Start: Limehouse Finish: Canary Wharf
Coming out of Limehouse station’s Branch Road exit there is a path down to the Limehouse Basin which is easy to spot. A half-hearted food market, which is held once a month and specialises in Turkish and Brazilian fare, shelters under the railway arches that lead you down to the waters edge. A couple of stalls play Eastern Mediterranean and South American music through tinny speakers in an effort to create an atmosphere. Bearded hipsters and trendily dressed young families pushing buggies mooch around the spread-out stalls buying treats and eating them as they wander. It all feels a bit forced. Not being in possession of a beard or a baby and in no mood for food, I gave the market a miss and instead headed off around the around Limehouse basin with three pubs from Alan Reeve-Jones’ London Pubs in my sights. As I walked I came across a father and son fishing in the Basin.
If you walk the northern rim of the Limehouse Basin you come to the Limehouse Cut, a canal that leads up to the Lea Navigation which is itself a canalised river that originates in Hertford and irrigates the East End. Narrowboats hug the side of the Cut and a bridge takes you across to some open park land called Ropemakers Fields, which makes it sound long established, but it isn’t. The Fields were laid out in the 1990’s as part of the redevelopment of London’s Docklands. Head through the park and you come to Narrow Street that runs parallel to the river. Narrow Street has real roots and if you walk along it back towards the Limehouse Basin there are a number of lovely old former warehouses as well as a terrace of Georgian houses in various states of repair. In one of these houses, which is owned by the politican Dr David Owen, the SDP was formed in 1981. Owen, who was an early middle-class incomer to Docklands having moved here in the 1960’s when the docks were still working, and the other three members of the so-called Gang of Four, brought the Social Democratic Party into being by issuing what they called The Limehouse Declaration. They had their picture taken outside the house holding that piece of paper.
At the end of the row of terraced houses there is a very noteworthy pub called The Grapes. It has a long history and Charles Dickens inevitably drank here and in fact based part of Our Mutual Friend in and around the pub. The Grapes is currently owned by Gandalf from Lord Of The Rings, actor Sir Ian McKellen. He has taken good care of it. The pub is wonderfully preserved with the most fabulous hanging baskets of flowers outside and when you walk inside it feels like you have returned to the early 19th century. The biggest treat, though, is when you walk through the pub and look out from the Thames-side terrace that sits at the back. On the beach directly beneath the pub there is a wonderful haunting statue by Anthony Gormley which looks east across the river towards the sea. It brings to mind the Randy Newman song In Germany Before The War where he sings of a man “looking at the river, but..thinking of the sea.” Seeing this alone is worth a visit to The Grapes. A pint of well kept Timothy Taylor and some good conversation with couple of local people made this a fabulous visit. You can read more about my visit here.
Leaving the pub I headed east along Narrow Street in search of a second pub that I knew was now closed down; Charlie Brown’s. It was originally called the Railway Tavern but became called Charlie Brown’s after the bloke who was the landlord between 1893 and 1932 and not the cartoon friend of Snoopy. Sadly the pub is no more. It was one of the victims of the regeneration of London’s Docklands and was knocked down to make space for the Limehouse Link Tunnel in 1989. It was only when I reached the location of where the Pub would have been that I realised quite how closed down it was. The Limehouse Link Tunnel has wiped out the area of the old Charlie Browns. It is completely gone crushed under the wheels of a million passing motor cars.
I followed narrow street further east until it became the Limehouse Causeway. At this point I crossed the busy main road and headed down to the West India Dock. It’s a long piece of water with warehouses down one side and a collection of boats of all shapes and sizes dropped in the water. The warehouses are all chi-chi cafes and restaurants these days with long seating areas outside each of them and waiters trying to shepherd in passing tourists. The dock is exposed and on the cold November day I walked past them, these bedraggled establishments did not look very welcoming. I pressed on, past cranes and other bits of debris from the old working docks. On the right growing ever larger as I walked towards it was the spectre of the modern Canary Wharf and all its associated buildings which are a bland but imposingly solid testimony to the power of money. At the end of the West India Dock, I joined a main road called Prestons Road which took me down the far side of West India Dock, towards Millwall Docks. A small industrial bridge sat at the end of this purely functionary ugly road, views of Canary Wharf on my right, views of a simlarly functionary ugly housing estate on my left as I headed towards it. This faceless void of a road is a scar on London caused by the redevelopment of the docks. Ugly, windswept, ill-humoured, imposed. An impatient young mother carrying bags of shopping dragged her reluctant tiny daughter along the path in front of me as I walked. The mother swore continously at the child, who kept up an impressive wailing chorus as she put up resistance to her mother’s urgings. The little girl wanted something and it wasn’t on Prestons Road. I knew how she felt. Misreading the map, I thought the pub I was looking for was over the bridge but before I got there, I turned my head to the left and suddenly spotted it at the end of the small street of non-descript terraced houses. I skipped across Prestons Road and walked down Coldharbour Lane to gratefully leave behind the horrible wasteland of Prestons Road and enterThe Gun.
This pub, which was built in the 18th century, has naval connections. Apparently Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton would meet in rooms of the pub when they were conducting an affair. Too late by a couple of centuries to witness their indiscretions, I ordered a bowl of chips and took my pint of London Pride out to a terrace at the back which over-looked the river.
The view was gob-smacking. The O2 sat across on the other side of the Thames, so big that you felt you could reach out and touch it. A soft late winter afternoon light had settled on the scene and the O2 and the river view seemed to relax at its touch.
The terrace was quite full when I arrived but I managed to squeeze on to the edge of a table which I shared with a pleasant American lady who was re-visiting her old haunts and had a sleeping 21 month old baby in tow. We looked at the view and talked about children and architecture and how quickly London was changing. It turned out that she was married to a professional footballer who was playing in the city that afternoon. He was now at Birmingham City but had played for West Ham United for several years and they had lived locally at that point. She was the least Wag-like footballer’s wife you could imagine. My chips arrived and they were possibly the best I’ve ever eaten. And hot. I had to juggle them in my mouth.
When I left and headed back to Canary Wharf, there seemd to be a new nip in the air. It felt like home calling me so I crossed the industrial bridge and took a right along Marsh Wall before heading right again into the Canary Wharf complex.
Whilst gawping at all the lovely boats moored in the water around Canary Wharf, my camera came loose from its strap and dropped to the floor. I managed a Joe Root like slip catch to save the camera but could not stop its lid from spinning off and then rolling across the pavement and down the grate of an inconveniently placed drain.
It was time for me to take myself down the drain of the Canary Wharf jubilee line station and head home.