It’s that time again where I take another walking adventure across London! My walk in this instalment of the London Wlogger sees me explore the capital’s docklands area. I’ll begin at The Tower of London pass through St Katharine Docks and stroll past the River Thames, before joining the Ornamental Canal in Wapping and heading to Tobacco Dock and Wapping Woods. I’ll then take a walk through the Shadwell Basin and King Edward Memorial Park, and conclude at the Limehouse Basin. It’s a walk which uncovers many watery wonders of London and some secret gems, so let’s get going!
My walk starts at The Tower of London, which was built by William the Conqueror in 1066. Since then it has been used as a royal residence, a treasury, an armoury, a zoo, the Royal Mint and the home of the Crown Jewels.
The Tower wasn’t originally built as a prison, although it became convenient to keep state prisoners there due to it being near to the courts of Westminster. Since 1066 only 22 executions have taken place in the Tower of London, with the last of these taking place in 1941. One of the most famous inmates within the Tower was a young Princess Elizabeth who was imprisoned by her half-sister Mary I who feared Elizabeth was plotting against her. Elizabeth arrived at the Tower in March 1554 and entered through the Traitors’ Gate, and was released into house arrest in May 1554 after a lack of evidence.
The White Tower, which gives the entire castle its name, was built by William the Conqueror in 1078. The rest of the Tower of London was built around the White Tower within two concentric rings of defensive walls and a moat. There have been several phases of expansion over the years mainly under King Richard the Lionheart, Henry III and Edward I in the 12th and 13th centuries respectively. The castle has three ‘wards’, which are the innermost ward, inner ward and the outer ward.
The White Tower is the strongest structure and contained lodgings for the King or his representatives and has been described as ‘the most complete 11th century palace in Europe’. Not including its projecting corner towers, the White Tower measures 36 by 32 metres at the base, and is 27 metres high (about the height of 6 double decker buses stacked on top of each other).
At the top floor of the White Tower sits a Torture at the Tower, which still has its original executioner’s block of the 18th century, with an accompanying axe from the Tudor times. These were wrongly labelled as implements used to behead Anne Boleyn, as she was actually beheaded by sword in 1536 for treason against Henry VIII. There’s a myth that she still walks around the Tower with her head under her arm! The White Tower basement was the site of torture and interrogation for prisoners including Guy Fawkes and the Jesuit Priest John Gerard.
One of the most notable aspects of the Tower of London is that The Crown Jewels and 140 royal ceremonial objects are kept in there. These include regalia and vestments worn by British Kings and Queens for their coronations and have been a symbol of the monarchy for 800 years. The Tower of London has been home to precious jewels since William the Conqueror, with there being over 23,500 currently housed there. The value of the jewels including their worth to the Monarchy is over £25 billion, although the actual value is priceless. It’s still officially a royal residence of Her Majesty The Queen. Within the Tower there’s a house onsite called ‘The Queen’s House’ which she may live in if she wishes.
Quite remarkably there was a zoo in the Tower of London too! Founded by King John in the early 1200s, for over 600 years there was a royal menagerie in the Tower of London, which was filled with exotic animals given as royal gifts. The first animals to arrive in the Tower of London were lions, an elephant and a polar bear. Later animal occupants were tigers, kangaroos and ostriches! In 1835 the menagerie was closed by the Duke of Wellington with the animals becoming the basis for London Zoo in Regent’s Park.
The Mint at the Tower of London made the majority of the country’s coins for over 500 years. It was installed by Edward I (1272 – 1307) in c1279 and up until 1810 most of the coins of the realm were made there in a dedicated area that became known as Mint Street. If you were guilty of tampering with the coins you’d receive the threat of horrific punishments given that it was an act of treason.
The Tower of London is guarded by The Yeoman Warders, also known as ‘Beefeaters’ and who are selected for their meritorious service to the Armed Forces. Legend has it the nickname ‘beefeater’ comes from their position in the Royal Bodyguard, which permitted them to eat as much beef as they wanted from the king’s table. Yeoman Warders are a detachment of the ‘Yeoman of the Guard’ and they have formed the Royal Bodyguard since at least 1509, with their origins stretching back to the reign of Edward IV (1461 – 83). Each of their uniforms costs over £5,000 and includes gold thread. Every evening at 9.53pm a ceremony takes place to lock the Tower of London with the ceremony keys.
One aspect the Tower is known for is its ravens. The old saying goes ‘If the ravens leave the Tower, the kingdom will fall!’ Today there are seven ravens who live there; Harris (Male), Merlina (Female), Munin (Female), Rocky (Male), Gripp (Male), Jubilee (Male), and the sisters Erin and Hugine (Females).
They’re looked after by the Ravenmaster who has to be a Yeoman Wander before he or she can be appointed. The final deciding vote on who’s appointed the Ravenmaster is made by the ravens themselves! The current Ravenmaster Chris Skaife was put in the cages with the ravens to test his chemistry with them. Chris had to study for five years under previous Ravenmaster Derrick Coyle before taking over the job. The duties of the Ravenmaster include letting them out at first light, feeding them and cleaning their cages. The ravens eat roughly 500 grams of meat a day, which comprises of mainly chicken and mouse, and are out during the day before being put to bed at nightfall.
I’ll now leave the Tower of London and make my way to my next destination, St Katharine Docks. Located in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, the docks takes its name from the former hospital of St Katharine’s by the Tower, which was built in the 12th century. In 1825 the site was earmarked by an Act of Parliament for redevelopment, with construction commencing in May 1827. This saw 1,250 houses demolished together with the medieval hospital of St Katharine.
The scheme was designed by engineer Thomas Telford and in order to create as much quayside as possible, the docks were designed in the form of two lined basins (east and west), both accessible via an entrance lock from the Thames. To keep the water level in the basins, steam engines were designed by James Watt and Mathew Boulton. Warehouses were created on the quayside so that goods could be unloaded directly into them.
The docks were officially opened on 25 October 1828, although they weren’t a commercial success as they were unable to accommodate large ships. They were amalgamated in 1864 with the neighbouring London Docks, while in 1909 the Port of London Authority took over the management of almost all of the Thames docks. The St Katharine Docks were badly damaged by German bombing during World War II. All the warehouses around the eastern basin were destroyed, and the site they had occupied remained derelict until the 1990s.
Due to restricted capacity and the inability to cope with large modern ships, the St Katharine Docks were the first of London’s docklands to be closed in 1968 and were sold to the Greater London Council. In the 1970s the site was leased to developers with the original warehouses around the western basin demolished and replaced with modern commercial buildings. The eastern basin development was completed in the 1990s.
The area today is a mix of residential apartments, restaurants and shops. One of the most scenic features of the area is the beautiful Dickens Inn, which was original a warehouse that housed tea, before being reconstructed into a pub in the 18th century. The entire docks have such grandeur with all the extravagant and expensive boats, which makes it quite a secluded part of the capital.
Right next to the St Katharine Pier is the tranquil Hermitage Riverside Memorial Garden, which sits on the former site of Hermitage Wharf, and was created as a memorial to the residents of the East End of London killed in World War II. There is also a cool Dove sculpture by Wendy Taylor, which is prominent in the park.
There’s a charming pond just by the memorial gardens within a housing estate, which is a really wonderful picturesque little gem by the Thames.
To make my way to my final destination of the Limehouse Basin, I’ll now join the Ornamental Canal, which runs from Wapping to the Shadwell Basin.
This is the first time I’ve explored this pleasant stretch of water and when you stroll along it it’s so peaceful, while you don’t think twice that The Shard, Tower Bridge and the busy city are only just a few minutes away.
My walk along the Ornamental Canal takes me to my next destination, Tobacco Dock. Located in Wapping, the Grade I listed warehouse is part of the famous London Docks and was designed by John Rennie. Completed in 1812 it primarily stored imported tobacco from the Americas and Oceania, which is where the name for it derives from.
After the London Docklands closed its doors the warehouse and surrounding ares fell into dereliction until it was turned into a shopping centre which opened in 1989. However, due to the recession it closed two years later. For two decades Tobacco Dock was empty until it had a total makeover in 2012 where today it houses offices, co-working spaces, events and conferences. This area really does epitomise the history of the docklands with the grand ships and it gives you a sense of what trading was like in the docks heyday.
To get to my next stop on my walk – Shadwell Basin – I’ll rejoin the Ornamental Canal and pass through Wapping Woods.
In the 1830s the London Docks expanded eastward with the opening of the Eastern Dock. To provide these new docks with access to the river a new entrance at Shadwell was opened in 1832 known as the Shadwell Entrance. By the 1850s, the London Dock Company recognised that the entrances at both Wapping and Shadwell at the basin were too small to accommodate the newer and larger ships, which lead to a new larger entrance being created and a new basin at Shadwell.
In 1969 the London Docks complex closed its shipping operations with the Shadwell Basin becoming derelict. However, in 1981 it was acquired by the London Docklands Development Corporation and in 1987 it was redeveloped with 169 houses and flats being built around the dock.
Today the Shadwell Basin Outdoor Activity Centre runs a range of watersports for all ages where the old dock meets the Thames. I do love exploring the old docklands as they played such an important part in not just London’s but the UK’s trading history as the gateway to goods being imported and exported to and from other countries across the world. It does remind me of the time I visited the Greenland Dock on my walk from Tower Bridge to Stave Hill also!
I’ll now leave the Shadwell Basin and join the stunning towpath by the Thames to my next stop, the King Edward Memorial Park.
Opened in 1922 by King George V and Queen Mary, King Edward Memorial Park is named in memory after King Edward VII. With 3.3 hectares (8.1 acres) of green space, it’s the 11th largest park in Tower Hamlets. Before the park was created, the Shadwell Fish Market was opened on the area in 1885, while after this it was used for football matches and as a child’s play area. Also it’s the only riverside park between Tower Hill and Isle of Dogs.
I really like the fact that the park is in such close proximity to the Thames, as one minute you’re in a quiet area surrounded by greenery, and the next along the picturesque riverside of the iconic Thames.
I’ll now head to the final destination of my walk, the Limehouse Basin, and to get there I must rejoin the riverside stroll along the Thames, which provides a glorious view of one of the commercial hubs of the world, Canary Wharf.
Located in Limehouse, in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, the Limehouse Basin has the Regent’s Canal, Limehouse Cut and the Thames all leading into it. Built by the Regent’s Canal Company, it was formerly known as the ‘Regent’s Canal Dock’ and was used by seagoing vessels and lighters to offload cargoes to canal barges for onward transport along the Regent’s Canal. Opened in 1820, the Basin was initially a commercial failure, although by the mid 19th century the dock became a great success in supplying coal to numerous gasworks and electricity generating stations along the canal, and for domestic and commercial use. The Basin was once the main entrance from the Thames to the entire national canal network, however, the growth of the railways saw its use decline, although there was a brief revival of canal traffic during World War I and World War II.
The Docklands Light Railway (DLR) runs along the viaduct, which was originally built for the London and Blackwell Railway. Right beneath the viaduct is the Commercial Road Lock, which leads to the Regent’s Canal. To the east of the canal entrance, behind a viaduct arch, was the octagonal tower of a hydraulic accumulator, which was installed in 1869. The associated steam raising plant and hydraulic pumps have now been removed, with the building converted for the London Docklands Development Corporation as a viewing platform. The building and Basin are now owned by the British Waterways Board and have been awarded with Grade II listing.
The Basin originally had three entrance locks to the Thames to separate ship and barge traffic. The smaller upstream entrances were later closed and filled. In 1968 a short stretch of new canal was constructed to connect the Limehouse Cut to the Basin. A year later in 1969 commercial traffic ceased with one quay at the Basin retained for the use of pleasure crafts.
The Basin began its redevelopment in 1983, although the property boom and bust of the 1980s meant this progressed slowly. By 2004 most of the derelict land surrounding the Basin had been developed into luxury flats and retail outlets.
I’m not sure what it is about the Limehouse Basin, but I do love how scenic it looks, with the nicely designed luxury apartments combined with the beautiful lake area. All the boats within it add such wonderful character and it does have a certain exclusive feeling about it due to the expensive apartments and boats. I was heading to Limehouse DLR station when I walked past this cute little wooden unit, which is a community book exchange – what an amazing idea!
Well that’s all from me on today’s walk where I’ve delved into the history of London’s docklands as well as uncovering one of its iconic landmarks, The Tower of London. Hope you’ve enjoyed joining me on my walk and please do let me know your memories and thoughts of London in the comments section below!
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