Both Hackney and Tower Hamlets councils need to agree, the site being divided between them, which may be delaying things a little longer. But eventually the developers will come up with plans that satisfy, unleashing monumental change. Boxpark will be wiped out - the container market was only ever meant to be temporary - and Shoreditch High Street station will be encased by offices - as was always the intention. Battlelines are drawn.
A walk around the edge of Tower Hamlets
8) Shoreditch → Cambridge Heath (1½ miles) [18 photos]
If I had to call it, this is the least interesting section of my walk round Tower Hamlets. The northwestern edge of the borough butts up against the southern edge of Hackney, kicking off somewhere fairly trendy and then heading somewhere less so. There should be a pretty bit near the end, but then a gasworks gets in the way. But don't let any of this put you off. [map]
Although Shoreditch High Street seems the epitome of cool, the Tower Hamlets boundary runs one street back. It's even called Boundary Street, in case you hadn't got the message. A few on-trend ripples have washed out this far, with a white-blinded organic cafe/bakery at the junction with Redchurch Street offering bourgeois on-pavement dining opportunities. How things change. Off to the east was once the worst slum in London, the Old Nichol, less a housing estate than a maze of jerry-built misery, for families living one rung above the workhouse. Thousands of people were crammed into tiny rooms and cellars, disease was rife, and the area wasn't properly cleared until 1891. In its place rose the Boundary Estate, the world's first council estate, and still a model scheme for how to do these things properly. A series of tall brick tenements radiates from a central circus, where a bandstand sits on top of a rounded pile of slum rubble. It's a restful scenic spot, but I only spy it from a distance walking by.
Shoreditch's 'Oranges and lemons' church lies just across the yard in Hackney, while Boundary Street peters out as a narrow lane with a dead Tudorbethan-style pub at the end. At least The Conqueror is still standing, which is more than can be said for the Mildmay Hospital, over whose remains a fleet of yellow diggers now scavenge. A replacement opened recently close by, but the ward in which Princess Diana famously shook the hand of an AIDS patient is now dust. The latest casualty hereabouts is The George and Dragon, Shoreditch's most achingly kitsch gay pub, on the tip of Austin Road. A "dramatic" rent hike forced its owners to put the lease up for sale earlier this month, as rapid gentrification hereabouts continues to snuff out the creative spaces that made it possible. But the pub's not gone yet, and a Drag Sale was in full swing as I passed, with glamorous punters picking over racks of vintage dresses.
After a considerable amount of wiggling, the Tower Hamlets boundary now latches onto one street and sticks to it for the whole of the next kilometre. That street is Hackney Road, gateway to the East, which should be top of your list should you ever desire to buy a wholesale handbag. The brightly painted shops at the Shoreditch end are most likely to sell you expensive bling, while the bargains are with the older traders further up. The first junction with Columbia Road is marked by a portaloo and a Welcome to Tower Hamlets sign, after which boarded-up shops intermingle with minor commercial premises along graffitied brick parades.
I nearly rented a ground floor hovel here when I moved to London, a possibility I abandoned the split second I walked through the door. One of the nearest shops is now occupied by a professional whittler, the magnificently monikered Barn the Spoon, who sculpts his wooden cutlery either here or in the middle of a wood in Herefordshire. Alternative entertainment used to be provided by the enormous bingo hall across the road, formerly an Odeon cinema, but the last balls were drawn in June after the business received a financial offer they couldn't refuse. The area's elderly residents are now ferried to a neighbouring hall in Camden by gleaming white bus, and the replacement buildings will no doubt appeal to a much younger (and wealthier) demographic.
The second junction with Columbia Road marks the point where the Tower Hamlets boundary cuts a dash to the north. To one side of Goldsmith's Row is Hackney City Farm, a delightful outpost of Haggerston Park, which mixes pettable animals with a rustic Italian cafe in a way that many local families find irresistible. On the other until recently was Queen Elizabeth Children's Hospital, currently being transformed into a few affordable homes and a series of unaffordable apartments under the unutterably pretentious name of Mettle&Poise. Apparently "Mettle represents the area’s resilience and strength, whilst Poise demonstrates the elegance and sympathetic addition the development will bring to Hackney", because there are lots of well paid jobs in on-brand hogwash these days. What housing lies behind is more reassuringly standard, notably the sinuous brick blocks of the 1930s Dinmont Estate, so very Tower Hamlets.
At this point, were geography kinder, I ought to follow the boundary on to Broadway Market. The edge of Tower Hamlets then follows the Regent's Canal, which would be a great walk, except the only towpath is on the Hackney side. And because there's no way out without changing borough I can't even follow Pritchard's Road to the waterside, and bring you tales of pie and mash, boutiques and gentrified food. Instead a diversion round the Bethnal Green Gasworks is required, at least for a few more years before the housing estate it's due to be replaced by is opened. The gasholders look finest from the side I'm not allowed to go. Enjoy them while they last.
Straining advertising standards somewhat, the Hotel Shoreditch is a chunky newbuild located far from the area most Londoners would describe as such. Their website says "this is a highly fashionable area so please dress to impress", whereas I doubt Billy's Cafe across the road sees much in the way of haute couture. At the Lithuanian church on backstreet Emma Street I have to divert round a large (and jolly) wedding party billowing onto the tarmac. From here a low key commercial zone finally leads down to the canal, bifurcating round 'The Oval', which turns out to be an elliptical car park. A two-storey office block made of shipping containers looks out over the water, while Empress Coaches (founded 1912) still somehow plies its trade from a characterful cobbled yard. The road beneath the railway is blocked off to vehicles, but thankfully those of us on foot can stroll by to reach the canal bridge at Cambridge Heath Road.
[To read the final two sections of ROUND TOWER, click here]