Whitechapel was the scene of the infamous Jack the Ripper murders just two decades earlier
A three-mile stroll from St. Katharine Dock to Canary Wharf takes in some unexpected delights as the history of the East End is laid out along the Thames
The East End of London laps up against the moneyed walls of the City of London. The expression, East End, is both a geographic identifier and a state of mind; this part of London has at times been the most feared and the most fashionable district in London.
As long ago as 1903, author Jack London wrote The People of the Abyss, his first-hand account of living in Whitechapel, scene just two decades earlier of the infamous Jack the Ripper murders. Here was squalor and crime that we would now call Third World in scale. It took courage for the faint-hearted to enter this district of sweatshops, slaughterhouses and docks bringing the wealth of empire and world to London, then the world’s largest city.
In the Swinging ’60s, the evil of the East End was personified by the gangster Kray Twins, whose iron misrule made them mad, bad and dangerous to cross. Quietly, abandoned warehousing and dilapidated side streets saw the first wave of gentrification that would herald the arrival of completely new East Enders. Now, with precincts such as Shoreditch, Hoxton and Old Street, parts of the East End have become some of the most achingly fashionable districts in London. The young Bohos who live in what were once sweatshops congregate from all over to enjoy the fashionable vibe.
At the same time, the East End also laps up against Old Father Thames, and an exploration of this part of the East End now reveals an attractive strand of living that is miles away from the art crowd flooding Hoxton, or the down-at-heel that still gravitate to the Commercial Road. From St. Katharine Dock is a route barely three miles in length that takes the walker from the foot of the walls of a Norman castle to the shiny canyons of Gotham on Thames in the glittering Docklands commercial center.
Set off on a short walk away from the river and the glitzy rigging of the yachts and sailing boats moored at St. Katharine Docks, and you will find Wilton’s Music Hall. Down a nondescript pathway, this jewel of Victorian music hall is still a thriving musical and entertainment venue.
The restoration of the site has resurrected the interior and invites those who love live theater. Its exterior remains elegantly wasted, distressed yet alluring. Self-styled as The City’s hidden stage, it has an off-Broadway approach to entertainment that rewards the theatergoer.
Farther along, stroll down Cable Street. Now a mix of Victorian and postwar development, this modest street was once the most famous in the land. In late 1936, a battle there between Sir Oswald Mosley’s fascist Blackshirts and Communist and Socialist locals brought political violence to the streets of London. A provocative march by Mosley into the East End, at the time heavily Jewish, was resisted by a left-wing coalition. The Battle of Cable Street is marked by a massive mural on the side of the former city hall.
Aim back toward the river and to the district of Wapping. Once home to impressionist master J.M.W. Turner, where he lived in a public house with one of his mistresses, this was, until the middle of the last century, one of the most important docks in London. These are long gone, but in their place redevelopment has seen fine housing and communities replacing the silent quaysides. Find the river and you see some of the finest gentrification that has saved the river edge warehousing to create some of the most expensive housing in the capital.
Passing down Wapping Lane, past two landlocked sailing ships at an abandoned shopping mall, you are in Wapping. Here, docks were created when ships had outgrown St. Katharine Dock in the early 19th century. A canyon of bijou loft apartments marks where Wapping Lane and the High Street meet.
Where once trucks rumbled, television stars, City business folk, MPs and the country set seeking glamorous pied-à-terre have revived the abandoned buildings. There remains one working business in the riverside warehousing: a wine and beer wholesaler still finds the waterside climate a good place to store its stock.
Wapping is the location of the world’s first underwater tunnel, still in use as part of the London Overground rail network. Here, join the Thames Path eastward toward Canary Wharf. The Thames Path darts to the river’s edge where it can, but it is clearly marked and can be easily followed. You’ll now be walking along the river, which can be glimpsed tantalizingly between the apartments. Setting off eastwards, you quickly notice that the road now has a residential feeling as stores and offices disappear.
Now that you are halfway along the route, drop in to The Prospect of Whitby for a reviving drink. With its river frontage, the pub has become a favorite site along the river. The pub’s riverside location is its main asset, with a large terrace overlooking the Thames. Every window in the pub has a river aspect, and a raised seating area, mainly used by diners, who should feel like being in the captain’s cabin on a great ocean-going vessel under canvas. However, web critics have flooded sites with claims of indifferent food and service, so perhaps better just drink up the beer as you drink up the view.
Follow the Thames Path from outside The Prospect, and you come to a fascinating half-moon landing that juts out into the Thames at the entrance to the former Wapping docks. From the landing there are extraordinary views forward toward Canary wharf.
A quick stroll past a kayak-club based in the former lock gates brings you to King Edward Memorial Park. This delightful green sward harbors a ventilation tower for the Blackwall road tunnel that joins the two river banks. The park, adorned with bandstand and waterfront benches, is a popular venue for local people, office workers and those traversing the Thames Path. Linger and enjoy the superb views of the Thames from the park’s river walkway and terraced garden.
London’s first Chinatown
Farther along the Thames Path, you are in Limehouse, truly one of the most engaging London riverside districts. You turn into Narrow Street, at once one of London’s most ordinary yet fashionable streets.
Here, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey took over a beautiful Grade Two listed building in an exquisite location to create The Narrow Street & Dining Room, at 44 Narrow Street, where the Grand Union Canal and the Regents Canal meet the Thames. The building was constructed around 1910 as a house for the dockmaster serving the Limehouse Basin. It was felt important to retain the historic qualities of the building as well as to relate the design to the locality and the history of the Limehouse area. The wall colors are muted to highlight features such as the fireplaces and lounge armchairs, and the wall space is animated through the use of black-and-white photography depicting the history of the area. However, food and drink websites are full of mixed comments on the quality of the food and dining experience here.
At the heart of Limehouse is the basin which, like St. Katharine Dock, is still an operational marina. Here the hardy, workmanlike narrowboat canal barges set out to travel the nation’s canal network. Beyond the bridge, taking Narrow Road across the basin entrance, following the bend in the river, there is a splendid Georgian terrace and an old tavern immortalized by Charles Dickens: he wrote about The Grapes, built in 1720, in Our Mutual Friend, renaming it the Six Jolly Fellowships.
Long before Chinatown sprung up in the heart of Soho, there was an earlier Chinatown to be found in the back alleys, crowded streets and environs of Narrow Street, between the docks at Wapping and Isle of Dogs, now better known as Canary Wharf. The small Chinese immigrant community that lived here from the late 19th century was a source of both fascination and fear to other Londoners: it was the cauldron from which came both the criminal mastermind Fu Manchu and Thomas Burke’s fanciful short story collection, Limehouse Nights. Now the site of $2 million riverside apartments, Limehouse is wrongly credited with being the origin of the “Limey” soubriquet that has hung around Englishmen’s necks for centuries; prosaically, it seems to have been the site of ancient lime kilns. The Chinese population, dependent on cargo ships for trade and jobs, moved out of the area when the docks declined in the 1950s.
The Thames Path now takes you straight into the glistening moneyed towers of the 21st-century Canary Wharf. Glance back and you can make out The City, barely three miles away, and The Shard rising above London Bridge.
Following the Thames Path, continue along the river to Canary Wharf pier, take the steps up to Westferry Circus and the incredible landscape facing you belies the fact that within living memory, as recently as 1967, the London Docks were being upgraded despite the wave of containerization gripping the maritime business.
Walk the short distance to the Museum in Docklands to conclude your exploration. Here you can find the truly engaging history of the London dock system, the people who worked there, the goods that passed through the docks and its fate—both at the hands of German bombs and economic forces.
This is no longer a voyage to the Abyss; it is now one to take in some of the most attractive parts of London.