THE ISLE OF DOGS: Route A (Central)
LONDON TUBE RAMBLES WALK (about 3 miles)
This is one of a set of walks in the Isle of Dogs. It begins at Island Gardens DLR station, takes in Mudchute, Crossharbour, South Quay, Canary Wharf and Herons Quays, ending at West India Quay DLR station. Quite an experience!
From Island Gardens station turn left and walk through Millwall Park, taking the left hand path by a viaduct. Between 1872 and 1926 this carried the ‘Penny Puffer’ to the terminus of the Millwall extension of the London & Blackwall Railway. When the DLR came into being in 1987 the viaduct was used again, but with the construction of the under-river extension to Lewisham in 1999 it fell into disuse again.The playing field on the right is of interest to football fans, as Millwall Football Club played here from 1901 to 1910 when it moved to New Cross. Previously it had been pastureland. Owing to its proximity to the place where the mud was dumped from the excavations for Millwall Dock over the road (hence ‘Mudchute’) the ground was so wet it had to be steam-rollered before the first game. Follow the path round to the right towards a row of trees. These line the Globe Ropewalk. A shed belonging to Hawkins & Tipson’s rope works ran the whole length of the walk where manila and sisal were twisted into extra thick ropes of the kind attached to life-boats as fenders. They occupied the site between 1881 and 1971. Immediately behind the ropewalk is an embankment behind which is Mudchute Farm. You will come to an entrance to this at the East Ferry Road end of the path, but I suggest ignoring it, as there is much better, step-free, access from Pier Road (see Route B East). Cross East Ferry Road towards Mudchute DLR. Walk past the station. At the sign 'Dockside Walkway' go down the steps (or slope), then up more steps (or turn right for another slope).
Suddenly, the impressive Millwall Dock stretches out before you. Opened in 1868 it was originally connected to the Thames at the West end by a double lock. Badly damaged during WW2, the dock was eventually dammed up in 1956.The far end is now occupied by the Docklands Sailing and Watersports Centre, so there may be sails bobbing about in the distance. To the left is a large chunk of machinery painted red. This is a grain pump brought from the Royal Victoria Docks, but it has a suitable home in this area, as vast amounts of grain were loaded and unloaded here. (The tall chimney in the photo was attached to nothing more interesting than a rubbish incinerator.) Timber was another commodity handled in bulk at Millwall Dock, much of the nearby land being taken up for its storage. To continue the trail, turn right and walk by Millwall Inner Dock where houseboats are moored. At Turnberry Quay go past an attractive (modern) polygonal building and turn left into Pepper Street. To the right is Crossharbour DLR station. (If getting to the Canary Wharf area from that, walk down Westward Parade/Pepper Street to join the trail). This area has more of a residential feel about it, with small shops under a series of attractive stone arcades. Soon you will come to Millwall Inner Dock. Follow the waterside path (Oaklands Quay) to the right, towards a colourful floating chinese restaurant. Opposite this in Baltimore Wharf is a trap for anyone wearing dark glasses. What seems to be a large black bench is actually a water feature . . .
Over the dock are some old cranes and near the end of the path are two more - reflected in the exciting blue glass buildings of Harbour Exchange Square near South Quay DLR station. Cross Marsh Wall and go left for two sets of steps leading down to West India South Dock. Take the second (western) flight (or the easy access slope further on) and walk straight ahead. [The area to the east is covered in Route D (Northeast)]. Go round the corner and walk by the dockside – there are often quite large boats tied up here. Soon there is a row of restaurants with a pleasant narrow path lined with hanging baskets. Walk along this to reach the gracefully curving South Quay Footbridge. From the centre of this (bouncy) crossing there is a good view east towards the Blue Bridge at the tidal lock, beyond which is the O2.
Over the footbridge, go down the steps (or take lift**), then pass through two sets of glass doors, crossing a large atrium. Turn left and cross at the lights – you have arrived at Canary Wharf, the heart of the Docklands business centre. (Herons Quay DLR station is on the left.) Now there are no physical imports and exports here – only the ‘invisibles’ of financial wheeling and dealing. To the north the famous pyramid-topped 46-storey tower block of One Canada Square presides over the whole Canary Wharf estate. A landmark for miles around, this first skyscraper, completed in 1991, has now been joined by many other giants. The expanses of water that help to make this area so intriguing also remind us that part of it was literally built over the West India Docks. For a full description of the development, including details of the various architects involved, see links below.
Just so nobody is left in any doubt about what Canary Wharf is all about, the curved Reuters building to the west has an illuminated ‘ticker-tape’ of share prices running round it. Meanwhile, red DLR trains constantly trundle to and fro suddenly appearing and disappearing on raised lines between office blocks. The Tube station is not the only public subterranean area. Underneath Canada Square is an extensive mall with floor mosaics depicting various commodities that used to be handled in West India Dock. It is accessed through sets of glass doors conveniently placed throughout the square so an entrance* is never far away. At lunchtime it gets very busy, so if you fancy buying something for a picnic try to go earlier. Telling the time by the array of six clocks in Nash Court outside No.1 is confusing, since they are an art installation by Konstin Grcic (1999). Although each clock tells the same time, only one (different) numeral shows on each face. I mention a picnic, because to the south of the Underground station is Jubilee Park which has a raised water feature. In fine weather it's ideal for a pause and people-watching. To investigate Canada Square further, wander by the stream to the end of the park. Go over Upper Bank Street towards something resembling a giant glass slug. Actually it’s another entrance to the Tube. Walk left along Upper Bank Street and the east side of Canada Square, passing the pale green Waitrose store. Take the next turning to the right. No 15 is spectacular - two joined blocks, one at an angle to the street with a huge atrium joining the two buildings. Cross the slope that leads to Service Area S.
The road then goes over a channel between the docks. Follow the path as it curves through Churchill Place, then on to the Cartier Circle. This is the place where security staff** check all vehicles wishing to enter the eastern end of the estate. At the roundabout turn left and carefully cross the entrances to Service Area T to find a bridge, Trafalgar Way.
On the left is Billingsgate fish market which moved here in 1984. The brick building with red doors in the market car park is a (1857) hydraulic accumulator tower which served the London and North Western Railway. Retrace your steps as far as Upper Bank Street, but this time cross straight over to the north side of Canada Square. Outside the HBSC building is a surprise - a pair of bronze lions. They are replicas of the ones that guard the bank’s offices in Shanghai and are an emblem of the business, appearing outside several other HBSC headquarters throughout the world.
At this point cross over the road towards Canada Square Park where there is a striking artwork, The Big Blue (Ron Arad, 1998) which sits atop a circular window, a lighting source for the underground mall. Proceed to the left as far as the stainless steel pillars of No. 1. Opposite is a covered walkway leading to the new Crossrail station. This is not yet in use as a station, but you can explore the delightful roof garden - definitely worth a detour)
Continue to the end of North Colonnade (DLR on right) to reach Cabot Square with its large fountain and angular statue, Couple on Seat (Lynn Chadwick,1984). Turn left to Wren landing, north of the square, and descend steps to a yellow floating footbridge (1996).) It reminds me of those water creatures that skim over the surface of a pond. Before you is the quay of West India Import Dock. The first two West India Docks, Import (north) and Export (middle) opened in 1802 to cope with the problems of overcrowding, as ships from the Caribbean laden with rum, coffee, sugar and other produce arrived mainly between July and October. Nine warehouses were built along the dock to store the valuable cargo and the area was surrounded by closely guarded high brick walls in an attempt to stop goods going missing. Sadly, of the warehouses only Nos.1 and 2 remain, the rest having been bombed in WW2. Today we are impressed by the height of the office blocks, but just imagine what a sight nine 223ft warehouses must have been!
The quay was known as 'Blood Alley' because of the damage to dockers’ skin from unloading sacks of sticky sugar. Beyond the warehouses to the west is the Ledger House, now a restaurant, where records of everything that went through the docks were kept. Over the bridge go to the left, passing St.Peter’s church boat, a Dutch freight barge. At the end of the dock look to the left to find some interesting veteran tugs. Ahead is the small-scale replica of the Hibbert gate.The original was the main gateway to the new docks, west of the existing warehouses. It is so called because of the model ship on top, ‘The Hibbert’, named after the first chairman of the West India Company. George Hibbert was a plantation owner and merchant trading chiefly in Jamaica. The statue (1812) in front of the museum commemorates another merchant, Sir Robert Milligan, who worked with Hibbert to get the docks built here instead of Wapping. Back at the main quayside make for a large brick archway, once the inner gateway. The round building (1805) in front was a guard room where firearms were kept. In those days it was paired with one opposite, which was used as a lock-up. Through the arch are the Cannon Workshops. In the nineteenth century these were occupied by engineers, carpenters etc. There was also a large water tank in case of fire - from 1875 used for compulsory swimming lessons for boy labourers. Nowadays the workshops house a series of independent businesses.
At first the dock companies employed their own police forces to try to cut down on the pilfering (the Metropolitan Police Force was not created until 1829.)
In 1909 all the dock security forces amalgamated and were run by the Port of London Authority. The red brick building to the north of the Cannon Workshops was a PLA Police Station and bears the date 1914. On the curve of the massive dock wall to the right is a foundation stone laid in 1800. Hibbert and Milliagan are mentioned as being instrumental in promoting an undertaking ‘which, under the favour of God, shall contribute stability, increase and ornament to British commerce’. It is worth walking round Hertsmere Road to the back of the warehouses to get more of an idea of what the area must have been like in its heyday. Turning the corner you will come across the Georgian Dockmaster’s House on the left, once dock offices, now a restaurant – never lived in by a Dockmaster. The DLR train in the background of the photo below is going over the old Blackwall railway viaduct.
Cut through back to the quay by going down the steps under the archway half way along the run of warehouses (continue to the end for a slope). As you pass through the building, notice the huge timber beams resting on millstone grit blocks to protect the wood from rotting. Back at the dock there might be time for a visit to the (free) Museum of London Docklands with its excellent section on what happened round here in WW2. Not surprisingly the docks were a prime target for German bombers and suffered serious damage throughout. Nonetheless important war work was carried on – much of it in conditions of strict secrecy. An example is the construction of parts of the Mulberry Harbours so crucial to the success of the D-Day landings. As in the other locations concerned in their building, those working on the harbours had no idea of their purpose. For a detailed history of this fascinating area and its regeneration go to links below.
Being so near West India DLR station (it’s at the eastern end of the dock, just behind the two large cranes), you may prefer to get home from there rather than going back to Canary Wharf.
*Disabled access throughout the estate is excellent, with lifts or slopes where needed.