S. Worthen (owlfish) wrote,
S. Worthen

Docklands Infrastructure

After a drizzly day, I was thrilled to look out the pub window and see a rainbow glowing above Belgravia's rooftops, glorious in the slender, bright rays of evening light. I was inside at the time, listening to chilperic interview Brian Aldiss (and an entertaining and informative interview it was), but for much of the afternoon, I'd been walking the cool and wet on a tour of the Docklands. Let me back up a little. That was just an excuse to mention the rainbow.

Yesterday afternoon, I happened to be looking at the Museum in Docklands' website and noticed that today, they were offering a walking tour of the area, themed around "Engineering". So I signed up and went, four of us braving the early afternoon downpour for the occasion. The rain wasn't really so bad during the tour itself; indeed, it hardly rained at all for most of it, although there were frequent mistfalls. Our guide led us from the Museum, into the Canary Wharf complex, giving the area's earlier history as she went, and pointing out highlights, from the sugar warehouses whose revitalized structures now include the museum itself, to the Canary Wharf tower, still the UK's tallest building. The tower's design was partially inspired by classical Egyptian architecture, and a small fortune was spent to ensure that its external columns were cast from British steel, and none other.

We stopped to talk about the dogs or dykes after which the Isle of Dogs was named; the 1802 beginnings of the West India Co.'s dock-building enterprise, Norman Foster's station design, and the area's erratic history over the past twenty years. Then we went by tube via Canada Water to Wapping, to discuss and see the first tunnel dug underneath a river. Like so many projects, it ran over time and budget, and was inadequately conceived in the first place, being built purely for pedestrians, when horse-carts would rather like to have made use of them. The space circumscribed by the fifty-foot wide iron circle which was used to define the end-point shafts is still visible in the structure of Wapping station.

From there, it was off to see the defunct Wapping Basin, which Tower Hamlets filled in and turned into housing in decades past. There are still remnants of the Basin's water - although largely in undredged, smelly-in-heat stretches - but the most notable remnants are the Basin's walls, thick and still topped with moorings. They meander through the housing, creating odd discrepencies in levels between one block and another. Another Basin in the area was filled in in a different way - it's now all one big filled-in park, with fewer parts of its walls. Wapping also has a beautiful complex of nineteenth-century cargo buildings, apparently with large, bricked storage spaces underneath. It was meant to be a shopping mall, but failed - so little natural pass-through traffic. Outside, equally neglected, are two large replica sailing ships. Signs point the way to the cargo buildings and ships: "Tobacco Docks / Pirate Ships".

Shadwell Basin, in contrast, is in the midst of ongoing revitalization, with flatforms for waterfowl to nest on, aerators for the water's health, and facilities for canoeing classes. The dock buildings were mostly torn down in the '80s so Tower Hamlets could build new housing - mostly intended to attract teachers to the area, said our guide. A fisherman sat patiently by the water's edge, and a bevy of birds floated by. There's still more room for improvement to the basin - more active involvement - but it's growing into good use.

Back when I was 10, I went on a walk of the once river Fleet (in conjunction with being in a musical about the same subject, as it happens). It seems fitting that, once again, returning to London, I find the city through its waterways.

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