Great changes have taken place in Docklands since Dickens’s day, and a whole new city has been created where once ships from all over the world moored along the vast, cliff-like walls of the docks. In The Uncommercial Traveller Dickens wrote that this part of London was generally known as ‘Down by the Docks’, and described it as being ‘home to a good many people – to too many, if I may judge from the overflow of local population in the streets – but my nose insinuates that the number to who this is Sweet Home might easily be counted.’ Now, the massive warehouses, where cargoes from all over the world were once stored, have been converted into luxury apartments and the pubs, once some of the most violent in London, have been spruced up to cater for their new well-heeled clientele. But scratch the surface and remnants of old Docklands are still there.
Start: Shadwell Station (East London Underground line and Docklands Light Railway).
Finish: Westferry (Docklands Light Railway).
Length: 2 miles (3.2 km).
Duration: 13/4 hours.
Best of times: Daytime and summer evenings. I would not suggest walking the first section from Shadwell to Wapping in the evening.
Worst of times: Winter evenings.
1. Exit Shadwell Station. Turn right onto Cable Street and just past the ornate library building dated 1860, go left through the gates. Keep walking ahead and proceed clockwise round the clearly visible:-
St George’s Church. Nicholas Hawksmoor designed this massive edifice with its impressive 160-foot (48.8-metre) tower between 1714 and 1726. Sadly it sustained terrible bomb damage in World War II and only its outer walls survive as testimony to its former grandeur. In the 1850s the church’s rector and curate caused controversy by conducting their services according to ‘Romish’ practices. Dickens condemned this as ‘miserable trifling… fancy-dressing and pantomime posturing’. The locals were even more incensed and brought barking dogs to church, whilst the men refused to remove their hats, and smoked their pipes throughout the services! Having arrived at the west door of the church, you find a modern interior crouching within the older walls.
2. With your back to this, exit through the gates opposite, turn left onto Cannon Street Road and left along:-
The Highway.In Dickens’s day this was known as Ratcliff Highway and it was renowned for its crime and prostitution. Nowadays, it is little more than a busy and ugly thoroughfare. It was to a long-vanished court just beyond St George’s Church that, shortly before his death, Dickens paid a visit to an opium den. Later, he sent John Jasper to the same neighbourhood in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. ‘Eastward and still eastward through the stale streets… until he reaches his destination, a miserable court, specially miserable among many such.’ His destination was the opium den where ‘in the meanest and closest of small rooms’ he lay upon a squalid broken-down bed and experienced opium-tainted visions.
3. Keep ahead, and go over the pedestrian crossing. Bear right then first left into Wapping Lane, and right onto Pennington Street. A little way along go left to enter the interior of:-
Tobacco Dock. This vast cavernous area was built between 1811 and 1813 and was used for the storage of skins, tobacco, tea and spices. When the docks closed, it was converted into a shopping centre, but this failed to attract the public in sufficient numbers and now it is an empty and haunting place where your footsteps echo in the crypt-like interior.
As you enter, there are two interesting statues of a little boy looking up at a huge tiger. These commemorate the days when the area was a landing stage, not just for exotic cargoes, but also for all manner of exotic beasts. These statues depict an incident in the early 19th Century when a full-grown Bengal Tiger, which had just been delivered to the nearby Jamrach’s Emporium on Ratcliff Highway, escaped from its crate. It trotted down the road, scattering people as it went. An eight-year-old boy, who had never seen such a big cat, attempted to pat it on the nose, but the tiger seized the child between its jaws and trotted off with him. Mr Jamrach ran after them, forced his bare hands into the tiger’s throat and managed to release the boy unscathed.
4. Go down the steps and walk through the eerily gloomy brick arches of Tobacco Dock’s lower level. Pause to admire the 19th-century ship figureheads displayed on the wall at the far end.
5. Just past them, exit between the replicas of the two sailing ships that tower over you. Go up the steps, turn left and note the solid dock walls away to your right, which give some impression of the size of the shipping once accommodated here.
6. Go up the next steps, turn right onto Wapping Lane and pass over the bridge.
It was hereabouts that Dickens got lost while en route to Wapping Workhouse in The Uncommercial Traveller and arrived at ‘a swing-bridge looking down at some dark locks in some dirty water’. Enquiring of one of the locals what the place was called, he was told ‘Mr Baker’s Trap’. Mr Baker was the local coroner and this was a favoured spot for suicides.
7. Keep ahead, passing the old dock wall on your right. Go left into Raine Street and turn right after the former:-
Charity school, dated 1719. Be sure to look up at the first-floor niches from which the statues of a boy and girl resplendent in their smart uniforms look down. Note also the legend above the door, ‘Come in and learn your duty to God and man’.
8. Just before the Church of St Peter’s, built in 1866, turn left into Farthing Fields, where the:-
St George’s-in-the-East Workhouse used to stand. Dickens wrote in The Uncommercial Traveller that having knocked at its gate he ‘found it to be an establishment highly creditable to those parts, and thoroughly well administered by a most intelligent master’. A few walls of the workhouse still survive behind the buildings to your left.
9. Go right along Penang Street, right into Prusom Street and left onto Wapping Lane. The council blocks give way to old docklands warehouses, now converted into luxury apartments. Keep going ahead between the walls that cast the pavement into perpetual twilight, and turn left along Wapping High Street. Having passed Wapping Station, you arrive at a modern block of flats on the right, follow the signs for the Thames Path.
10. Go up the ramp, push open the red gate and walk along the riverside. The massive tower of Canary Wharf looms ahead. A little way along, a gate bars your way, but just push the button on the wall to open it. A little further along pass through the large gate, where to your right steps lead down onto the shoreline, so if it’s low tide you might like to take a riverbank stroll.
11. Turn right onto Wapping High Street, go first right along Wapping Wall and keep ahead to arrive on the right at:-
The Prospect of Whitby, the oldest riverside inn in London. Built in 1520, it was originally known as the Devil’s Tavern, but its name was changed in 1777 after the collier the Prospect, from Whitby, North Yorkshire, which regularly moored alongside it. The pub doesn’t look that impressive from the outside, but once over the threshold you are pitched into a time warp that has changed little since the days when Dickens, amongst others, used to drop in for a tipple. Old prints and photos of the river adorn its walls. The flagstone floor and pewter-topped bar, perched on old beer barrels, are truly antiquated, and have witnessed both the low and high life of London’s docklands. Standing in its atmospheric interior you really do get the impresion that you have truly joined Charles Dickens in the Victorian era. As far as pub stops go this is without doubt a highlight of our London Walks.
12. Exit the pub. Turn right, and go almost immediately right onto the paved walkway to follow the Thames Path. Where the semi-circle of the Shadwell Pier Head juts out into the river, go left into:-
Shadwell Basin. For an essay in The Uncommercial Traveller entitled ‘Bound For the Great Salt Lake’, Dickens visited the Amazon, an emigrant ship about to set sail for Utah with a large number of Mormons on board. He was most impressed to find everything in order for the long voyage. ‘Two great gangways made of spars and planks connect her with the wharf’ he wrote, ‘and up and down these gangways, perpetually crowding to and fro and in and out, like ants, are the Emigrants…’
13. Continue ahead, turning left along Glamis Road. Go over the red bridge and turn right again following the signs for the Thames Path. This dark, dismal pathway leads to the King Edward Memorial Park, and passes by the redbrick ventilation shaft from the Rotherhithe Tunnel, which runs under the river to your right. Go through the park and keep going ahead along the Thames Path. At the end of the path, go down the ramp, turn left and go straight ahead along Narrow Street. Continue over:-
Limehouse Basin, which opened in 1820 as the Regent’s Canal Dock and was London’s main gateway to England’s canal network. The huge lock gates can be seen to your left. In Our Mutual Friend Rogue Riderhood ‘dwelt deep in Limehouse Hole, among the riggers, and the mast, oar and block makers…’.
14. Continue going straight ahead. As the modern apartments submit to a delightful terrace of 18th-century buildings on the right, you will find:-
The Grapes Pub. This is a genuine survivor from the London Charles Dickens knew. The Grapes (known to Dickens as The Bunch of Grapes) looks out onto a river that was once the main highway into the capital, in an era when tea-clippers and schooners from the ends of the Earth turned the Thames into a thick forest of masts. In Our Mutual Friend, Dickens renamed the pub The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters, and his description of it as ‘a tavern of dropsical appearance… long settled down into a state of hale infirmity…’ with ‘corpulent windows in diminishing piles’ still holds true when viewed from the river. Its bar is cosy and intimate; Dickensian prints adorn the walls and an open fire glows in the back bar. Gazing from the back veranda, you can see how accurate Dickens’s eye for detail was when he wrote: ‘But it had outlasted and clearly would yet outlast many a better trimmed building, many a sprucer public house, indeed the whole house impended over the water, but seemed to have got into the condition of a faint-hearted diver who has paused so long on the brink that he will never go in at all.’ The landlady of The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters, Miss Abbey Potterson, was actually based on Mary Ferguson, who in Dickens’s day kept the Barley Mow pub (now demolished) that used to stand opposite The Grapes.
15. Exit the pub, and turn right along Narrow Street. Go left into Three Colt Street and pass through the gates of St Anne’s Church to proceed anti-clockwise around the church.
It was in this Nicholas Hawksmoor-designed church that Miss Abbey Potterson ‘had been christened… some sixty odd years before’. Its clock is the highest church clock in London. As you exit through the gates on the opposite side of the church, note the strange pyramid monument, originally meant to surmount the church itself.
16. Go out through the gates, walk along the short cobblestone street and keep ahead into Newell Street.
During Dickens’s childhood this was known as Church Row and it was at No 5 that Christopher Huffam, Charles’s godfather, lived. Huffam was a sail-maker and ship’s chandler, and John Dickens often brought Charles on visits here. Many was the time that the young boy would stand upon his godfather’s kitchen table and be urged to sing to an audience of admiring neighbours. On one occasion, according to Dickens himself, one witness declared the boy to be a ‘prodigy.’ Everything that Dickens saw hereabouts stayed with him, and his memories of the neighbourhood were such that he nearly always wrote of the docklands with affection. An idea of the appearance of 19th-century Church Row can be gleaned from the line of houses situated to the left.
17. However, your way lies to the right along Newell Street, and right onto Commercial Road, to go second right into Gill Street. Just before the railway bridge, go left along the pathway, left into Grenade Street, and first right, passing through the railway arch. Go left along Trinidad Street and keep going ahead to arrive at Westferry Station. From here you will be able to ride the Docklands Light Railway Back into central London.