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Notes on the Geography of The United Kingdom: London 1: Older Docks

We're going to try a back-door or waterside approach to London.

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We start here at the Tower Bridge, seen with its twin bascules raised, and we'll head downstream three miles by air, six by water. Along the way, we'll pass half a dozen old dock basins created in the early 19th century. Built by private capital, they were taken over by the then-new London Port Authority in 1909. Obsolete, they closed in 1968.

As for the bridge, it opened in 1894 to relieve traffic on London Bridge, which had been built in 1825 (and was sold in 1968, then reassembled, of all places, at Lake Havasu, on the Colorado River.) The Tower Bridge's lifting machinery was originally steam-powered, but the steam engines were retired in 1976; much earlier, in 1910, the high-level public walkway between the towers was closed because few pedestrians bothered to use it. So much for the theory that only the most recent generation is lazy.

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The downstream side of the north abutment, which (shudder) contains a mortuary for bodies pulled from the river. Dickens talks about such things, doesn't he? Night. Heavy fog. Oars thunking on objects soft yet solid.

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An engineer, John Wolfe Barry, shared the design with Horace Jones, an architect. They were required to provide a bridge with 200 feet of lateral clearance and 135 feet of headroom. The Tower of London is very nearby, which seems to explain why the bridge is dressed with stone. At least one contemporary dismissed it as "gimcrack on a large scale" (5:502). Americans today are more respectful, almost as though they made a mistake 200 years ago. Not quite, but almost. (The source 5:502 refers to the six-volume guide to London architecture begun by Nikolaus Pevsner and carried on by others. It's the ultimate vademecum, except that it requires a small wheeled cart.)

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We hardly have to go any distance downstream before we bump into relics of the 19th century river--gloomy, filthy, but rich with cargoes of silk and spice, tea, wine, and more. By the early 19th century, engineers were looking for ways to provide more parking space. They hit upon the idea of excavating basins that ships could enter through short canals, whose gates could be closed at high tide to keep the basin's water level constant. The first such docks were the West India Docks, now the center of today's prodigiously successful office park and more, Canary Wharf. The St. Katharine Dock, its entrance gate shown here, opened a bit later, in 1806. Its owner, the London Docks Company, had just won a 21-year monopoly on handling all the rice, tobacco, wine, and brandy arriving in London, except for ships from the East and West Indies.

The black metal posts or bollards are dated 1818.

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The old dockmaster's house, from 1828, is behind the wall. The lock gates are from 1957 and replaced the old mitre gates, which swung apart. The replacement is a flap gate, which rotates to lie on the channel floor. The fresh paint on the new pedestrian bridge hints at the change that has come over this district since commercial shipping was finally excluded in 1968.

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Beyond the bright red second new bridge, the basin is filled with yachts, their masts rising in front of Ivory House, from 1860. It's the only surviving waterside warehouse around this basin and was converted to flats in 1971. It may have been empty for a long time before then, because as early as 1850 ships began using the larger docks farther downstream, especially the so-called Royal Docks. No problem: the London Docks Company, which owned St. Katharine's and all the others on this stroll, owned the Royal Docks, too, until the London Port Authority took over in 1909.

The building on the left is the "hideous" Tower Thistle Hotel (5:498). Blast that critic!

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A detailed explanation of the lock mechanism.

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The bollard is old. So is the basin itself, designed by Thomas Telford, famous in other quarters as the "colossus of roads." The yachts and the "Gherkin" peaking over the shoulder of closer buildings are new. Even the massive International House, masquerading on the right as an old brick warehouse, was actually completed in 1983. Pevsner calls it "misleadingly semi-historical" (5:504).

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We'll walk downstream. There's no promenade here, but occasional alleys and stairs lead to the water. We'll walk down there.

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The view upstream, with the Tower Bridge reduced to a toy by the tallest building in Western Europe. It's The Shard. (The British are the uncontested champions of nicknaming iconic buildings, and they aren't half bad at landing Qatari investors, either.)

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The Blitz did heavy damage to this part of London, which is why large parts of the neighborhood had to be cleared. Waterside property was especially valuable because it could attract expensive residential buildings, in this case Seville House at Cinnabar Wharf. One flat here sold in 2000 for 600,000 pounds, then sold in 2009 for 800,000.

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Another pier head, this one to the London Docks, built in 1805 but filled after the basin was closed in 1968. Part of the filled area was taken over by News Corp for a printing plant. Note the bollard.

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A sunken garden, with another bollard, marks the alignment of the filled entrance lock.

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Another alley leads to the river. (The black and white street sign reads Wapping Old Street.)

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The view from below.

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Oliver's Wharf was built in 1870 to handle tea but was converted in 1972 to flats. Cast-iron columns support a timber and brick building trimmed with sandstone.

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Another view of what Pevsner calls "Venetian Gothic" (5:508).

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The river at this point.

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The street-side facade. Yes, that's a tombstone. It's in a park on the site of an old churchyard.

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Here's the church in question, St. John, built in 1756. Only a shell survived the war, but the London County Council paid for restoration in 1964. Thirty years later, the building was converted to flats.

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The nearby St. Peter's. The church proper is hidden behind the wings of residences for clergy and sisters. The entrance to the church lies through the twin arches.

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The side of the church proper. Plans for a tower and spire were abandoned in 1939.

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A monument on the well of the clergy house recalls the founder of the church, Charles Fuge Lowder (1820-80). As a student at Oxford, Lowder heard John Henry Newman and decided to become a priest. A decade after ordination, he became a leader of the group that created the Society of the Holy Cross, dedicated to social service in the form of St. George's Mission to the East, meaning not India but East London. Land in Wapping was acquired for a church, and about a decade later St. Peter's was consecrated. The next day, cholera broke out in the neighborhood. Because of his service during that crisis, Lowder became known as Father, the first Church of England priest to be so addressed.

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The arresting interior, mostly brick but highlighted by the alternation of red and black. Pevsner writes of its "Ruskinian toughness exaggerated by the huge blocks of uncarved stone where capitals and corbels were left unfinished" (5:500). The round or wheel window once overlooked a workhouse replaced now by Oswell House, a midrise apartment block.

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A block to the north of the church, a canal survives near the mostly filled London Dock, whch was connected to St. Katharine's. The drydocked ships at the right are metal replicas, built to attract children and their parents to a shopping center built in the adjoining tobacco warehouse. The center failed, and the ships were inaccessible as of 2011.

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Housing along the same canal. It's a far cry from the 1850s, when Henry Mayhew wrote about these docks: "Along the quay, you see now men with their faces blue with indigo, and now gaugers with their long brass-tipped rule dripping with spirit from the cask they have been probing; then will come a group of flaxen-haired sailors, chattering German; and next a black sailor, with a cotton handkerchief twisted turban-like around his head. Presently a blue-smocked butcher, with fresh meat and a bunch of cabbages in the tray on his shoulder, and shortly afterwards a mate with green parroquets in a wooden cage" (London Labour and the London Poor, 1861, p. 302).

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Back to the river and continuing downstream. The huge Crane Wharf was built in 1873, burned and rebuilt in 1885, and converted to apartments in 1990.

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More steps down to the river.

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The view downstream.

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Crane Wharf from the water's edge.

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Still peregrinating along Wapping High Street and past its remarkably well-preserved stretch of warehouses. The one with green doors is the Great Jubilee Wharf.

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The waterside view of the Great Jubilee.

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Another pub. Once there were dozens in this neighborhood.

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Just before the entrance to the third or Shadfield basin, there is an art gallery. The building originally housed something very different. Built in 1893, it was the last of five hydraulic pumping plants in the neighborhood, all of them intended to power cranes and drawbridges. The tower looks ornamental but is the "accumulator tower" where water pressure was built up. The station closed in 1977.

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A rolling-bascule bridge over the entrance to the Shadwell Basin.

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Yes, the Shadwell basin was once connected by canal through to the Tobacco Dock, London Dock, and St. Katharine Dock. Wonder why there are no yachts here?

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Here's your answer. The Shadwell Basin Bridge is now fixed in place.

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Not only that: immediately below it, the former entrance to the Thames is permanently sealed. The tall buildings in the distance belong to Canary Wharf, built on the site of the West India Docks (and shown in more detail in the folders called London 7 and London 9).

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Immediately downstream of the Shadwell Basin, the King Edward Memorial Park opened in 1922 on the site of the Shadwell Fish Market. It's a rare bit of green space in this part of London.

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The park was opened by King George and Queen Mary. A monument marks the spot and reads: "This park is dedicated to the use and enjoyment of the people of east London for ever." The missing medallion? Anybody's guess, but perhaps the royal couple.

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The park also has a monument to several mariners who set out from near this point. Hugh Willoughby in particular discovered Novaya Zemlya. That fact was deduced from the journals found on his ship the year after all hands, Willoughby included, froze to death in the winter of 1553-54.

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The Rotherhithe Rotunda, also on the park grounds, is a ventilation shaft for the Rotherhithe Tunnel, a vehicular tunnel under the river.

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The view of Canary Wharf from the park promenade. The river here begins a great meander to the south and around the Isle-of-Dogs, after which it returns to a point more or less straight behind the skyscrapers.

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We now arrive at the fourth basin, Limehouse.

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Ths is the lock that enters it.

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Limehouse leads into the Regent's Canal, which runs west to Paddington and the Grand Junction Canal, which extends north about 130 miles to Birmingham. That explains the ranks of narrowboats. The maximum beam on these canals is 14 feet; maximum length, 72 feet; the canal depth on average is only 3.5 feet.

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This is the view a few miles upstream at Camden Town, near the Hampstead Road Lock. Although now only recreational, horse-drawn barges lingered along the canal until 1956. The system has never closed.

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We've swept around the meander and are looking across the river to the O2 arena (formerly the Millennium Dome) at the northern tip of the Greenwich Peninsula. The dome is farther away than it looks: its span is fully 365 meters. Call it 400 meters from this spot to the nearest edge of the dome.

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We're here for this: the mouth of the East India Dock Basin.

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The gates are very new, as the date at the left shows.

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This is the former entrance pool, the only part left of a sequence of ponds including separate export and import basins.

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This view west is across the surviving pool to the apartment blocks on the filled basins.

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Inspirational.

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As the dock was in the 1930s: entrance pool, import dock, export dock. The meanders belong to the Lea River, extending to the upper left.


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