Category Archives: Boats

Time among the bargees

On my latest blog for the Canal & River Trust, I wrestled with the contradiction of time when living aboard a vessel geared towards slowness but where there is always something to do. You can read it on the excellent Waterfront blog, and I’ve also reproduced an edited version below.

Canals slow time. That’s the impression you get when travelling aboard a boat, or while lingering on a towpath watching boats trundle past, leaving behind the fading ghost of a wake like the dissolving grin of a Cheshire Cat. When you are around a canal, the world seems to breathe more slowly and time hangs heavy in the air. This sense of slowness is built into the very fabric of the canal system. Boats move leisurely, on water that dawdles, through canals that took decades to build, alongside towpaths where no trace of the car can be detected. Stillness is everything and it is everywhere. No wonder the passage of time seems to dwindle to a stroll.

Yet within this, there is also a glorious contradiction – one that defines other facets of the canal experience. Canals slow time but they also made the world faster. The canal is among the slowest forms of transport imaginable. The official speed limit is an ambitious 4mph – most barges would lose a race to a sugared-up toddler on a scooter – but it was also, at its inception, one of the most advanced instruments of the industrial revolution, something that brought the veneration of speed into the modern world. When the canals were built, boats could move no faster than the horses that pulled them, but they were also a drastic and sudden lurch towards the future, introducing the mass transportation and long-distance inter-connectivity that would ultimately reinvent the country by making a god of speed following the arrival of the steam engine. That’s what you’re getting with a canal. On the surface they are sluggish, but with them came vast societal changes that were rooted in an onrushing lust for ever-increasing velocity, a desperation to get beyond the present.

Speed is addictive, but so is the clock-stopping slowness of canal life. It’s partly because the slowness is all-embracing, transforming your perception of the world around you and placing you in an enveloping bubble where time doesn’t matter or exist. It’s in the placidity of the water, it’s in the pace of movement when you travel and it’s in the fact that you are segregated from roads, where the rapidity of cars brings guilt and context. On a boat, nothing happens faster than walking pace.

There’s another contradiction at play here. The boating lifestyle would seem to make a virtue of loafing, but on a boat there is always something to do. There are the tedious chores of everyday existence, from cooking and cleaning to laundry and washing up. There are those DIY tasks you never quite get round to completing but which are harder to avoid on a boat, where every inch of space is vital and every irritant multiplied accordingly. And there are the boat specific jobs, the rivets that hold it all together – the filling of water tanks and coal scuttles, the cleaning and setting of stoves, the changing of gas canisters. This is what occasional boater Jerome K Jerome was thinking about when he wrote Idle Thoughts Of An Idle Fellow. “It is impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do,” he said. “There is no fun in doing nothing when you have nothing to do.”

On a boat, endless peace and eternal activity sit side by side, a paradox that reflects the dislocating but therapeutic experience that comes from living in a pre-industrial time capsule that prompted the Industrial Revolution. Some researchers feel there are genuine psychological benefits to be had in this combination of water and slowness and canal boats also relate to the concept of ‘slow travel’, which celebrates travel over arrival.

That notion is embedded into the way canals operate so when BBC 4 announced a Slow TV season it made sense for this to feature a two-hour boat trip along the Kennet & Avon Canal broadcast in real time. When screened in May 2015, the programme drew an audience that was double BBC4’s usual viewing figures. All this, for what was little more than a camera stuck to the front of a boat. There was no commentary, no cutting, no music, no presenters, no Prunella Scales and Timothy West – just the occasional box of written text to highlight points of interest along the journey. It was a restful alternative to the typical television experience and a perfect reflection of what travelling by boat is like, without the stress of having to navigate locks or steer the thing yourself. This is life on a boat. It slows time. So calm down and drift.

Advertisements

Secret London: South London’s lost canals

I wrote this piece in 2015 for the first issue of Waterfront magazine.

Some of the best secrets are hidden in plain sight. You don’t find them by exploring scruffy back streets and muddy fields, they are standing right in front of you, requiring only a translator to make sense of them. One sits in Burgess Park in Camberwell, ignored by cyclists, dogwalkers and joggers seeking respite from the Walworth Road, one of South London’s busiest byways. It takes the form of a pretty black-and-red iron footbridge with thick brick stanchions and strong stone steps straddling the path. It doesn’t serve any specific function – there’s nothing that needs to be crossed – so is known locally as the “bridge to nowhere”, but this was once a bridge with a purpose. It was built in 1906 to cross the Grand Surrey Canal, one of south-east London’s two lost canals. The park was once a busy industrial basin of wharves and warehouses but over time, the canal was abandoned, closed, filled in and forgotten. Soon, only the bridge remained, a relic or totem of this land’s previous life.

IMG00120-20120814-1050

Like many canals, the Grand Surrey was opened in the brief period between the onset of urban industrialisation and the arrival of railways. It began at Surrey Commercial Dock (now Surrey Quays), a 300-acre system of nine docks two miles east of London Bridge. The original plan was for the Surrey Canal Company to cut a canal from this starting point at Rotherhithe through the south London suburbs. From the main canal, branches would peel off, feeding significant towns on the way south. The object was to create a fast-moving route that could bring produce from Surrey farms into London. An Act was granted in 1801 to build as far as Mitcham, with branches to Deptford, Peckham, Borough and Vauxhall.

At the same time, permission for a second canal was granted. The Croydon Canal was originally going to be its own entity but the Grand Surrey Canal provided a convenient meeting point, and – after some negotiation – the two navigations joined at New Cross. This canal was intended to reach Epsom, but when it opened in 1809 in a ceremony featuring decorated barges, a 21-gun salute and a special song (“Long down its fair stream may the rich vessel glide; and the Croydon Canal be of England the pride”) it stalled at Croydon, having passed through 28 locks from the junction with the Grand Surrey Canal through Honor Oak, Sydenham and Norwood. Nonetheless, it was described by The Times as “one of the highest and best constructed canals in England” and the owners talked about extending it to Portsmouth. Plans for the Grand Surrey also proved over-ambitious, and when it opened in 1807 it went only as far as the Old Kent Road. It reached Camberwell in 1809 and branched off to Peckham in 1826, but got no further.

dooswharf

There are several bucolic illustrations of both canals, presenting them as splendid streams surrounded by countryside. At the opening of the Croydon Canal, a reporter wrote of “finding themselves gliding through the deepest recesses of the forest, where nothing met the eye but the elegant winding of the clear and still canal, and its border adorned by a profusion of trees, of which the beauty was heightened by the tint of autumn.” In 1811, the Grand Surrey Canal was peaceful enough to be used for bathing, causing one Camberwell resident to write a furious letter to The Times objecting to the “indecency” and “extreme offensiveness to females in so public a situation”. Soon after, ‘bank rangers’ – a sort of private police force – were appointed to keep an eye out for lewd or criminal behaviour.

Quickly, though, the landscape changed. Submitted to parliament alongside the proposals for the two canals, was another for the Surrey Iron Railway, which would become the country’s first public railway in 1803, linking Wandsworth to Croydon via Mitcham. Using carriages pulled by horses over iron tracks, the intention was to create an integrated transport network for the expanding suburbs, but ultimately it put the two technologies in direct competition. At first, they cohabited and connected, and the canal even proved superior, but as steam trains arrived, the canals lost any edge. Croydon Canal’s success was further hindered by its expensive, time-consuming locks and the company could tell where things were headed. The canal was dead by 1836, the first in the country to be closed by parliament. The land was purchased by the London And Croydon Railway, who built their line largely alongside the old canal and turned the basin into West Croydon station.

The Grand Surrey Canal was spared such a fate, even if it was to never fulfil the bravura plans made at the outset. Initially the canal was intended to transport numerous goods – the 1801 Act set out rates for freestone, limestone, chalk, bricks, slates, tiles, corn, hay, straw, faggots, dung, manure, stones, clay, cattle, calves, sheep, swine, lime, timber, hemp, tin, bark, iron-stone, pig-iron, pig-lead, coal, charcoal, coke, culm, flour, wheat, barley, oats, beans, peas, malt, potatoes, hops and fruit – but instead of becoming a vibrant link between garden suburbs and London docks, the canal was more like a gigantic wharf, an extension of the Surrey docks lined by warehouses, factories, yards and depots. The canal nonetheless became a useful part of the industrial infrastructure, drawing cargo from all over the world – including a 4ft snake from South America that was fished out the canal at Peckham in 1932 by an angler who at first believed he’d nabbed a particularly fine eel. The industry was largely dirty and unglamorous with numerous timber yards, but there were also R White’s, manufacturers of lemonade, and Edison-Bell, who made 78rpm records and had a recording studio on the premises.

After the Second World War, decline set in. The increase in road traffic offered tougher competition even than rail, while changes in freight transportation threatened the docks themselves. The canal closed in stages from the 1940s. The basin at Camberwell was first to be abandoned, becoming a playground for children, who went fishing for sticklebacks or tore doors off bombed-out houses to sail down the stagnant canal as rafts. Children determined their local sympathies by which side of the bridge they lived.

The bridge was still surrounded by the straggling detritus of light industry, but fears that children would drown – indeed, The Times reported more than a dozen had met this fate since the war, as several had before it – led to the area being cleared in 1974 and replaced by Burgess Park. The canal’s route was turned into a pathway and the bridge retained as a momento. There are further princely bridges on the Peckham arm of the canal, at Willowbrook Road and Commercial Way, while the Peckham basin is now the site of Peckham library. Nearby, a sliver of park connecting Burgess Park to Peckham High Street is known as the Surrey Linear Canal Park, presumably to confuse new arrivals. Elsewhere, there are further pointers: bits of wall, ghosts of towpaths, mooring rings, milestones, and in a park reclaimed from the old Russia Dock in Surrey Quays, a large amount of quayside.

One of the most interesting survivors is a rusting round bollard under a bridge near the junction of the Surrey Canal Road and Mercury Way in New Cross, once the meeting point of the Grand Surrey and Croydon Canals. Embedded in the grassy embankment, it looks as if it has been dropped from the heavens. Little of the Croydon Canal remains, although diligent historians have traced shadows of its passage in the topology of the land between New Cross and Croydon. Some tiny sections are extant in Dacres Wood, a small nature reserve in Forest Hill, and Betts Park in Anerley. The old reservoir in Norwood has been transformed into South Norwood Lake.

There is a strong sense here of what might have been. The Croydon Canal’s life was too brief, and too quickly swallowed by the dramatic forces leading to the rapid urbanisation of south London, to be saved, but the fate of the Great Surrey Canal is not so easily forgivable. Its potential was not unknown. In the 1960s, trip boats from Little Venice would take extended tours across the Thames into the depths of Peckham and Camberwell, and even in the 1970s, some insisted the canal should be saved. One report in 1971 noted the increasingly popularity of the Regent’s Canal and pondered whether similar could yet happen to “the poor, ugly Surrey Canal… [which] had the misfortune to run south of the river.” The author admitted there was an image problem: “Its waters are polluted and filled with rubbish and hunks of wood. Its banks are closed to the public and lined with disused factories and unkempt grass. To many local people it is just three miles of stinking water, which has to be dredged every time a child goes missing.” But should the drastic solution of eradication proposed by Southwark and the Port Of London Authority go unchallenged? “Suggest any redevelopment of Little Venice and fashionable owner-occupiers besiege the local town hall,” he wrote. “Down south of the river, however, they apparently order matters differently. Two public authorities have quietly decided between them to scrub off the map one of South London’s most precious potential assets.” And so disappeared the Grand Surrey Canal, not so much a lost secret as a missed opportunity.

Further reading: http://www.bridgetonowhere.friendsofburgesspark.org.uk/ and http://www.londoncanals.uk/

Navvies, landlords and protest

I’ve written three pieces elsewhere recently.

For Londonist, I wrote about the battle in Herne Hill between independent shops and the local landowner, Dulwich Estates, who some feel are taking more away from the community than they put in. A protest last week saw several hundred Herne Hillians march from the station to the local toy ship, which was forced out by a huge increase in rent. Several other tenants told me they feared they’d also be forced to move in the next year.

m5746

 

For Apollo, I wrote about a new exhibition of posters from Berkeley in 1970, when students protested about the ongoing Vietnam War and also the deaths of four student protesters on a campus in Kent State.

 

And for Waterfront, I wrote about the life of the navvies in London. I was intrigued by the urban legend that the four pubs in Camden with castle in the title – the Edinboro, Windsor, Dublin and Pembroke – were built for the navvies, to ensure separate nationalities drank apart and didn’t scrap. It quickly became apparent that the story wasn’t true, but as I researched the life of the navvies, I began to understand how the myth was raised and also learnt a lot about this tough breed of migrant worker.

Summer on the canal

I wrote a piece for Waterfront about the serene and occasionally hedonistic pleasures of living on a narrowboat in the summer. You can read it here.

I also took part in a podcast talking about canals for Waterfront, which you can listen to here.

I recently walked one of my favourite sections of the canal, from Kensal Green to Little Venice, for the first time in years. This is what I saw on the way.

CIQ7NgsWcAACvVq

Slopes for horses that slipped into the canal.

Slopes for horses that slipped into the canal.

CIQ1UpdWoAAn0WQCIQ1U1jWIAATP3XCIQ1U0aWsAArhzS

CIQ2_LtWwAAVgOs

This statue garden once took up the space outside a single house – now it’s the entire terrace.

CIQ2MpeWcAAOTHmCIQ2MoLWoAA60LF

CIQ2pC7W8AA6iM1

Ghost sign, of recent vintage.

CIQ3nxkWsAALHp5

Psychogeography centre, between Trellick Tower and the Westway.

CIQ3mjDWIAATm90

CIQ7gwjXAAAShWv

The most important building in London – where boaters get their toilets emptied.

CIQ6lpdWEAAOzLC

Towpath rumour said this boat once belonged to Richard Branson.

On Hackney Marsh with Jon The Poacher

One of the most enjoyable assignments have had in recent months was getting to spend a sunny late-spring morning on Hackney Marsh with John Cook, a forager who calls himself Jon The Poacher.

We wandered through parks and marshes for a couple of hours, filling a basket with wild plants, flowers, herbs and mushrooms, before sitting at a cafe by the Lea and scoffing it all. John has grown up in Clapton and knows “every milimetre” of the vast east London marshland.

I touched on bits of the marsh when I explored the pre-Olympic Lea Valley with archeologist Kieron Tyler. That tour was all about the human impact on landscape (that, really, is the essence of archeology), so the walk with John made for a completely different experience, one in which we looked only at the natural aspect, the ways in which wild plants will seed in the smallest, most inhospitable space, and how we can harvest them without destroying their habitat. John essentially uses the marsh as a giant allotment, and believes almost anything can be eaten if treated correctly.

The difference between the two views is interesting. While Kieron lamented the Lea Valley’s problem with Japanese knotweed – something the Olympic authorities spent millions on eradicating – John notes that if you cook it with a little sugar, knotweed tastes much like rhubarb.

My article about John appears on the Canal & River Trust’s Waterfront blog.

Nostalgia corner: Zola, bitumen, Paolozzi and the great ‘is London shit?’ debate

Because of a frantic start to 2015, I’ve neglected Great Wen recently. Hopefully, I’ll find something to stick up soon but in the meantime here are a few interesting bits and bobs.

First, here’s me, writing for the Canal & River Trust, about the experience of taking a narrowboat into drydock, where you whack it with mallets, coat it in tar and get pleasingly sozzled with strange Irishmen.

Second, I really enjoyed this piece by Callum West on the great Chelsea team of the 1990s, and the extraordinary revival of fortunes that preceded the salad days of Roman Abramovich. This isn’t the side I grew up with, or the one that won the most trophies, but it’s the one that gave me the greatest pleasure to watch.

Finally, the great London debate – is it turning shit or isn’t it? – is gathering pace. The constant stream of negative stories, the latest being Eva Wiseman’s pretty dismal contribution at the weekend, has finally been met by counter-argument in Brockley Central.  Is Nick’s point fatally wounded by the use of Giles Coren as a defense witness? Or is he simply missing the point, which is that the death of fun by over-development in central London is a prevailing trend that is already starting to infect areas far from the West End, and we sit and sneer at those uncomfortable at the increasing inequality, inaccessibility, unaffordability and general dreary Dubainess of it all at our peril? Both, probably.

Professional contrarians like Coren will get in bed with anyone if it gets them attention, but I’m not sure many other Londoners should be siding with the developers and speculators.

By illustration, the latest landmark to get the chop are the great Paolozzi murals at Tottenham Court Road. Still, that’s the price of progress! Yay to cultural vandalism!

“In winter, we hibernated”: Christmas on a London canal

I wrote this piece for the Canals & River Trust about winter when I used to live on a canal boat in London.

Everybody has a dream. For London cabbies, it’s ‘riding the green wave’ – that is, to hit only green lights when driving along the Euston Road, surfing the inner city highway entirely unhindered by reds and ambers. For boat dwellers, the dream was a little different: we wanted to ride the red arc, to light a fire at the start of winter that would keep burning until spring, a constant five-month blaze that required no further feeding from firelighters or matches.

I’m not sure anybody managed it. There were rumours about the more calloused boaters, the ones who could measure out their boat life by the decade and bled pure diesel. I know I didn’t. Far from it. For the first few years I lived on my narrowboat at Lisson Grove, I could barely keep a fire alight for a single night. I blame it on my stove, a gargantuan pot-bellied top-loader that was far too big for my tiny boat and practically impossible to control no matter how diligently I layered firelighters, kindling, newspaper and coal, or fiddled with the grate, trying by fractions of an inch to get the perfect draft. Instead, it would burn ferociously hot, so much so that if I wished to sleep amid the inferno I would have to fling open the back and front doors no matter what the weather outside. Invariably, I’d wake icily at 3am to find the fire burnt out, and bury myself in blankets until dawn. A cold boat was not a pleasant place to spend the morning; often I’d have to break the ice that formed in the sink overnight.

Later, I acquired a more controllable stove and would pride myself on keeping it burning for weeks at a time. This allowed me to appreciate the smothering splendour of boat life in winter. For half the year, living on the canal was an outdoors and sociable affair. This was partly a matter of comfort. Boats are largely made of glass and metal, so get very hot very quickly. It’s like living in a car. To combat this, doors were always open and much time was spent on deck, gossiping with neighbours. This easy familiarity would lead to impromptu barbeques that became boozy weekends, with individuals dropping in and out as the mood struck but the essential body of the party remaining intact from Friday evening to Sunday night.

Then in winter, we hibernated. Returning in the evening gloom, even before you reached the canal, you’d catch the homely smell of smoking coal. The towpath would be still, and on every boat, doors and curtains would be closed against the cold, chimneys puffing cheerily away. While summer was a buzz of conversation, hailed hellos and clinking bottles, the sound of winter was the stolid rattle of a coal scuttle being filled. We still visited each other, enjoying wine and warmth and admiring our neighbours’ stove-lighting technique, perhaps exchanging views on the best type of coal to use. But this was an altogether more internal time, drowsy days spent deep within the boat, and, as winter peaked, in contemplation of the view outside. Almost every year the slow-moving canal would freeze grey-white, startling, beautiful, and so close at hand it felt as if your boat had moved overnight to another planet. This virgin layer of ice would gradually get more battle-scarred as the kids from the local estate attempted to smash the surface with increasingly oversized objects, graduating from stones to bricks, until with inevitable surrealism, you’d wake to find a shopping trolley embedded in the ice.

Although our winters were essentially insular they were not entirely so. Many boaters spent Christmas Day on the canal, staggering sociably from boat to boat, admiring each tiny decorated fir and fairy lights slung along gunwales. And, for the Millennium, we held a party every bit as spectacular as any summer barbeque, watching the Thames fireworks from Primrose Hill and spending four solid days carousing, before, one by one, we slipped away, to see out the rest of winter from the cosy comfort of our floating dens.

‘Last time I went into central London I needed a lie down’: life on London’s floating bookshop

An interview with Paddy Screech, a floating bookseller, for a piece I wrote for Time Out in June 2013.

Paddy Screech, 47, Word On The Water

‘By terms of the continuous cruising licence I have to move to a new mooring every two weeks. In the winter I try and stay around the urban bits and in the summer I stay near the parks. We try and stay north-east because my business partner has a little girl at school in Stoke Newington. We go to Paddington, Camden, Angel, Broadway Market, Mile End Park, Victoria Park and Springfield Park. We can’t go much further because our supply lines start to get stretched as we have relationships with five or six charity shops in this area. These are our friends and were we get our stock and also this is where our boating friends are. If we move to far afield we don’t have a world there.

What’s the appeal? Well, on a day when I have a carpet wrapped around a broken propeller and I have to have my boat towed in a strong wind, I can’t quite recall. Generally, I love the freedom and the less regulated life. London can be a chilly place. On the canal, people behave like they are living in the country even though you are only four metres from the road. As soon as you put a towpath there, people start talking, being friendly. It’s true of everybody, boaters and passersby. It’s very strange, like magic. On the other side of this fence there is a different culture.

It’s like a village. There are a lot of boats in London but if you put them all together you’d have a village, but a village where you can get away from people if you want to just before you start annoying each other. I have a little world in each place I stop: I usually know some of the other boats, I have a favourite coffee shop, I know how to get to the launderette. I like Springfield Park the best. Everybody makes the book barge feel welcome, whether they are permanent residents or not.

I’ve been on this boat for two years, running it as a bookshop, and I’ve been on the canal for six years. I try not to leave the canal. Last time I went into central London I needed a lie down. I lived in Upper Clapton for seven years. In all that time I met one of my seven neighbours once, as I sat rotting in front of a computer and seeing one of my dozen friends each week. Now I have about 300 friends, only look at the computer for an hour a day and never watch TV. I spend most of my time trying to stop the barge blowing away, or trying to light a fire.

The boat is called Diante, which means diamond in Italian. She’s a 1920s coal barge from Amsterdam and was converted into a houseboat in around the 1960s. She’s beautiful, but has a very thin bottom so will need replating. The engine is very old and just about clinging to existence. Every four years you need to take a boat drydock for a bigger service but if you do that properly a boat can last for decades. I’m not very practical but am much better than I was seven years ago. Anything that requires expertise or tools I need to call in favours. The fun thing about a Dutch barge is that it has no weed hatch so I have to put on a wet suit and get in the canal with all the urine and clear it with a knife.

I have a sea toilet which can’t be used on the canal so I visit the local establishments when I need the loo. There are lots of pubs and cafes that are sympathetic. It’s a simple life, I have no hot running water. I had a gas boiler but took it off because it wasn’t going to pass the safety certificate. It seemed a bit of luxury. My shower is now used for book storage. I wash with landlubber friends. Thanks to the kindness of friends I get a bath every other day. Working boats come up and down the canal delivering coal and diesel to all the moorings.

I have no mains electricity but a substantial amount of solar panelling that runs the lights and a 12v PA. There’s also an alternator on the engine, which creates electricity when you run the engine. It means there’s one less corporation in your pants. I do all my electronic stuff on my smartphone. Some boats have widescreen TVs and generators, but I’m not interested. Boats take up a lot of time and so I’m always pottering around doing something, I’m done with sitting on my arse watching bad television.

My business partner is John Privett, we started the shop about two years ago. We survive against overwhelming odds, but our costs are low and in the winter we live like feral water rats. We don’t get much custom when it is raining so in the winter we contract our horns and live on less. For our stock, we get given donations but mainly we select the best from charity shops.

The main expense is the licence and safety certificate. The business license for a trading boat is the same cost as a residential one as long as you are making less than £60k a year. There are around 15 trading books in London now, including a hat boat, a sandwich boat, a cocktail barge, a vegan cake barge, a herbal practitioner and a Slovak restaurant. We are hoping to find a permanent site for a floating market. It’s nice to move every two weeks but we might do better if we could stay in the same place.

I have absolutely no interest in going back to dry land. As long as I can borrow a friend’s bath every now and then there’s nothing about land life that appeals to me. I’m in the city now but when I wake up tomorrow I’ll be in  park underneath some trees and I’ll still have my coffee and my cats [Queenie and Skitty]  around me. To take your house and plonk it into the countryside after 24 hours is pretty special.

I don’t wish for more space. Boats change your expectation about how much space you need. I got rid of four-fifths of my items when I moved aboard and I don’t miss them. You just learn not to accumulate things. Except books. I can usually find something to read.’

Wappingness

This is an edited version of a piece about Wapping  written in 2011.

‘Explore Wapping,’ exhorted Samuel Johnson to Boswell, ‘to see the wonderful extent and variety of London.’ It is fine advice still. Johnson was speaking in the 1790s, when Wapping was London’s principle settlement for sailors, a hive of cobbled streets and damp, narrow alleys that led to the numerous wharves and jetties of riverside London, but his instruction rings true today. Explore Wapping and see how London can demonstrate a seemingly infinite capacity to reinvent itself, how it will welcome newcomers and how it celebrates its past while never neglecting to engage with the future. Few cities have such a knack at looking simultaneously backwards as well as forwards, and few places in London do this better then Wapping. Here, Morrissey explores Wapping landmarks in his 1992 video, “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful”, just as the area was undergoing heavy gentrification.

To understand Wapping try approaching it from St Katherine’s Dock, the pretty riverside development that lies adjacent to the Tower of London. Leave St Katharine Dock at the point where it almost touches the Thames and you will arrive in Wapping at the very western end of Wapping High Street, the charismatic street that runs parallel to the river for the length of the district. Here, on the corner with Kennet Street, is a large stone wall, decorated with icicle-like drips of cement. Inside the wall is a large red brick building, which still proudly wears the emblem of the Port Of London Authority, although this has over time turned the sort of misty green colour you associate with cannons dredged from the ocean floor.

This is the old dock house, a remnant of when Wapping was home to London Docks, and it stands next to Hermitage Basin, one of the few parts of the dock complex not to have been filled with concrete and covered with roads and houses in the 1970s. Hermitage Basin once offered a way for ships from around the world to get from the mammoth London Dock to the Thames, but now it is a sweet little ornamental lake surrounded by houses, and a home itself to a sedate family of regal swans and the odd mallard.

Hermitage Basin is a fine example of what you could call Wappingness: the way Wapping has come to terms with its past, making sensible accommodation with what has been before. This has not been an easy task. Wapping has been battered by change over the centuries, first when the docks were built in 1805, carving great watery holes throughout the neighbourhood and reducing the population of 6,000 by two thirds, and then when they were filled in again in the 1970s, eradicating what had been Wapping’s identity for more than 150 years. The warehouses and docks of Wapping were also heavily targeted by German bombers during the Second World War. But still it prospers.

Signs of Wapping’s maritime heritage are everywhere. Before the docks arrived, it was a place of wharves, jetties, warehouses, boatbuilders, sailmakers, brothels and pubs, having been originally settled by the Saxons and used by London’s sailors for centuries. The building of the docks over reclaimed marshland helped cement these long links with the sea, even if they replaced the bustling village atmosphere with vast warehouses and a more transient population. The London Docks were the closest docks to the City of London, which gave them a significant advantage over those docks that had recently been built on the Isle of Dogs.

In these Wapping warehouses, dockers would unload treasures from right across the British Empire, including tobacco, rum, whalebone, spices, cocoa, coffee, rubber, coconuts, marble and wool. Settlers from overseas lived in Wapping – nearby Limehouse was home to London’s first Chinatown and is now home to a thriving Bangladeshi community – and artists, writers and poets would come to Wapping to glimpse exotica in the form of both the goods brought from overseas and in the working-class men and women who lived and worked in the area. They would then disperse around London and the East End, taking some of the essence of Wapping with them across the Highway into Whitechapel, Spitalfields and beyond. Later still, artists set up studios in the derelict warehouses of Wapping in the 1970s, heralding a trend that soon spread throughout east London.

The chief attraction, of course, was the river, although the Thames itself can only intermittently be glimpsed between the tall warehouses that act almost like a river wall. But stroll round Wapping and you’ll see signs of its maritime history everywhere in the shape of weathered dock walls, converted warehouses and industrial walkways that allow passageway high above the cobbled streets. Here are restaurants and pubs that pay homage to the past, plus a pretty canal that stretches in a narrow strip from Hermitage Basin in the west to Shadwell Basin in the east, offering a slender shadow of the bustling docks that once stood here. Between buildings on Wapping High Street you can see numerous ancient stone stairs, green with age, that lead directly down to the river.

Such is the all-pervasive water-soaked atmosphere that Wapping itself can even feel like something of an island, bordered on three side by the liquid barriers of the Thames, St Katherine’s Dock and Shadwell Basin and with a busy main road, the Highway, to the north, cutting it off from the rest of London. And within this island, there is just as much to explore as there was in Johnson’s time. You can find London’s oldest riverside inn, the grisly site of pirate executions, an abandoned shopping centre, a gorgeous listed church, a power station turned art gallery, a historic foot tunnel, London’s only memorial to the Blitz, a beach that the Beatles posed on, mudlarks searching for Tudor bric-a-brac, Wapping Wood and an escaped tiger. So follow Johnson, explore Wapping, embrace Wappingness.

Secret London: eight London shrines

I wrote this for the wonderful Curiocity, London’s finest pocket-sized trivia-and-map-packing magazine. Issue E, with a pilgrimage theme, is available at all good London bookshops. 

Tyburn martyrs
On Bayswater Road at Marble Arch is a small convent, unlikely home to a ‘cloistered community of benedictine contemplatives’, aka nuns. In the basement chapel, the walls are covered with ancient relics – skin, bone, bits of fingernails – from some of the 350 Catholic martyrs who were hanged on the three-sided Tyburn Tree during the Tudor wars of religion. Behind the altar of this ghoulish Martyr’s Shrine is a replica of the Tyburn gallows itself.

Giro, The Nazi Dog
One of London’s best known ‘secret’ sites, this little stone on Carlton House Terrace marks the grave of Giro, beloved pooch of (Hitler-opposing) German ambassador Leopold von Hoesch. Giro died while the German Embassy was at No 8-9 (now the Royal Society) during the pre-war Nazi era. He wasn’t really a Nazi, incidentally, as dogs rarely express a political preference (although I did once know one that would bark like a maniac if you said ‘Labour party’).

Bolan’s Tree
A sycamore tree on Queen’s Drive in Barnes has been a shrine to Marc Bolan since 1977 when Bolan’s Mini crashed into it, killing the singer instantly. A bronze bust of Bolan stands nearby.

Spoons

Holborn’s junkie spoons
Underneath a dank stairwell in Farringdon close to Mount Pleasant sorting office you might stumble across a wall stuck with a dozen mysterious spoons. Urban legend says these were placed here by heroin users in tribute to their dead peers, each spoon marking a new death.

Cross Bones graveyard
This parcel of disused land in Borough has been claimed by locals as a shrine to prostitutes said to have been buried on unconsecrated land since the 1500s, and they come here to lay flowers for the forgotten dead. In truth, Borough had many such graveyards and Cross Bones was used to bury the poor of both sexes.

Regent’s Canal coconuts
The further west you head along Regent’s Canal towards Southall the more likely it is you will come across a coconut floating in the water, sometimes cut in half and containing candles. These are placed there by London Hindus in religious ceremonies that sees the tiny canal replace the mighty Ganges.

Skateboard graveyard
Look over the side of the Jubilee Footbridge and you’ll see dozens of broken skateboards lying on one of the concrete feet that anchor the bridge to the Thames. These are boards that have experienced one olley too many and, beyond repair, been dropped to join their kin by South Bank skateboarders.

Postman’s Park
A shrine to everyday heroes, this park features a number of ceramic tiles dedicated to Londoners who died while saving the lives of others. A remarkable, very touching little spot created by the Victorian artist GF Watts.