Since Nairn mapped the city in 1966, perhaps no part of London has altered as much as the Docklands. A new Tokyo has arisen from the primordial brown water of the Thames, all driverless trains overhead and thrusting glass steeples to Capital, and the wharf warehouses have gone from slums to (like almost all of London) places where only the very, very rich can live. This is the original Millwall; my Lions moved South of the river in 1910 and will never come back, nor the dockers that supported them. Today, the poor folk making up the numbers are largely Bangladeshi. I wonder what Nairn would make of Canary Wharf. There’s a Jonathan Meades essay on the pleasures of an area that “lacks most of London’s definable qualities… it could be anywhere”. Guidebook in hand, on this walk I looked less at the showpieces of the new Docklands, and more at the oddities that have fallen between the cracks. Trying to get a picture of how things were from these fragments, however, can be like looking at two isolated pillars in the Roman Forum and asking your brain to conjure up a vast Augustan temple. You need to use your imagination.
Arriving on a Bank-bound DLR, I jump off at Westferry and try to find Poplar High St. I have to negotiate a proper spaghetti junction of dual carriageways carrying lorries in every direction. The peaks of the skyscrapers are seen from miles away and look great, but at their foot is this mess reminiscent of trying to exit East Belfast at its own erstwhile docks. And as iconic as the towers seem from miles away, when you get up close and find yourself standing on wasteland, they seem to be mirages made from smoke and mirrors.
Poplar High St is another conduit for traffic, but really not much of a high street. There’s the odd interesting building, Tower Hamlets College standing out, but the only other amenities are a Coral bookies, a coroner’s court and a place selling LED chandeliers.
Follow the High St to its conclusion and there are a few car mechanics, a Chinese supermarket next to a poorly-stocked Tesco and a hut posing as a mosque. For all that, plenty of people live here and there is evidence of a community eking out their existence in the shadow of Canary Wharf.
By the end, the housing has gone beyond ugly and looks as if it is designed to punish residents.
You feel yourself on the edge of the black hole that is Blackwall Tunnel, as it sucks in a constant stream of more lorries on more dual carriageways. It’s not all bad; East India Dock Rd looks more like a high street than Poplar did, and in the distance are a few interesting brutalist designs. Fortresses for living in.
Carry on eastwards for properly bleak edgelands stuff, the kind of place where football hooligan firms meet in cheap British films. It’s all building sites, some for Crossrail, some for “rent well spent” blocks going up for city workers with the air of prison camps. One optimistically calls itself ‘Aberfeldy Village’. I’ve come a long way for an obscure Nairn recommendation; turning down Leamouth Rd, I walk parallel to the fairly pregnable-looking walls of East India Dock.
There’s a wide roundabout run wild with weeds and rusted abstract sculpture, in the distance is the surreal sight of the cable cars fro Greenwich, marching across the sky like ants, and to the left “a sudden smudge of green” and the Oxbow squiggle of Bow Creek.
The land within the loop of the tributary is wilderness, and currently being kept as an ecological park/bird sanctuary. Speaking to us from before our deindustrialisation, Nairn reports “an apparition, miles from greenery in any direction”. It isn’t so startling today, when the roundabout next door is all greenery and the posh buildings of the docklands line themselves with trees. Sometimes following Nairn’s steps is immensely rewarding, sometimes it can feel like a real Sancho Panza job. The intrigue is in the not knowing what you’ll get.
Having come all this way, I stick around a little to ponder the place. There are lamps around the walkway and one wonders if the ambition is for the residents of Aberfeldy Village to go jogging along here, or drink coffee at a pavement cafe. It’s hard to picture, but there is a strange poetry in the ugliness. The banks of mud at the corner of the loop are scattered with bricks and assorted car parts that look like skeletal remains of some prehistoric creature.
Into the Isle of Dogs proper next. Cutting across this stretch of ex-Docklands, the overhead DLR trains are a useful pointer.
In every direction, enormous modern apartment blocks going up. Are there so many people with so much money, or do these people buy 100 flats each? At the centre of a jumble of flyovers, a billboard advertising insurance displays a sun-kissed Croatian island and my brain fails to compute the sight. Some of the sights around here are as alien to me as the other side of the planet, and when an occasional Victorian building appears it’s a real jolt.
Down Preston’s Road and the jolt is delivered tenfold by a row of cottages hiding amidst the new glass structures, that look more rural than old East End.
Across the Thames is that vast monument to one psychopath’s vanity, the Basilica di San Antonio. Let us keep it there as a badge of shame.
Off Preston’s Road is Coldharbour (“You will know a bit about East End topography by the time you find this one… Good hunting”), where the surprises continue with a row of neat Georgian townhouses (which a lunatic has followed up with a row of houses which might be Scandinavian modernist, at a wild guess).
“Nelson House” is, we are told, where Lord Nelson stayed when this place was Britain’s Arsenale and he came to inspect the naval cannon.
At the end of Coldharbour sits The Gun, a Nairn-recommended spot (“it is a good, friendly, dockland pub which has neither been irreparably spoilt by the brewers nor irreparably taken up”). Hearteningly, it’s still there, but given the exclusive locale and riverside view it is hardly surprising to see that it is more of a restaurant than a pub nowadays. Drinkers are welcomed but outnumbered by people there for a menu of fresh fish from Billingsgate. It’s been done up tastefully (though filling up every wall with C18th pistols could be considered overdoing it) and feels like the kind of place where Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan might go for a £180 lunch.
Interesting aside: a bloke at the bar mentions to one of the polite Polish bartenders that Andy Carroll is injured for the next 4 months, and the barman remarks “Aah, very good. Is very good for business.” The pub’s promotional blurb asserts that Lord Nelson was a regular, and furthermore that he used the room upstairs for his assignations with Emma Hamilton (well, it would).
You can squeeze out onto the rear terrace for a view of the Thames as it bends around San Antonio. “The special thing, unsuspected from outside… nowhere is the muddy horizontal excitement of the Thames more urgent than here.” It looks more expansive out here, unencumbered by bridges or traffic or postcard-famous buildings. All there is to look at is the water and the sky.
From here I cut further into the Isle and down Eastferry Rd. All around are pieces of engineering which I imagine might have something to do with the canal locks, but whose purpose now seems as infathomable to me as that of the Pyramids.
There’s a row of Victorian houses that look no different from any street in North London but seem strange in this environment, followed by the council housing of Cubitt Town; disparate styles, none of which catch the eye at all. This stretch of road with a few perfunctory shops calls itself Castalia Square- the piazza it is not.
Remarkably unremarkable. This could be any unloved suburb in any unloved town in England, and there isn’t a hint of all the action round the corner; the river, Canary Wharf… one thinks of the tales of Venetian peasants never leaving the parish and going a lifetime without seeing San Marco. Or of China Mieville’s The City & The City, where an Ottoman city & a Mitteleuropean one sit on the same spot and inhabitants of each “unsee” one another. Strongest metaphor for contemporary London I’ve read.
Leaving this behind, I cut through the DLR and make for the citadel of Crossharbour, where homebuilders are noisily advertising 24/7 show homes.
Baltimore Wharf is going for the faux-Japanese look, with a fountain coating stone slabs and wispy trees in front of the identikit flats (and a floating Chinese restaurant at the other end). All in all, you’re just a £600,000 brick in the wall. Whither Bunny Colvin?
The central streets to Crossharbour have eateries that would have been the last word in cool 20 years ago. It all resembles the bits of Belfast that got naff new shopping arcades in the late 80s. The look is toytown, the red brick and round-arched porticoes making it a Lego Bologna.
Still, the sunlight rippling on the water is not to be discounted; a canal is more pleasing than a road, moored boats make less noise than lorries. It’s not Venice, but it could conceivably pass for a dystopian Amsterdam who decided to knock everything down and rebuild Dallas or Houston on the grachtengordel.
Exiting on the other side, you pass through a gate indicating that your visit to the theme park is over and it’s back to the real world. On the Millwall side, more modest social housing and at the extremity, gardens with a view of the Thames towards Wapping.
Westferry Rd runs the length of the Western/Southern edge of the Isle, and somewhere along it Nairn commends St Paul’s Presbyterian Church (“I always expect this astonishing little building to have gone by my next visit… Pisa on the Isle of Dogs”). As I pass corner shops manned by Asian lads and Prince Charles-friendly new housing in timid yellow brick, I find myself thinking that this place needs a Presbyterian Church as urgently as the Shankill needs a Shinto shrine and that nothing could be less likely to appear round the next corner than Pisa Duomo. When I finally get to it I spot St Paul’s immediately, and almost jump for joy.
God is out and Derek Acorah is in: fashions rotate. It’s now called ‘The Space’ and is principally a theatre, with an impressive program for the coming year (Timon of Athens, dramatisations of Isherwood). The yard is a busy cafe garden. I’m glad the building has survived and is getting more use than it would otherwise. Futuristic films like A Clockwork Orange tend to say more about the aesthetics of their own age than that of the future, and buildings where the Victorians summoned the middle ages seem as Victorian as anything to us. The blue-and-orange brickwork is like a football away strip from the early 90s. Nairn calls it “a fussy piece of Romanesque, fighting mad, polychrome from end to end… a very loveable firework.”
The church’s survival may be the exception rather than the rule, as a few yards later a fantastic-looking pub has been left to fall derelict. If you keep your eyes open there are ‘changing of the guard’ moments all over the Isle of Dogs.
Halfway-up the road begins the citadel of finance, and you pass into quite a different canton; mini-Manhattan.
Westferry Road disappears into a tunnel underneath the showpiece Westferry Circus, gateway to mammon.
It’s a tree-lined roundabout, with vast crescent-shaped buildings one on side and a promenade with views of the Thames on the other. You can really tell that the local council maintain the rest of the Isle and JP Morgan maintain this spot. Everything is rather impressive and feels like it has been built to advertise a rich and powerful empire, which I suppose it has.
From the snatches of conversation I pick up, the people enjoying this spectacle seem to be staying in nearby hotels. The chain restaurants are posh ones and a detailed map shows not transport options, nor bank headquarters, but the shops on offer. It’s inorganic and corporate and feels like an airport with no flights, but bankers probably want to live in a bubble where they can work, sleep and shop without leaving the cloisters of their city state.
The views of the Thames are quite striking. Tower Bridge isn’t in view yet, but the multiplying city skyscrapers are- there are few people in sight and the empty river feels vast, like the Grand Canal in midwinter; or more to the point, a sinister scale replica of the Grand Canal in one of those Chinese replica towns that nobody lives in, where the property is held as investment and the only people you ever encounter will be the odd folorn wedding party.