The One Part Of London That Never Changes
Research is often the most enjoyable part of writing a new book, and I realised I needed to walk along the reaches of the Thames – not all of them as there are something like eighteen in the tideway. As it was sunny and mild, I headed across Tower Bridge and down to Dead Man’s Hole, where bodies were fished from the Thames in Victorian times. It was once a mortuary because so many corpses washed up here. Like many places with evocative names there’s not much to see. It’s the point on the tourist trail of the Thames where most people turn around and start heading back (i.e.. where it starts to get interesting).
The shore is green with moss, but then so is most of London right now (including many of the busiest streets) because November has reverted to type, dank, damp, mild, smoky and wet. The streets above are very busy, and on a four hour walk I hear just a handful of English accents. The new East End is a land of migrant workers making new homes for themselves and their families – a regenerated working class. Older Londoners don’t seem to come down here much – perhaps some have less than romantic notions of the Thames. I remember tales of the flooding around this plain that drowned many slum-dwellers in their basements. The Thames tide rises and falls by up to 23 feet, and can move with surprising speed because it is fed by so many tributaries.
From the quiet North embankment the foreshore is reachable by many sets of steps. They’re a reminder of how crowded with boats this area once was. Stephen Croad’s ‘Liquid History : The Thames Through Time’ is a wonderful book of photographs showing the wooden buildings and ships of the Pool of London.
Even though the tide was in it was possible to access much of the shore. The North shore is also marked by a series of iconic pubs, from the Town of Ramsgate to the Captain Kidd, the Prospect of Whitby and the Mayflower.
Sadly one great destination is going – the Wapping Project, a grand arts space and restaurant, has been closed down, supposedly by three bad-tempered Nimbys complaining about noise – although this may be an excuse for the council to kick out the arts centre and pump up property prices in an area already wrecked by overbuilding.
The wharves and jetties may be gone, but you can see where Victorian maritime overcrowding led them to be built out over the water, although the timbers have rotted away and are being replaced by girders. Down here there’s still a river atmosphere. Up above, new blocks of flats create no sense of architectural cohesion.
The Thames shoreline is transforming very quickly. The warehouses and ships in the Pool of London have been replaced by so many soulless identikit boxes for bankers that you get no sense of the river just below. The Thames starts to widen rapidly now, and at certain times, at certain angles, the present falls away to reveal the past, and the magic of old London shines through.
Heading home more water bubbles up, this time from the fountains of Granary Square, where a new section of the city rises in a pleasingly jumbled pattern of buildings. It’s a rare example of a modern redevelopment that takes note of its topography, and is already as quirky and loved as many older areas.
Built by property developer Argent it’s a fine example of how to regenerate an area, and must be working because people seem to naturally congregate here, whatever the weather. The area is filling with shops and colleges and art galleries – next a theatre and swimming pool – and is getting its own pub, the Lighterman – an ultimate sign of respect.
Sadly, the Thames developments I’ve walked through today (and didn’t even feel the need to photograph) are prime examples of homogenising and spoiling beautiful sites, and the shore’s ghosts are fading fast from view. But the river remains, changing and unchanged.
Wilfred Owen wrote, with prescience:
I am the ghost of Shadwell Stair.
Along the wharves by the water-house,
And through the dripping slaughter-house,
I am the shadow that walks there.
I walk till the stars of London wane
And dawn creeps up the Shadwell Stair.
But when the growing sirens blare
I with another ghost am lain.