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).IMG_3909

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.

IMG_3911Heading 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.IMG_3914

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.


12 comments on “The One Part Of London That Never Changes”

  1. Alan Morgan says:

    That you. Wonderful. I needed that 🙂

  2. Dean Nicholas says:

    “the Wapping Project, a grand arts space and restaurant, has been closed down, supposedly by three bad-tempered Nimbys complaining about noise”

    The claim that the Wapping Project was closed due to noise complaints (which originated in a Rowan Moore piece in the Observer) has been debunked by local bloggers:

  3. Jo W says:

    Love that phrase,Admin – ‘the magic of old London shines through’. Very enjoyable piece.😊

  4. admin says:

    To Dean:
    This, sadly, is what I expected. The same excuse has been used to shut buildings in Soho (see pieces passim).

  5. Anchovee says:

    To echo Jo W’s comment – very enjoyable piece. Lovely photos too and rounded off by a great piece of poetry.

    Have you considered a book of London walks? I know there are a few out there but I think your walks posts are little gems.

  6. J. Folgard says:

    As others said above, I’d really enjoy a whole book (illustrated maybe?) of this. Ok, there’s a lot of books about London, but your perspective would be very welcome. It’s such a great “character” in your novels!

  7. Vivienne says:

    Oh, can just smell the tang of the river. Worth a walk any day.

  8. Helen Martin says:

    It would have to be illustrated for those who have not seen the spots. Today’s was a particularly moving piece.

  9. Porl says:

    Used as a location for Dr Who and the Talons of Weng Chiang in 1976 (jump to 12″33′)

  10. Helen Valentine says:

    I stood on those very steps in photo 3 last Sunday…. I love the river, especially in winter!!

  11. jan says:

    Did u walk along the bit of river adjacent to the old Billingsgate market north bank – v interesting.
    Also try further upriver up near Teddington beyond the Pepperpots i did send u some photies of them i think. Also
    completely different area near the Tate and Lyle barrier and where the old abbey ruins are St Anns abbey right out in east London i’ve forgotten the name of the place(it’ll come back just as i waddle out of the library|!) this place is north of the river Seems absolutely crazy that in the 19th century the fishing crews used to cover the fish catches with ice and leave them on the frozen banks of the Thames out in Essex. Did u know that the dark santanic mills Blake wrote about could be seen on the south bank of the Thames till about 1950? Just soutth of the city and the bit of riverbank immediately east of the city is very (well probably by now WAS) very reminiscent of the Hanseatic league towns of Denmark, Netherlands and North Norfolk. its funny down here theres a town called Topsham in Devon near Exeter that has many houes thatwere built out of bricks brought back from Holland when the sheeps hides and wool had been exported over to them

  12. jan says:

    Barking st annes abbey barking i can stop now

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