Exploring Wapping

Exploring Wapping

“Explore Wapping to see the wonderful extent and variety of London.”
Dr Samuel Johnson speaking to his biographer James Boswell in the 1870s

Once that summer has arrived and the days are much longer, I always think the time is right for revisiting one of my favourite London riverside haunts, Wapping. Parking at Wapping couldn't be easier as the parking meters finish at 5.30pm weekdays and are free throughout the weekends, so there's no excuse for not taking time out walking for some good exercise.

   The memorial sculpture, the symbol of the dove

If you started your day near the St Katherine's end of the High Street, you could look in at the Tower of London and St Katherine's Docks, but then you will be sharing your day with lots of tourists which is not what I'm looking for on my day out. My treat is to wander off in the opposite direction, perhaps taking in the Blitz Memorial in the Hermitage Memorial Gardens where you can have good views of Tower Bridge without the crowds.The memorial sculpture, the symbol of the dove, is designed by Wendy Taylor CBE, it is suggested to mean hope and is in memory of the East London civilians who were killed or injured in the blitz of 1939-45; Blitz, from the German word “Blitzkrieg” meaning lightning war.

   Port of London Authority

Almost opposite the memorial gardens, on the corner with Wapping High Street and Thomas More Street is a large stone wall decorated with icicle-like drips of cement, the large red bricked building wears the emblem of the “Port of London Authority.” This is the old dock house on the side of Hermitage Basin, one of the few parts of the docks not to have been redeveloped during the 1970s.

The modern complex housing “Smith’s” Brassiere which is an upmarket fish restaurant with fantastic views of the Thames and Tower Bridge is the place to visit for a special occasion, but this time I'm saving myself for one of the three pubs I will pass further along. Wapping Pierhead, a Georgian square which was originally built for the Dock Masters and is now part of a private place for residents only, but you can still admire from the High Street some of the early summer flowers growing from window boxes and the aerie railings. As you look along Wapping High Street, you can see converted warehouses and industrial walkways which allow passageway high above the cobbled streets.

Converted warehouses and industrial walkways

   Town of Ramesgate

The first of the three riverside pubs, the Town of Ramsgate described as "a notable specimen of a waterman's tavern" was built in 1785. The pub was once known as the “Red Cow,” a reference to the colour of a barmaid’s hair. The pub's fight for space is all too clear from its outside front view; inside it has a narrow rectangular shape with a riverside balcony.

The narrow passage of Wapping Old Stairs running at the side of the pub leading down to the river is worth a look. For it is here that the notorious “Hanging Judge” Judge Jeffreys was caught in 1688, he was dressed as a sailor and attempting to catch a ship from these stairs to follow his patron James II into exile in Europe. The judge died a year later in the Tower. You can enter the foreshore from these steps when the tide is out (do be careful as the steps have slippery green slime). If you’re on a family day out with the kids and fancy going down onto the beach you will be surprised what you can find; Victorian china and Tudor clay pipes are the most common. The latter are plentiful and date back hundreds of years to when tobacco was first brought to London. The sailors and dockers would throw their pipes into the river as they were considered disposal, much the same way cigarette butts are chucked away today. Some people have even been lucky enough to see seals and dolphins from Wapping, although this is rare, recently, however, in 2006, a juvenile female Northern bottlenose whale (Diana) made her way past here and ended up at Albert Bridge. There were several attempts to rescue Diana before she died after suffering from convulsions.

   St John’s Old School - Girl and Boy

Almost opposite the Town of Ramsgate is Scandrett Street and St John’s Old School, founded 1695 and built 1760, by public subscription. The school entrance has twin alcoves each has statues one of a girl and the other a boy, the building now houses apartments.

Just a few yards back along the High Street is the historic Marine Unit of the Metropolitan Police, with the River Police Museum. I was fortunate to have had a guided tour which is featured here. A guided tour of the museum takes about one and a half hours and has to be pre-booked by prior arrangement only. It is free to visit, although they appreciate a small donation!

   Captain Kidd

The second pub on this stretch of our journey is Captain Kidd, named after the Scottish pirate William Kidd. Although the Captain Kidd pub is located in a 17th-century building, the pub itself only dates back to the 1980s, but don't let that put you off, its cobbled stoned entrance and gallery having the charms of a much older establishment. They also do a good Sunday roast for less than ten pounds - I am tempted but I’m hanging out! Captain Kidd himself perished at Execution Dock, used for more than 400 years in London to execute pirates, smugglers and mutineers who had been sentenced to death by Admiralty courts. The "dock", which consisted of a scaffold for hanging, was located on the river shore opposite Bridewell Place, near to King Henry’s Stairs according to Rocque’s map of 1746. The last executions were in 1830.

There is another pub which is not on the main High Street but it is worth a small diversion. If you take Wapping Lane on the way you will see Gulliver’s Wharf, an old tea warehouse, one of the first Wapping warehouses to be converted into living accommodation and a reminder of the fictional character of Jonathan Swift’s classic novel “Gulliver’s Travels” – which in the 1960 film; “The Three Worlds of Gulliver” begins in Wapping in 1699. Dr Lemuel Gulliver (Kerwin Mathews) is an impoverished surgeon who seeks riches and adventure as a ship's doctor on a voyage around the world.

Turner’s Old Star at 14 Watts Street, which was once owned by the artist Joseph Turner (1775-1851). In 1831 Turner met Sofia Booth, a widowed landlady from Margate, who was to become his mistress until his death in 1851. When Turner inherited two cottages in Wapping, he turned them into a tavern and installed Mrs Booth as proprietor. He named the tavern “The Old Star.” Turner’s “Old Star” remains on the same site to this day.

Retracing back to Wapping High Street and passing Wapping Station it’s worth noting that the Thames Tunnel beneath connecting Rotherhithe and Wapping, was the first tunnel known to have been constructed successfully underneath a navigable river, built between 1825 and 1843 using Marc Isambard Brunel's and Thomas Cochrane's newly invented tunnelling shield technology, by Brunel and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Walking around the S bend into Wapping Wall, by now I'm getting a trifle hungry and I have saved the best pub to last, the Prospect of Whitby. This pub named after the then famous collier which regularly moored at Wapping. There has been a pub on this site since Henry VIII and justifiably the Prospect of Whitby claims to be London's oldest riverside inn. It certainly has the longest pewter-topped bar in the world. You can either dine downstairs, but I always prefer the cosy rooms upstairs, where I normally visit after tramping around the area.

The food here is good and reasonably priced. Views from the Prospect were sketched by both Turner and Whistler. The writers Charles Dickens and Samuel Pepys are known to have paused to sup here. It's time after a Guinness and a roast dinner that I start heading back after a warm summers day in Wapping.

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