Part Two – St. Katharine’s Dock
Worn-out Whistles with Pocket’s Full O’ Tanners
Christmas comes and goes bringing with it snow, blizzards and some of the worst winter conditions Britain has seen for fifty years. Businesses close as do schools, motorways grind to a crawl, everything momentarily seizes up. Then, as fast as it arrived the snow thaws. It has been a little over a month since I saw Dave though we have communicated via E-mail and phone. One weekend as I am cleaning out my garage; I get a call from Dave. It is Sunday and he is off to London; he asks do I want to meet up? An hour or so later we are drinking cappuccinos near Tower Bridge.
There is no rain today. It is nippy but not overly cold and the sun is shining from a crystal blue sky that casts weak shadows onto the city’s tired tarmac and pavements. The Tower of London gathers tourists and sightseers; crowds hanker to have family photos taken with the old building as a backdrop. To its side Tower Bridge preens supreme and magnificent, its imperial head gazes down like an overlord on the throngs below. There is no finer sight than this: London’s twin monuments muscling in on the Thames as it cuts its ribboned way through the capital of England.
Dave and I play catch-up, discussing work, family, music and football. We have already decided to retrace our steps to enable us to take in the rest of London’s Docks.
St. Katharine’s Dock, with its ornate gateway that displays two elephants astride twin columns, is the first place we enter. Dave clicks away like a dervish. I scribble some notes. Today’s ‘Dock’ is nothing more than a tourist attraction that hides its history behind a façade of water. The shape of the place is pretty much as it was and some of the buildings too but by and large this has been completely re-developed to suit the City workers that reside here.
Originally St. Katharine’s was a church, in 1148. It was founded by Matilda the daughter of King Henry 1st in loving memory of her sons Stephen and Eustace both of whom had died as infants. Matilda was the first Queen of England although she only reigned for a matter of months. History doesn’t forget this fact but it seldom speaks of it. The church she had built was named St. Katharine’s by the Tower due to its close proximity to the Tower of London. Not only was it a place of worship but it also functioned as a hospital. Surrounding the church would have been a gaggle of squalid, narrow lanes that housed vagabonds and prostitutes (a fine place for Vigor and Duffy then) that strung around the building with names of dank dominion: Cat’s Hole, Pillory Lane, Dark Entry, Shovel Alley a set of tenements to shame the rest of London. It was a mark of the selfish nature of that age St. Katharine’s remained as a church until 1865 when, as the Empire reached its height, the church was knocked down and replaced with another, smaller dock for ships to unload at. They used to refer to these slums in the sixteen hundreds as a Rookery.
None of this is evident now; all vestiges of the past have been idly replaced as commerce and common decency have come into play. The small bridges, with water lapping at their stout feet, are all that there now is of this one time hive of industry. It still makes for a splendid sight to visit even if there is only a whisper of its past to be heard, a ghost of its history to be seen. St. Katharine’s never proved a great success as a dock as it was too small and couldn’t handle larger vessels. Due to its limited commercial success, the dock was amalgamated with neighbouring London Docks and then the PLA (Port of London Authority) took over virtually all of the docks in 1909 including St. Katharine’s. The Second World War so badly damaged the old docks that they effectively never operated as before and were fully closed down in 1968.
Today St. Katharine’s is a flourishing area with residential properties hobnobbing with offices; shops exchange customers with the restaurants and a large hotel leans over the marina watching while the yachts bob and bluster on the water. It is every bit the co-opposite success of its predecessor with its popular leisure facilities, so much so that failure now seems a long distant memory. There is even, close by, St. Katharine’s Pier which provides a river bound transport service that cruises down the Thames to Westminster.
Dave and I take our notes and photos, staking our tiny claims for posterity, and then we move on, heading back down The Highway and onto Shadwell Basin, Limehouse and The Isle of Dogs.
Part Three – Shadwell Basin
Where the Bubbles meet the Fisherman’s Daughter
To get to Shadwell Basin we follow the canals that were built several centuries before. These self-same canals have been altered so that they are no longer able to grant vessels access but instead have blocks, lovingly fitted, that form a lengthy, continuous lock effect with water cascading over them. You can visibly see where the alterations have been made as the new brickwork walkway differs slightly from the cranky old bricks that would have once given broader berths to a multitude of ships. There is that constant thrum that you always hear when near a body of water, a hypnotic almost ominous pull of nature that resonate a deep memory. A metal bascule bridge sits retired and painted rust red. The bridge seldom, if ever, moves now. Its counterweight hangs heavy but unused. It is a single leaf bridge designed to allow ships to enter or vehicles to cross.
Shadwell Basin sits north of the Thames and downstream of the Tower; it is surrounded on three sides by apartments that have four to five storeys which all recall the old warehouses that would have welcomed ships as they caressed the wharfs and quaysides. The basin itself is more of butler sink as it is square and not round. We watch as joggers huff past followed by cyclists whose gears grate against greased cranks; a huddle of tourists hold a map at a curious angle jabbing their fingers in various directions while conversing in a guttural tongue neither of us understands. London attracts sightseers and immigrants alike; it always has for two thousand years. Even back in the seventeen hundred's three out of every five Londoners was an immigrant. In the early eighteen hundred's, Shadwell was home to Lascar seamen who, having been brought here by the East India Company, remained as residents. There were also Greek and Chinese who lived here and intermarried with each other and with white English people. London has always been a cosmopolitan melting pot long before America.
As the London Docks extended ever eastward so the need for newer docks grew and by 1828 work began here in Shadwell that was completed in 1832 to further expand the docks. It wasn’t long though before this latest development proved too small and by 1850, a larger entrance was built on this very site.
Dave and I watch the water flow, its hidden depths unfolding like a mystery that covers every fleeting glimpse you catch of its dark, sunken truths with yet another ceaseless wave. How many drowned here? How many bodies with broken skulls have been pushed into his welcoming maw? How many illicit treasures have fallen foul of some tempestuous rage, thrown in temper into the current, sinking slowly into the silt?
I ask Dave how much he thinks one of the penthouses would go for bearing in mind that they are by no means big.
“£700,000, maybe a million; hard to say with London prices.”
We follow a group of people through a large arch that takes us away from the basin and back toward The Highway. Above the buildings, clearly visible is a church.
“Dave,” I ask, “do you reckon that is a Hawksmoor church? He built one around here.”
“Dunno mate, let’s take a look.”
To our left is a green, park-like, area where old trees grow in abundance and beyond that the church. We climb a set of steps that are short but broad; stretching for many yards across what is in effect the back entrance. As we pass through and onto a stunted path there are a couple of houses, one with a car parked outside with a man carrying boxes to and from the boot. The church is St. Paul’s Church Shadwell but it was not designed or built by Hawksmoor. As we move around the grounds of the church the gentleman unloading boxes from the boot of his car returns but this time enters the house outside where the car is parked. The man is no more than thirty-five and I collar him as he appears at the house door.
“Excuse me,” I ask, “but is this church of Hawksmoor design?”
He confirms that it isn’t, telling me the of the two Hawksmoor churches in this area. One we have already visited whilst the other is a little way distant: St. Anne’s Limehouse I thank him and return to Dave who has stomped off on his own and is circling the church, camera at the ready. As he does what Dave does best I take a look at the notice board with its emblazoned history.
Built in 1656 it was originally known as the Church of Sea Captains but was re-built in 1669 as the Parish Church of Shadwell. During its time, it has given witness to many great people who have worshipped or been baptised her. Among the famous have been John Wesley who preached here. James Cook, son of Captain James Cook was baptised here and his father sat in the pews at worship. Jane Randolph, mother of President Thomas Jefferson was also baptised here, as was English Chemist, William Henry Perkin who discovered the first aniline dye.
Perkin was obviously a man of extremely good taste and breeding being born in March (the same month as the author of these walks), 1838 in the East End of London and the youngest child of seven. His father was a carpenter and fortunately, a successful one as William would, after an education at the City of London School, benefit from when he entered the Royal College of Chemistry. Whilst at the City of London School he was lucky enough to be taught by Thomas Hall who invested in the young boy a passion for chemistry. It was this love that drove him on.
He was only 15 when, in 1853, he joined the Royal College but under the watchful eyes of August Wilhelm von Hoffman his confidence and knowledge grew. Chemistry as a science was still in its infancy in the mid-eighteen hundred's and although the atomic theory was generally accepted and all major elements discovered it was still perceived by many as being arcane. Perkins’ tutor Hoffman had presented his hypothesis on how quinine could be synthesised and Perkin took up this challenge and began his experiments. If they could find away to develop this concept they may have discovered a possible cure for malaria, if not a cure, a potent weapon against it.
Whilst Hoffman was on vacation in his native Germany, Perkin took his experiments home with him. He had rooms in Cable Street and from the top floor went to work. The laboratory he used was crude, lacking any real equipment but nonetheless he soldiered on. He discovered one day that he could transform aniline when it was extracted with alcohol. This produced a curious substance which had an intense purple colour. At first, he was nonplussed by this discovery as it had nothing to do with his project but then, having conducted further trials with his brother Thomas and their mutual friend, Arthur Church, the three men decided not to tell Hoffman but to continue with their experiments in secret in Perkins’ hut in his garden, all of which sounds rather like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to me or at least very eccentric.
The experiments failed to produce any form of a medical breakthrough but did create something far more lucrative if not so laudable. The resultant substance created produced a dye which when introduced to silk remained stable even after washing. This at a time when the Empire’s fortunes soared high and as the industrial revolution was enveloping the entire civilised world. The colour mauve, or mauvine, entered the English language.
Enthused with their discovery samples were sent to a dye works in Perth, Scotland to which they received a very favourable response from the managing director. Without a moment’s hesitation they decided to patent their find, this they did in August 1856.
Inventing a dye was in itself not a major problem, finding the capital to produce it however was. Perkin, still only twenty-two, persuaded his father to lend him the capital, then, along with his brothers, they built a factory. Inflamed by his desire for success Perkin went into overdrive inventing a mordant (a substance used in the dyeing of cloth), giving technical advice to the cotton dyeing industry and by marketing his discovery. Then, with a true stroke of commercial luck, his dye was given the Royal seal of approval when Napoleon the third’s wife, Empress Eugénie, started wearing a similar colour and then, to cap it all, so did Queen Victoria.
It must be remembered how important the colour purple was in Victorian times. It was a mark of the aristocracy, of prestige and of wealth. Until this discovery, such a colour had not been widely available. Now it was about to reach a commercial level never believed possible before. People from all walks of life would be seen wearing purple and not at extortionate prices. Factories were built all over Europe to produce this new aniline dye. Perkin himself discovered and patented even more. An international trade war began.
The success of these dyes made William Perkin very wealthy but it didn’t end there. The industrial revolution was largely textile driven but now, as science began to take off and advance at alarming rates so the impact on the broader sweep of industry was felt; coal production being the major benefactor. William continued to experiment and in 1858, he, along with B.F Duppa, synthesised glycine in what was the first laboratory preparation of an amino acid. The two went on to synthesise tartaric acid in 1860. Perkin was also the first man to discover a process for synthesising artificial perfume using a method known as the Perkin reaction. William Perkin was knighted in 1906 only to die one year later in London.
We leave the church by another gate, this time taking the road, Wapping Highway. Traffic is loud and conversation hard to hear. We take to raising our voices to be heard, our estuary accents becoming all the more acute. We pass a building, stocky and grey with a statue outside that has been boarded up. The library isn’t the most attractive of buildings but is still of significance to this area as is the hidden statue that stands guard at the front. The statue is of Clement Attlee, a former Labour Prime Minister and one who was voted the greatest Prime Minister to have lived during the 20th century. He was born in London, Putney but had no other association with this area apart from being another Londoner.
We see Limehouse waiting patiently in front of us and walk toward it.
Part Four – Limehouse
‘Limehouse Bill’: The Legend of William Adams
There is an air of deep mystery surrounding Limehouse, something that harkens back to the days of smog and gaslight, of prostitutes parading down narrow roads or performing tuppenny uprights with soot covered workmen against harsh brick walls, of horses hooves clattering down uneven streets, of chill air and warm beer served in loud pubs with bawdy barmaids, brassy and buxom, of stale cigarette smoke gathering in musty corners, of razors blades flashing in stolen moonlit recesses. The smell of corruption has gone but the memory lingers.
It is unclear where Limehouse gets its name from but there is one suggestion that we take to: the seaman who used to moor here were known as ‘lime-juicers’ or limeys due to the nautical habit of drinking lime juice to ward of scurvy The more likely explanation is that Limehouse once used to be an area that made potteries and for that purpose used lime-kilns. The latter is probably correct but we prefer the former.
Narrow Street runs parallel with the Thames. There are a series of early Georgian terrace houses here that form an elegant banana bend as they closely curve the road they face. Snuggled in among the houses is a public house, The Grapes that claims to have been built in 1583 but as the houses that adjoin it are known to have been built in the late 1700’s such a claim seems rather silly. Charles Dickens is reputed to have visited here when researching local places of interest for his novel “Our Mutual Friend”. The pub retains all its eighteenth-century charm with its glass-front and slim door bringing to mind a slender man in worn frock coat who doffs his stove hat at passing trade inviting them to change their minds and enter to buy some ale and provender. We reject the honoured gentleman’s invitation and pass by.
Notorious restaurateur Gordon Ramsey owns a local pub, The Narrow, which serves pleasant fodder with average prices. Another place my wife and I visited some years ago.
It was Limehouse where the original Chinatown in London existed. The Chinese arrived, as so many people did in the 1700’s as sailors who then made the East End and London their home. Crime among the Chinese community was low but not so with the long established English who looted and thieved from the boats that set by at the quays. Fu Manchu was said to, in the stories written by Sax Rohmer, have used Limehouse as a base of operations, Sherlock Holmes visited the opium dens here. London’s Chinatown remained in the East End until the war when during the blitz it was destroyed. The residents moved to Soho in the fifties where they now run successful businesses.
The Limehouse Basin is nothing like St. Katharine’s, less touristy and with more evident history in the shape of the vessels, narrowboats and canal barges, that decorate the water with their colourful, romantic, endearing shapes. It is also a lot smaller than Shadwell Basin but still was significant during London Dock’s heyday. When first built it was known as Regent’s Canal Dock as it was used by lighters to offload cargoes onto canal barges. These, in turn, would have been transported by water to a variety of gasworks and later electricity generators.
Like Shadwell and St. Katharine’s, there are a number of residential properties, mostly apartments, which circle the water. Desirable and undoubtedly expensive they are welcome additions as they keep alive a memory of days long gone while giving people homes to live in and enjoy with views that endorse the cost.
Dave becomes excited as we approach a tall tower that sits behind a viaduct arch. It is the tower for what used to be a hydraulic accumulator.
Dave is the sort of chap who gets excited at the signs of rust on bridges, peeling paint on locomotives, flotsam washed up onto beaches, all of which he captures on film before turning into wonderful works of art. I am not surprised by his desire to get closer to this building which no longer functions as a hydraulic accumulator but as a viewing platform. Unfortunately, we are unable to get any closer, as the building only opens to the public in September.
Dave manfully accepts the fact he cannot get into the building and only weeps briefly.
“What do you know of William Adams?” I ask.
“Never heard of him, who is he?”
“He died several hundred years ago, therefore, was.”
“Alright, smart arse, who was he?”
William Adams was not born in London but in Gillingham, Kent; he was born on the 24th September 1564. He didn’t move to London’s Limehouse until he was twelve when he relocated there to become an apprentice to shipyard owner Master Nicholas Diggins. Adams father died when the boy was twelve and Adams spent a further twelve years learning his chosen trade. He learnt of shipbuilding, of navigation, of knots and astronomy and as he learnt so his longing to go to sea and explore grew in him. He joined the Royal Navy and served under Sir Francis Drake where he saw action in 1588 as England battled against the Spanish Armada. Not that Adams fought alongside either Lord Howard or Sir Francis Drake; Adams was master of the supply ship the Richard Dyffylde (Duffield) and so he ferried victuals and supplies to support the battling mariners.
After this, having shown himself a courageous man and able master, he became a pilot for the Barbary Company where he took part in an Arctic expedition that lasted some two years. The expedition’s intention was to search and locate the Northeast Passage.
Adams was a devout Christian and a Protestant by choice. As a patriot, he disliked with a passion, as did many of his countrymen, the Spanish and Portuguese not just because England was often at war with them but also because they were Catholic nations, papists and as such were much hated by the English.
He married Mary Hyn in St. Dunstan, Stepney, not far from Limehouse. Mary fulfilled her wifely duties, blessing William with a daughter, Deliverance but Adams had restless feet and the call of the sea ached within him. Hearing of secret plans being laid in Rotterdam of a fleet being made ready to sail to the legendary Spice Islands near the East Indies, and of the entourage’s need of a capable pilot who could lead them through the harrowing Oceans of the Atlantic and Pacific, Adams pushed himself forward. If he succeeded he would return with a ship filled to the brim with riches all of his own. So, at the age of thirty-four Adams again set sail. He didn’t seem overly bothered by familial duties but even if he had, he wouldn’t see his wife or daughter for many, many years; it was now 1598.
Having arrived in Holland Adams saw for the first time the impressive fleet prepared and ready to sail. There was a total of five ships: the Hoop, Geloof, Trouw, Liefde and finally the Blijde Boodschop. Adams took the Hoop and on June 1598 the five vessels left Rotterdam.
The voyage turned from impulsive joy to sheer nightmare when, as they navigated around the west coast of Africa then through the Magellan Straits following the coast line of Chile, the fleet became scattered and lost sight of each other. Adams changed ships and was now aboard the Liefde. Not wanting to continue without his company, Adams waited for the rest of the fleet at Santa Maria Island. The wait proved virtually pointless as only one ship, the Hoop, finally appeared. After a brief stay on the island, the two vessels again set sail; it was now November 1599; together they sailed westward toward Japan where disaster struck again, this time in the form of a typhoon that destroyed the Hoop. When Adams finally arrived in Japan it was April 19th, 1600.
Europeans had been seen before in Japan so the sight of Adams and his storm-beaten crew were no surprise for the Japanese who had grown accustomed to the unwashed Europeans with their gaudy clothes and discourteous, crude manners. At first, Adams and the ships sailors were thought to be pirates and were duly arrested before being imprisoned in Osaka Castle. The orders had come from the Shogun, the overlord of all the feudal lords and therefore came from the singularly most powerful man in Japan. The Shogun who imprisoned Adams was Tokugawa Ieyasu.
By the time the first Europeans landed in Japan, the country’s golden era had long gone. The Emperor lived in squalor surrounded by peasant-like courtiers who sold antiques, and anything they could find, in the back streets of Kyoto. Various groups ran riot, feuding, robbing and slaughtering each other as the impotent Emperor watched powerlessly. The only man with the wit and wherewithal to meet their challenge was Tokugawa Ieyasu, a formidable man with an incisive, tactical mind.
Adams, along with his men, was detained for many months in Osaka Castle although Adams was interviewed several times by Tokugawa Ieyasu. Eventually, the Shogun began to warm to Adams, admiring the mathematical ability that Adams had but also impressed by the technology England and Europe were able to offer. When the Japanese had captured Adams and his crew they had found aboard their vessel nineteen bronze cannons, 5,000 cannonballs, 500 muskets, 300 chain-shot along with three chests filled with chain mail armour. Tokugawa Ieyasu was impressed by this vast array of power but lacked the knowledge of how to use it, whereas Adams, who Ieyasu genuinely had taken to, had knowledge enough for both men.
Osaka was a big city, bigger than London and, like London, had a river running though it but unlike London there was more than one bridge, there were dozens. The men of the west thought them selves civilised and decorous but compared to the Japanese they were crude and smelly. The Japanese that met the crew bathed at least twice a day and had their hair oiled and prepared by women whose role was to wash then dress them; they were horrified when Adams and his shipmates arrived unwashed for several months having been at sea. To the Japanese, the English were little better than their European cousins and they had not been overly impressed with them.
Tokugawa was a man with a huge reputation with an equally huge stomach. Portraits of the man show him as being a giant who wore elaborate silks with beautiful designs woven into them. He was a dandy but also ruthless and fearless in battle, sharp witted with a knowing eye. His stomach though was a thing of legend and of mirth. One contemporary said this of him: “He has such a fat belly, that he cannot tie his own girdle.” A fact to which Tokugawa readily agreed, “The fact is I have a fat belly and cannot mount a horse with armour on.”
By 1604, Tokugawa gave orders to Adams along with his men to build Japan’s first western style ship. It was an instruction Adams gladly complied with using his and the crew’s knowledge. So happy with the resultant 80-ton vessel was Tokugawa that he ordered another, bigger ship to be built. Again Adams and his men did as they were told but this time built an even bigger ship, one weighing 120 tons. Upon seeing it Tokugawa was visibly pleased, so pleased that he invited Adams to visit his palace whenever he liked, an invitation rarely given and never before to a westerner. Adams favour had vastly gone up in Tokugawa Ieyasu’s estimation.
So great was the value placed on Adams by the Shogun that the Englishman was made a diplomat and trade advisor with many privileges heaped upon him. Eventually, he became the Shogun’s personal advisor on all things either English or European even acting as an interpreter, having learnt Japanese, in Tokugawa Ieyasu court.
When Adams asked for leave to return home to see his wife and child the Shogun forbade him insisting that he remain in Japan. To sweeten the pill Adams was made a Samurai and was built a huge house set in a vast estate. Adams stayed in Japan and, due to his revered position, eventually married a local woman from a lower class. Oyuki was the daughter of Magome Kageyu, an official of the highway office whose duties were to deal with cargo from foreign ships. Although an important role it was not one that was of royal breeding which in itself says much of Adams prestige and position within the Royal court to allow him to marry outside of his rank. Adams and Oyuki had two children, a boy, and a girl with both being given English names, presumably due to Adams devout Christian up bringing, of Joseph and Susanna.
During his time in Japan, Adams oversaw the establishment of an English trading factory and greatly assisted in relations between the two nations. He also helped East India Company with much of their far eastern business. He even organised an expedition to Siam on behalf of Tokugawa Ieyasu.
Adams died on 16th May 1620 at the age of 55. He was buried in Nagasaki-Ken where his grave marker can still be seen to this day. He left his vast wealth and estates to his children, both those in Japan and his daughter in England. He was an incredible man, one of a rare breed of adventurers that the world will probably never see the like of again.
His story was used by James Clavell in his Shogun novel and should you want further, more detailed information on William Adams then I recommend Giles Milton’s excellent book, ‘Samurai William.’
There is a connection that exists between the English and Japanese, fading now perhaps through inevitable change, which brings both cultures together in muted deference. Both have had a class system, ugly as such things are but still in existence today. This sense of etiquette has fashioned a deeply rooted sense of good manners, respect, and courtesy. Much of the unnecessary Kow Towing to establishment offices and officials has gone, as it rightly should but it is those self-same officials who might do well to remember who pays their wages. By and large, it is the general public, the electorate, the people to whom they should answer and not vice versa. Having said that, respect is a thing you earn and is not given for free and to positions of authority; just as good manners cost less than a farthing and should be used at all times.
Politicians should always be doubted; look behind every sentence, each word with a finely crafted eye glass. Be ever suspicious of those who tread the political boards as far too often in my experience they say the one thing, denounce the other and then spin a third which is precisely what they said they wouldn’t in the first place. Even so, with such people in mind, good manners and courtesy should always be observed and extended.
I really believe in individuality; that is to say, I believe in the right of every free person to express themselves precisely as they want to without fear of recrimination or ridicule as long as that self-expression doesn’t physically harm someone else. During my life there have been Teddy Boys, Rockers, Mods, Skinheads, Glam Rockers, Punks, Goths, New Romantics and Hip Hoppers, people who need to show their independence with each of them vying to set themselves apart or as being different from the rest of the publics idea of what people should dress like; good bloody luck to them and why not?
I couldn’t give a fig if the girl in the bank has hair dyed green as long as she serves me with due politeness; I couldn’t give a flying duck if the railway guard has tattoos all over his face and body as long as he treats me with respect; I couldn’t give a damn if the newsagent is naked with a large stud driven through his wedding tackle as long as he isn’t rude to me. The only thing I ask from anyone in life is to remember to say please and thank you, to let old folks have a seat on the train, open doors for people carrying shopping, hold doors open for those following on behind and say thank you to those holding the door for you. Is it so much to ask? Just to have some little old fashioned manners in a cold, digital world so as to ease the days passing and make living just that little bit more bearable.
Modern life is sadly neglecting those principles; not modern life as such but modern day people who are allowing those standards to slip from their lives in the belief of greater liberalisation. However, it is not liberating to be rude; it serves no purpose apart from fuelling ignorance and rage, it doesn’t even serve those who are perpetrators of such ill-mannered actions as all they can expect is at best ambivalence or at worse a curt response. It costs nothing to say please, even less to say thank you.
I sound like my grandparents. This shocks me as I have always been a believer in change, in improving society, in challenging stale dogma and stubborn ritual, in freeing ourselves from the old, tired ways but the older I get the more I see those simple, basic life rules as being vital tools in our exchanges with one another.
I hold courtesy and politeness in high regard. They are as much a sense of honour and part of human nobility as is free speech.
Both Dave and I enjoy our music. Both of us have strong opinions and vastly different tastes. Having said that, and much the same as any half decent relationship, we often, conversely, share similar passions. Dave likes Devendra Banhart as do I, Radiohead is one of my all time favourite bands – Dave enjoys them too, we both rate Sparklehorse but, and this is where we fall out, Dave likes Slobberbone.
“Sounds like a poodle sucking a femur.” says I with a hint of sarcasm.
“This from a bloke who likes Yoko Ono.” responds Dave with curled lip
“One of the world’s finest artists.” I retort
“But whose voice sounds like someone has set fire to her fanny.” quips Dave
It is obvious at this point that we will never see eye to eye so instead we wander on passing pock-marked brick walls that have felt millions of hands brush over them, past street names that burn indelibly on the mind with the passage of time. London sucks you in and soaks you deep with its presence. It is an organic thing, living and breathing with soul and heart that beats as one with you. I feel it beating within me. It is part of me and I am part of it. I wasn’t born here but my familial roots are here and they run deep. Things that happen to London be they good or bad happen to me. When London changes I too feel that change. Its pride shares with me and I revel in its glory, in its effortless, ever changing evolution. When London cries, I weep for her. London is as beautiful as any mythical city of gods, as elegant as a ballerina. She holds out her hands and I run to them time after time after time. I am not a Cockney. I am the grandson of a Cockney and a great-grandson of Irish descent. Dave has less claim than me to be Cockney as he was born in Hampstead but he too shares my love of this city. Eventually, words fail as there simply aren’t enough words to describe our capital save these: London is the best.
From nowhere a nonsense rhyme springs to mind.
A lowlife dandy, the other quite scruffy,
Here the walks of Vigor and Duffy.
One fond of words selects his pens,
The other, an artist, prepares his lens.
Around London, they are bound to roam
Until both grow tired then bugger off home
Samuel Pepys visited here in 1661 and recorded his visit in his diary. He took in a porcelain factory that was here then. It was a fleeting visit as he was on his way to view boats being built for Herring fishing. It would have been a vastly different place then.
Anne Fisher, who we all remember as Tugboat Annie, ran a lighterage firm from here. Annie was one among many London legends and a truly great character who commanded 200 barges. Hopefully, there will be an opportunity to speak to her later but for now, we move on.
Ahead of us, Hawksmoor’s church looms large, a sentinel constantly keeping a vigilant watch on the charges below.
Dave clicks away while I float off to look at the pyramid that resides beside an ancient tree standing a good nine foot tall. There is no discernible legend upon the masonry only some indistinguishable letters that have faded beyond recognition. I thought it was a family crypt and rather grandiose in its design but Dave later tells me it isn’t as it was designed to sit atop the church. Hawksmoor often did things like this, little touches that seemed more pagan than Christian. With the passing of time, it has started to list to the right. Beneath its foundations the trees roots twist and knot forming a perfect warren for rabbits or an ideal lair for foxes; judging by the size of the entrance holes I would wager the latter.
I link up with Dave to discover he has found a new friend, a lady. I smile and return her greeting and together the three of us wander around the churchyard. There are several family tombs, the thought of which cause invisible shivers to run down my spine; not so much for the dried bones that gather dirt in the dark but more for the finality of their collective resting place. They say that life is not a rehearsal and they, who ever they are, are right.
I cross over the uneven grass casting my head back, looking at the solid, robust building with its uniform windows. There is an obvious lack of gravestones with one or two exceptions but then I see why. Like a deck of playing cards stacked out one behind the other, a stud poker hand played by the deceased, row upon row of gravestones sit against a wall as if on sepulchral parade. They were most likely moved to make way for more corpses to be buried beneath the turf. They lean against the wall lichen-covered and worn. I make my way back to Dave scribbling notes as I go. The lady is still with him smiling sweetly, speaking in an accent I cannot place. She asks what we are doing and when we tell her she smiles. I cannot tell if it is the sign of pleasure or of amusement but she seems nice enough.
The church is large and demanding, standing square and purposeful like a recently ordained priest. Rising from its rooted symmetry is an elegant steeple that climbs above the trees that surround it protectively. The steeple peers down on Wapping’s Highway observing pedestrians and cars as they rumble past. Today the church seems proud of itself; proud of its past with its reincarnations; proud of the many names and faces that have spent their Sundays worshiping here but more importantly it seems secure with itself and with its future. Recent years have seen new blood pumped into the place with the appointment of two new pastors.
There is a tangible energy here now that emanates from the church’s core. They even have a café that serves hot drinks after the evening service; hot drinks but still the same warm welcome.
We part company with the lady who trundles off to the right as we steer to the left. We take this path so that we can follow the canal as it flows toward the Isle of Dogs.
Part Five – The Isle of Dogs – Canary Wharf
The Paradox of Sugar and Honey
In front of us, Canary Wharf rises out of the Thames like a mirage, an apparition stolen from a Manhattan skyline. The river runs wide here, wide and rough as its choppy waters slap against the wooden jetties spraying leopard spots across the walkway. This twentieth-century development is as far from the original design as Venus is from Mars. Chrome and glass rage against the sunlight in a defiant, dazzling display; a glittering gathering of high-rise temples built to appease the gods of this new age, the gods of commerce and finance. Not for them the cold face of concrete tenements with spit covered pavements but an array of heaven touching tower blocks each railing for pole position. Whatever secrets the past may have hidden, the future of Canary Wharf is as secure as the buildings that fill the sky’s framework with their decadent splendour as they swagger above the ancient walled city like an infant prodigy. Clouds cling in feather wreaths around the Titans’ heads but old Kronos, only a short distance away, regards them with benign amusement for he still reigns supreme.
A stiff wind blows in reminding us that it is still January. The day is bright; fresh and clear and not cold enough to bother us so long as the sun is out. We stomp on; Dave taking snap after snap, stopping all the while as he spots another point of interest. I make my mental notes and occasionally stop to write bits of prose as they occur to me.
Canary Wharf is in fact simply the financial district on what is and has been since 1588 The Isle of Dogs; surrounded on three sides by the River Thames, which is at its most generous at this point, and is connected to the Eastend by two bridges. In 1588, it was simply known as Stepney Marshes but was often referred to as the Blackwell Levels. The modern day island is a paradox of ideals. Canary Wharf boasts having the highest paid workers in the country while nearby Blackwall is an area of deprivation: a social conundrum that there seems no resolution to.
Originally it was a marshland that few settled on. It flooded in 1488 forcing the few that lived here to flee or drown. It remained a watery wasteland until the 1600’s when the Dutch reclaimed it, draining the water off with the incredible engineering which was not dissimilar to that used in Essex on Canvey Island. A single road was built that lead you to a rickety ferry; the road remains to this day and is still known as Ferry Road. To the western side, which is now called Millwall, was the side that was called Marsh Wall. Along this protective wall a number of mills were built, hence the confusion of names that exists today.
It was Robert Milligan, a ship owner and wealthy merchant and an important figure in 19th century London, who was the force behind West India Docks being built. Milligan was born in Jamaica in 1746 and grew up in a secure, wealthy environment on his father’s sugar plantation. It was a privileged life and filled the young Robert with a desire to make his own way in life. This he did by setting himself up in Hampstead and then by buying a ship with which he carried sugar, coffee and rum from the West Indies to England; a lucrative line of business but one fraught with annoyances. The major concern the business faced was theft, for whenever his vessels moored in London along the wharf sides so thieves would steal what they could. Milligan coerced a collection of like minded merchants into planning and building West India Docks. It was of course a monopoly and one that flourished under Milligan’s guidance.
The Docks, having been authorised by the West India Dock Act of 1799, were built in two stages: the first in 1800 and 1802 were the northern most docks with the second phase, South Dock, coming nearly sixty years later in 1860. Such was the magnitude and importance of the docks that at the opening William Pit the Younger attended the foundation stone ceremony. The Empire that had been growing since the reign of Queen Elizabeth the first was now, inexorably moving toward its zenith and the London Docks were to play a major part in that process. From 1800 through to the 1950’s the docks functioned as the storage house for the world’s greatest Empire handling vast fortunes in all manner of goods. The construction of the docks was such that a ship could unload at the northern dock and then sail round to the southern dock where it could load another shipment before setting off again to the new world. A five storey warehouse was built by George Gwilt which in turn was surrounded by a wall some twenty feet high. This probably didn’t totally prevent theft as Cockneys are, if nothing else, resourceful but it would have been a massive deterrent.
As the swinging sixties brought with it the Beatles and the Brit musical invasion of America so London’s Docks slipped into decline. By 1980 the decline had become irreversible and one of the cornerstones of the Empire crumbled into ruin. Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative government took the land and started the redeveloping process. Today the Isle of Dogs barks a different tune, one that is a million miles away from its former glory days. Cabot Square is a magnificent sight to see as we now face two shorter buildings of ten floors each as they bookend the central column of One Canada Square which stands supported on either side by a further two tower blocks: 8, Canada Square (The HSBC building) and The Citigroup Centre.
The traditional square mile of London is very often at odds with the new popinjay of Canary Wharf with one disclaiming the other. This, in some odd way has the two areas counter pointing each other so that one rises fresh and throbbing with the energy of modernity whilst the other, still vital and still supreme presents a link to the past through the present. But then again there is only one city in the world that offers this constantly evolving, constantly changing, organic growth and that city, as I have already said is the best city in the world: London.
The clean streets of Canary Wharf with its pristine money making functions are not reflected throughout the Isle of Dogs. As I said earlier, there is a degree of squalor here which somehow seems obscene in this day and age but more so when you see such wealth being generated by such a fortunate few. There is still the old class divide in Britain and this area illustrates perfectly how it still functions. Fortunately, there is little poverty left in Britain but little is still too much and what little there is needs to be addressed as expediently as humanly possible for while such a disparity exists how can such a nation as ours be truly wealthy?
The light is growing dim now so Dave and I decide to find somewhere to eat. Having fulfilled our loosely strung plan to visit then write about London’s Docks we return to where my car is parked before driving back to Wapping where we select an Italian restaurant.
Again we put the world to rights before setting out on the next stage of these vagabond chronicles. Before we visit the East End proper, we need to take a slight detour, a tangent if you will and walk down the Limehouse Cut which takes us away from the core of our walks but still hinges closely to London. We will pass near to Mile End, even closer to Victoria Park following the canal to Regents Park Canal which in turn takes us to the Hertford Union Canal and, near to Dave’s home, the River Lee Navigation. It sounds a glorious plan.
We arrange to meet up again in early February 2010.