Looking for somewhere different to visit, as summer opens up ahead of us? Jack Watkins explores a historic corner of London’s forgotten docklands that has found a new purpose for the 21st century...
Beyond the shimmering towers of Canary Wharf, the railway bridges, and the pedestrian-free fury of the Blackwall motorways, ghosts from London’s dockland past live on in strange, unexpected places. What is now called Leamouth used to be known as Bow Creek, and merely the name is enough to evoke a scene of creaking cargo ships, sails flapping in the Thames breeze, taciturn, hard-faced dockers, and an eerie network of wharves and waterways created out of the reclaimed marshes.
The London docks are compelling if you have a fascination for history of the tough, grinding kind, though if you come to the spot where the River Lea winds down to meet the Thames, be prepared for incongruity. Quite how Victorian writers ever managed to describe Poplar, whose high street is just to the west, as a ‘romantic village’ is baffling. A flick through the history books shows that the area had ceased being any kind of remote riverside idyll, à la Twickenham, as far back as the early 1800s.
Forgotten entirely it certainly was by the final third of the last century, however, with the area in sharp decline as London’s stature as an industrial port shrank. It’s only in the last twenty years that Bow Creek and its environs have undergone something of a rediscovery. After years of dereliction, in 1996 Urban Space Management, a company with a track record of breathing new life into run down urban areas (past successes include Borough Market, Spitalfields, Camden Lock and Merton Abbey Mills), acquired a 125-acre site at Trinity Buoy Wharf. Setting up the Trinity Buoy Wharf
Trust, it has transformed what was an area of no perceived value into a multi-place site for small businesses in the arts and cultural sectors. What’s more, it has managed to do it without sacrificing the all-important dockland atmospherics, and the wharf has become a place where the curious can also visit, soaking in the riverside atmosphere and learning about its past associations.
If you approach via the traditional route, other than by boat, you take the long, straight Commercial Road, which runs between Aldgate and Limehouse, and which was specially laid out after the formation of the West India Dock Company in 1799. The road connected the docks with the City, much as the Docklands Light Railway connects the office workers of the Canary Wharf with the rest of London today. The East India Dock was created a little later, and Bow Creek lies just beyond it. Turning right past the railway station and continuing east, what seems like an unpromising area of apartment blocks opens up to a view on the Thames riverfront. The design of the O2 building, with its crane-like rooftop protuberances, across the other side of the water, makes total sense in this context.
The East India Dock Basin, in which you soon find yourself, once had a dock master and several other subordinates to supervise the loading and unloading of vessels. How devoid of traffic the river would seem to those characters if they returned today. The East India Dock is now a nature reserve. Kingfishers have been seen, and bluebells are in flower in spring as a song thrush darts about among the thickets, which later in the year will offer them a supply nourishing supply of hawthorn berries and rose hips.
Just to underscore the air of surrealism often found in reclaimed industrial and urban landscapes, as you walk out of the reserve into Orchard Place an old London taxi cab sprouts a tree, an example of the various bits of street art and sculpture dotted about Trinity Buoy Wharf. Information boards on the walls of old warehouses provide pen pictures of the past. Orchard Place was once literally that: a house with an orchard. In the early1800s, it became a village with its own pub and chapel, but it was a dangerous locale, and few outsiders came, for fear of their lives. By the early 1900s it was in serious decline, and poverty and hardship were bywords. Then there were the floods. As recently as 1953, 1,000m of river wall collapsed and 1,000 homes were flooded, but the worst flood was in 1928, when fourteen people drowned.
The Wharf gained its name from the Trinity House corporation, the body responsible for the maintenance of lighthouses, lightships and buoys, which owned the site from 1803 to 1988. The brick lighthouse which survives is London’s only lighthouse, and Michael Faraday carried out his pioneering experiments here. The adjoining Chain and Buoy Store was once used for storing iron mooring chains and huge iron buoys. A striking red lightship, formerly owned by Trinity House and now permanently moored here, serves as a recording studio these days. Fat Boy’s Diner, a reconditioned, traditional 1940s-style American diner which has somehow wound up in England, provides refreshments, as does the Driftwood Café, and various other business have offices here, including the English National Opera, which leases one of the dockyard buildings as a workshop. The catamarans of Thames Clippers are also moored here.
Part of the impressive brick riverside wall is very old, dating to 1822. Serving as a flood defence before the creation of the Thames Barrier, it is now listed for its historic and architectural interest. There doesn’t seem to be much of historic interest looking across to the modern sheds on the other bank of the River Lea, but even here there is a poignant link to the past. Years ago you would have been staring at the huge Thames Ironworks building, impressive in its rather forbidding Victorian way. In 1895, the yard’s employees formed a football club. They were so successful that they went professional, as West Ham FC. Their nickname ‘the Hammers’ still reflects their ironworking origins.
While small creative businesses have found a home in the old warehouse structures and workshops at Trinity Buoy Wharf, another ingenious idea by Urban Space Management’s founder Eric Reynolds has been to recondition shipping containers for office use. The containers’ strong yet lightweight frames minimize the need for concrete foundations and reduce building costs. Mr Reynolds’ own office is housed in one of these units. It’s led some people to dub the wharf ‘container city’.
The integrity of the location, up to now, has remained intact, however. ‘Tread lightly on the earth’ and ‘leave space for creativity, and listen to the place and the people’ are among the successful watchwords of Eric Reynolds and Urban Space Management – which is why an imminent threat of development at Orchard Place is causing consternation. Two towering apartment blocks are proposed and seem likely to be given the go ahead by Tower Hamlets council. According to the Trinity Buoy Wharf Trust, leaseholders of the workshops are strongly urging the planning committee to recommend that the ‘overpowering blocks’ are redesigned, moved back or reduced in height, given that, at the closest point, the new buildings will be a mere eight feet away from the artists’ workshops. Organic development has created something special at Bow Creek. What a pity big money is once again trying to muscle in to spoil the ambience.