Following our highly enjoyable prologue around Greenwich yesterday, it was time to embark on our coastal pub tour. Our aim was to arrive at Foulness Island on the first Sunday of the month as this is the only day that the road is open to the public. With so much to look at along the Thames estuary we decided not to rush to Southend-on-Sea but spread the journey over two days stopping roughly halfway.
Opening the curtains at the Premier Inn I felt a bit sorry for the ducks living in Deptford Creek. This looked as grim as it can get for a duck. Surely with wings you can relocate? Even the Swedish flatpack retailers have launched two remote-controlled 'Good Ship Ikea' boats to help clear up the rubbish that ends up in the creek.
As soon as we sat down for breakfast we had to relocate ourselves because a boy on the next table was sneezing like mad and not putting his hand up to control the spray. Cyclists are known to obsess about a few things such as equipment, weight and always checking the weather forecast. However, the one thing a cyclist will always try to avoid is somebody with a cold. The risk of contracting a bug will ruin any planned riding and affect performance. We were out of there as quick as Chris Hoy coming out of the starting gate.
As I mentioned yesterday, you can start and finish the route from anywhere on the coastline. However, the geographer within me determined that the logical place to embark on such a trip is the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. We had already crossed the Prime Meridian twice during the prologue and today we will be having some more longitudinal fun on the route.
The views across London are fairly good from the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. The gates do not open until 10am so we joined a large party of tourists from the far east wandering around and taking in the panoramic views. They were taking photographs of anything that moved so just for a bit of devilment I wandered over to a drainpipe and reached for my camera. Within a minute I had six people gathered around taking a photograph of the drainpipe like it was some important element not to be missed! One woman close to the gates was taking photographs of herself using a selfie-stick. She was continually fluffing up her hair and taking several shots of herself before moving two centimetres and doing the same thing again. She photographed herself half a dozen times per minute, most of the shots ending up on Instagram or Facebook no doubt. I hope one of the captions read: "Hey! look at me next to an important drainpipe." Driven by social media, narcissism has gone to another level with people conveying their perfect life so they can be the envy of all their friends and contacts.
Heading down the hill towards the boating pond we crossed the Prime Meridian again when taking a look at the Millennium Sundial - or did we? The installation has becoming something of a laughing stock and adds fuel to the fire for those who claim Britain cannot make anything these days! It was planned to have the base of the gnomon directly on the Prime Meridian first defined in 1851. However, between the drawing board and the builder's trowel something went seriously wrong and it is in the wrong place. Not only is it in the wrong place, it is in the wrong position because, rather than being directly in line, it is skew-whiff by around 3½° so it does not even tell the time accurately. Depending on the season, it can be up to fifteen minutes out! And to cap it all, the hour marks are in the wrong position too. What a total fuck-up! Only Laurel and Hardy could have made a greater mess of the job.
The Millennium Sundial was supposed to act as a centrepiece to twelve smaller analemmatic dials but having spent £90,000 highlighting the flaws of British engineering and construction, the project was shelved - the shelf would probably be wonky too! A lorry driver trundled over the sundial during the 2012 Olympics and another bill was run-up to repair this showcase of longitudinal inexactitude.
We went along the gardens next to Queen's House, the former royal residence designed by Inigo Jones for Anne of Denmark. The architect pencilled the building after returning from a Grand Tour in 1613-15 and, as a result, it is the first consciously classical building constructed in England. Part of the building is now occupied by the National Maritime Museum. Outside the main entrance is Yinka Shonibare's Nelson's Ship in a Bottle, a work commissioned by the Greater London Authority and first displayed at Trafalgar Square in May 2010. For this commission, the artist travelled back in time to 1765, along with the scientists in the 1966 film "Fantastic Voyage," and shrank the ship to fit inside the neck of this giant bottle. Eventually, of course, the ship will slowly return to its original size and burst out of the bottle. It will then be transported via a truck that will reverse over and crush the Millennium Sundial to tip HMS Victory into the boating pond. The helmsman will do his utmost to hold a course along the Prime Meridian but will be confused when the satnav sends him eastward as it cannot cope with Airy's Transit Circle.
We headed over to the Gipsy Moth and Cutty Sark to cross the river. I didn't think La Goddess du Vélo would enjoy this subterannean experience but it turned out to be one of her highlights of the day. Another triumph of Victorian engineering, the Greenwich foot tunnel was designed by Sir Alexander Binnie and constructed at the fag end of the 19th century. It took just over three years to complete whereas today it would take a similar amount of time just to get through the initial committee meetings. Mind you, Virgil and Scott Tracy in the Mole of Thunderbird 2 would have the job done by lunchtime.
The lifts can play up at both ends of the foot tunnel but, thankfully, it was all tickety-boo on this trip. I would not fancy carrying my pannier-laden bike up and down the spiral staircases. There are 87 steps on the northern side and 100 steps at Greenwich. We did adhere to the No Cycling rule but were passed by flying cyclists, some travelling at silly speeds.
Once in the tunnel, and having just about survived the disaster movie era of the 1970s, one cannot help thinking that the roof is about to start leaking, particularly when you are about the midway point. But we only made the one journey .... in August 2002 to celebrate the centenary of the tunnel opening, a marathon was held under the river. To avoid the crowds, the race started at 2am and took in 58 laps of the 1,217 feet tunnel. Race organiser Ted Lancukci remarked at the time that is was "probably not the marathon to do it you're claustrophobic."
At the northern end of the tunnel there is a section that reminded me of a scene in the Stanley Kubrick movie "2001 : A Space Odyssey." This is much narrower that the rest of the footway. A plaque on the wall states that "this short length of the tunnel was repaired following bomb damage that occurred on the first night of the Blitz on 7th and 8th September 1940 during the Second World War. The damage resulted in the tunnel being closed immediately for repairs to stop leaks and potential flooding. Had the tunnel been more severely damaged, the resulting closure would have had a long-term impact on travel across the river. As the tunnel formed a much-relied-upon cross-river link connecting housing in the south and the industry and docks to the north, it was an essential part of the war effort. Preliminary repairs to stem the inflow of water were successful. By early 1941 the repairs had been completed and the tunnel fully reopened to the public." The repairs included the exposed metal ring lining which can be seen in the above photograph.
Once out of the foot tunnel's north tower you are on the Isle of Dogs, a name that was recorded in the times of King Henry VIII. The etymology of the name throws up a whole host of possible origins. We picked up the Thames Path through Island Gardens, an area once known as Scrap Iron Park. The north tower of the foot tunnel was close to Johnson's Draw Dock and the Victoria Iron Works. There are good views of the Old Royal Naval Collage and Greenwich from the gardens.
At one time there were a gazillion pubs on the Isle of Dogs but most of the houses that served the needs of dock workers have vanished. Many of the houses had names associated with the river and sea but others such as the Gut House, Folly House Tavern, Vulcan and Windmill commemorated land-based buildings and activities. The first of the surviving public houses we encountered was the Great Eastern, a boozer that formerly traded as the Waterman's Arms but was originally called the Newcastle Arms.
Erected as part of a planned development by William Cubitt, the Newcastle Arms is thought to have opened in 1853. The tavern was certainly mentioned in that year when George Henry Wood, step-son of the publican William Harris, was charged with stealing a horse. Formally part of Poplar, the south-east tip of the Isle of Dogs became known as Cubitt Town. One of the great master builders of the 1830s, William Cubitt constructed Covent Garden, the Fishmongers' Hall and the portico and original station buildings at Euston. Towards the end of the 1840s, he poured his energy into politics. In 1847 he was elected a Sheriff of London and Middlesex and, at the same time, he became MP for his home town of Andover. He served as Lord Mayor of London in 1860-61 and was re-elected in 1861-62. He died in 1863 at the age of 72.
The most notable period of the Newcastle Arms was the early 1960s when the biographer and television journalist Daniel Farson acquired the pub, changed the name to the Waterman's Arms and revived the music hall tradition and atmosphere in a lavishly-appointed room.
Later described as mythomaniacal by the Independent newspaper, Farson was something of a celebrity during his Bohemian days in Soho during the 1950s. His connections enabled him to attract top performers such as Shirley Bassey. For a brief spell the pub was the place to be seen. Actors and gangsters rubbed shoulders in the packed house that would later feature in films and television, most notably when Bob Hoskins propped up the bar in "The Long Good Friday," a film which flirted with a sub-plot of criminals and gangsters profiting from the displacement of traditional dockland industries during large-scale redevelopment. Regardless of the accuracy of this part of the film's plot, this movie is worth watching to see how the local landscape has changed over the years.
Above is the front cover of a record by Kim Cordell who can be seen performing in the Waterman's Arms. The Clacton-born singer became a well-known figure on the British variety, club and pub circuit during this period. Inevitably, the bubble burst and Dan Farson lost most of his investment in the business. But for a few years, this pub enjoyed some great times.
Following the Thames Path we cycled into an area known as Saunders Ness, another name that was in use by the 16th century. It is difficult to visualise the place of old as everything has seemingly vanished. The old streets laid out by William Cubitt were lined with sturdy terraced housing. We were not enamoured by some of the replacement housing stock. Cubitt's planned industrial development of the foreshore has also vanished. Where it was once easy to identify how people earned their crust one now wonders who does what in this place. The old soundscape of the Isle of Dogs has also been lost. As for the smell of industry - that is so 20th century.
The remains of the Cubitt Town Dry Dock can still be determined. Some of the old wharfs are also remembered in street names. At the site of Dudgeon's Wharf there is a memorial to five firemen and one civilian who died in July 1969 when a 20,000 gallon tank of turpentine exploded. In the worst incident since the Second World War, it took 60 firemen to bring the fire under control. It was reported that the civilian had been working with an oxy-acetylene torch on the top of the tank when a small fire broke out. The local fire engine had seemingly extinguished the fire when the tank suddenly exploded hurling some people 60 yards onto the foreshore.
We crossed the entrance to South Dock and headed into Blackwall, a term thought to derive from the colour of the ancient river wall. It is possible to find fragments of the past here but, like the rest of the Isle of Dogs, so much has been lost. Even the house of Sir Walter Raleigh was demolished during construction of the Blackwall Tunnel which - and here is one for Nigel Farage and the Brexiteers - was largely built by immigrant labour.
A flavour of old Blackwall can still be captured in Cold Harbour where there is a public house called The Gun. Sometimes a pub has to adapt to survive and this is exemplified by this Fuller's house in Cold Harbour. Those who patronised this docker's and stevedore's boozer back in the day would probably dislike the character of the place today but at least it is still trading, albeit gentrified to the max. Although there is a small bar area, The Gun essentially exists to offer an upmarket dining experience. The conversation is no longer centred on cranes, rope-making, metal-bashing and cheap fags but more likely to follow the fortunes of the money markets. However, what is completely undeniable is the extremely warm welcome afforded to us during our visit.
There is a large history panel on the front wall of The Gun on which it states: "there has been a pub on this site for over 250 years, the area being home to the dockside iron foundries which produced the guns for the Royal Naval fleets." The house had a number of names before the sign was allegedly changed "to celebrate the cannon that was fired to celebrate the opening of the West India Import Docks in 1802." Sounds feasible and I might have gone along with it but I notice that the building was marked as the Gun Tavern on a Merchants' Plan of the London Docks by D. Alexander in 1796. Indeed, the pub's name was changed to the Gun Tavern by 1771. The old premises were erected on a road that led south from Blackwall Stairs. The road was almost certainly laid out on an ancient footpath that crossed the former marshland.
Erected on an estate owned by the Hall family, the pub is thought to have been built in the second decade of the 18th century and, by 1722, was trading as the King and Queen. The inn sign was changed to the Rose and Crown and in the mid-1840s became known as the Ramsgate Pink.
The Hall family were forced to sell the freehold of the estate in 1750 and it was acquired by George Steevens, a retired East India captain. The last owner of the estate was Sir Robert Preston, a director of the East India Dock Company, before it was broken up in the early 19th century. Subsequently, an auction for the freehold of the Gun Tavern was held in June 1810. The particulars stated that the house "possessed every requisite convenience for carrying on the business to almost any extent, and contains numerous sleeping-rooms, two very pleasant summer-rooms, large parlours, convenient kitchen, roomy bar, tap-room, wash-house, excellent cellaring, large yard, good stabling, with hay-lofts and out-buildings."
Some of the original tavern lurks beneath a revamp of the building in the mid-1870s. A building plan dated 1870 suggests that the early tavern occupied the ground-floor single-storey structure to the left of today's main building which was put up around 1875. This has a façade of painted brick with rusticated quoins. The cornice and frieze was continued along what was probably the original tavern. Why this is a single-storey structure is unclear. If this is what happened at the Gun Tavern then the bedroom that is said to have been used by Lord Nelson for intimate naughtiness with Lady Emma Hamilton has long gone.
The history panel on the exterior also states that: "The Gun has a long association with smugglers landing contraband on this site and distributing it via a hidden tunnel. To this day there is still a spy-hole in the secret circular staircase to watch out for the revenue men." Wandering around the ground floor I was taken by the large collection of pistols and guns on display. I wouldn't fancy tucking one of these down my trousers in order to thwart a customs officer about to nab me for smuggling. One wrong move and it would be a case of instant gender reassignment.
Unlike many other old pubs in the locality, The Gun does not look incongruous within its surroundings because the neighbouring terraced housing on what was South Dock Terrace has also survived. The cranes provide a welcome sense of continuity in the neighbourhood. The houses were erected at the end of the 1880s on a site that formed part of the pierhead alongside the entrance to the South Dock - hence the name. The developer was William Warren, an estate agent who engaged the Plaistow builder George Larman to construct the buildings. Early occupiers of the houses paid a weekly rent of 8s. 6d. The blue collar workers who paid these rents would be staggered to learn that these relatively small properties now exchange hands for around £600,000. Being a low-paid member of the lower orders, I have no idea how people afford the prices of property in the London area. Not everyone earns a fortune in the ivory towers? Having said that, you need a few bob to wine and dine at The Gun where a Chateaubriand Steak will set you back £58. A starter plate of Linguini is £15.50p.
A fire broke out in the Gun Tavern in 1828 but the quick actions of the watchman, together with the publican Mr. Ferguson, extinguished the flames before the whole house went up. In the end only the tap-room required repairs. In the following year the Gun Tavern had new competition for trade when Samuel Lovegrove erected the West India Dock Tavern across the street. It was a large edifice of three storeys and nine windows in width. However, the enterprise failed and when Samuel Lovegrove died in 1846 the contents of the house were sold at auction. The property was later demolished and the site used as a timber and boat-building yard.
The Gun Tavern once had a skittles alley and it was the venue for a wager between the licensee Evan Jones and the publican of the Steam Packet at Limehouse Causeway in January 1888. The two landlords played for £5 and a spread to be laid on for patrons of each house, many of whom worked in the brewery trade as they were described as "Brothers of The Bung." Unfortunately for Evan Jones, his opponent A. Wooten, played well and gained 7 chalks to the host's 4.
In September 1895 a regular customer of the Gun Tavern was found drowned in the South West India Dock. At the subsequent inquiry Eliza Jones, daughter of the aforementioned Evan Jones, stated that German-born Edward Meggenhoffen had been a patron of the Gun Tavern for around five years. The music teacher had taught her sister. The landlord's daughter stated: "that on Thursday morning he came into the bar with his face bleeding and in a trembling condition." He told Eliza Jones that he had had a fall. She served him with whisky, and he left. About eight o'clock that morning she heard that his body had been found in the dock. When the music teacher's clothing was searched the only articles found were two tuning instruments and a piece of paper, on which the names of several pieces of music were written. An open verdict was returned.
The Gun stocks a wide range of Fuller's beers. Bohemian Way, a limited edition pale gold citrus beer was on tap, along with Sticky Wicket, a summer ale that was only supposed to be sold between May and July but, unlike the England team, remained at the crease in September for The Ashes. The pale ale combines English and Australian ingredients in a tropical-flavoured ale featuring grapefruit and lychee notes. The official brewer's notes state that "Sticky Wicket is brewed to 4.7% ABV, and opens with a pale gold pour and the appealing aromas of fruity hops. On the palate, the Topaz hop adds a resinous grassy flavour with gentle hints of lychee, while the Ella hop hits the winning runs with tropical grapefruit notes and a subtle spicy finish."
Hardly the stuff of Paris-Roubaix's Trouée d'Arenberg, the bumpy cobbles of Cold Harbour made a decent effort of shaking our bones a bit. It was tempting to ride on the pavement. However, it is great that a small part of an old Blackwall thoroughfare survives. Further to the north on the same side of the street as The Gun there is a small fragment of another public house. The above photograph shows some brown glazed brickwork, probably the remains of a pilaster or column favoured by the large brewers when pub frontages were altered or built in the Victorian and Edwardian periods. In this case Watney Combe & Reid, a company operating from the Stag Brewery in Pimlico, ordered a rebuild of the front section of the Fishing Smack Inn during 1893.
The original building on this site dated from the mid-18th century and was known as the Fisherman's Arms. The inn sign had changed by 1808 for it was reported in the Hampshire Chronicle on August 1st that: "as a young woman, a servant in the Fishing Smack public-house, Cold Harbour, Blackwall, was standing on the steps leading to the river, she was so much alarmed by a flash of lightning, that she fell in the river and was unfortunately drowned."
The Fishing Smack Inn was a tall weather-boarded building from where it is claimed Charles Dickens drew inspiration for some of his characters whilst sampling stout beer with oysters, the latter brought to London from smacks sailing out of Great Yarmouth - hence the change in name to the Fishing Smack Inn. A Dickensian flavour of the house can be perceived in a painting by Charles Napier Hemy that dates from 1896.
The Fishing Smack Inn did not seemingly enjoy bumper trade. The licensee, Greenwich-born Frederick Hobbs, had to find other work to keep his family. He worked as a draughtsman in addition to running the establishment. His daughter Mabel would later become licensee during the Edwardian period. Trade fell away and eventually the pub closed. The building is thought to have been demolished in 1948.
A few doors from the remnant of the Fishing Smack Inn stands Nelson House [the yellow painted building in the above photograph]. This had been two separate properties but were amalgamated into one residence in 1820-1 by the coal merchant Samuel Granger. Following his death, the East and West India Dock Company purchased the property from his widow in 1861. The house was subsequently used as a dockmaster's residence. A local myth pervades that the house was used by Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton as a late-night tryst but, whilst the titillating tales are amusing, they are without foundation.
No.1 Cold Harbour, also known as Isle House, was designed by John Rennie for the West India Dock Company in 1825-6 and also served as a dockmaster's residence. It replaced a house built only fifteen years earlier but had been compromised by poor construction and was being held up by braces. The site had earlier been occupied by two dilapidated properties. The first occupant of the house was the Blackwall Dockmaster Captain Thomas Harrison.
After crossing the New Blackwall Entrance and to get around the Northumberland Wharf Waste Transfer Station, we cycled along Yabsley Street and rejoined the Thames Path which runs on boards past new glass and steel structures. Our diversion, of course, meant that it was not possible to roll our wheels over the sites of former famous taverns close to Blackwell Stairs, all of which were demolished to make way for the Blackwall Tunnel and a goods station for the railway. One of the most celebrated of the riverside inns at Blackwall was the Artichoke Tavern, a house built around 1731 and famous for its whitebait suppers.
Charles Dickens was one of many who came to Blackwall to enjoy a repast at the Artichoke or one of the neighbouring inns on the riverfront, including the Plough, George, Britannia and King's Arms. Of the locality, Dickens wrote: "Hemmed in by the whitebait taverns, is Green's ship-yard. A notable old place this; more so, than any other private shipyard, perhaps, in this country. It is no small thing that, for a period of two hundred years, there has been little if any cessation in the making of foothooks and keelsons, bowsprits and sternposts, ribs and beams, decks and masts, in this identical spot; and all for and by private owners. First, there was a Sir Henry Johnson, who, in the time of Oliver Cromwell, was owner of this yard, and who it seems to have been a great benefactor to the neighbouring village of Poplar. Then, throughout the reigns of Charles the Second, James the Second, and William and Mary, the shipyard maintained its importance, under the ownership, first of one Sir William Johnson, and then of another."
In the mid-18th century Peter Lord, landlord of the Artichoke Tavern, made several improvements to his establishment. These included the opening of a Long Room which he advertised as 'a fine place for seeing the ships launched.' A later painting by Charles Napier Henry [above] shows the sort of view that could be enjoyed from the tavern. For hundreds of years the Blackwall Yard was the centre of considerable ship building and ship repair work and many notable vessels were launched from here. Some of these ships were commissioned by Samuel Pepys when the yard was operated by the shipwright Sir Henry Johnson.
Competing for trade with The Plough, the Artichoke Tavern remained a popular establishment during the time of Dickens and a small army of staff were required to keep the place ticking over. It became a Charrington's house until acquired by the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1888. The building was subsequently demolished for the construction of the Blackwall Tunnel.
Our journey along the Thames Path was only a few hundred metres as the Radisson Blu Hotel and the new Reuters Building have fenced it off. The latter was erected on the partially filled-in Upper Graving Dock, the last of the Blackwall Yard complex to close in 1989. I realise that things move on and the landscape has to be re-used but it is hard to get any sense of the considerable maritime history of Blackwall Yard when every fragment has been removed. Other dockyard sites around the UK tend to preserve the odd relic which helps people comprehend its timeline or sense of history.
Well, being as we were having to go around the new Reuters Building, we thought it would be good to have more fun with the Prime Meridian. So, we pedalled towards the East India Station on the Docklands Light Railway. Cycle underneath the railway and the Prime Meridian can be seen on Tower 1 of the Elektron Building. A metal strip within the cladding runs all the way up the tower and down the other side. However, it is not exactly on the Prime Meridian as the laser beam projected during the night from the Royal Observatory misses the building by some centimetres!
We returned to the river along the Thames Path and Meridian Walk that leads to a compass point. This is where the Brunswick Hotel stood next to the Brunswick Stairs. I know this because the building, according to a newspaper article date 1930, was situated on the Prime Meridian and a mark to indicate this was cut on the parapet under the direction of the Astronomer Royal. The Brunswick Hotel was another of the 'whitebait taverns' favoured by the likes of Dickens. It was erected in the early 1830s and tenanted by Samuel Lovegrove, the aforementioned entrepreneur who operated the West India Docks Tavern in Cold Harbour. The man who started his career as a waiter in the Horn Tavern in the City of London, became well-known as a tavern and coffee-house keeper. Samuel Lovegrove aimed the Brunswick Hotel at affluent patrons and fitted up the building in style. Long after his death, the fortunes of the hotel declined. Indeed, the whitebait trend went out of fashion. The business closed in 1873 and the building served as an emigrants' depot for the New Zealand Government. It was from here that many sailed for a new life on the other side of the world. In the Edwardian period the former hotel was used as children's convalescent home before conversion into a barracks during the First World War. The building was demolished in 1930.
The site of the Brunswick Hotel formed part of the land used to construct the Brunswick Wharf Power Station, a landmark structure from 1947 to 1989. The power station was built on the site of the East India Export Dock in stages between 1946 and 1956. The remainder of the dock was in-filled and later developed. The entrance basin remains as a wildlife refuge and we headed towards it along the Thames Path.
The Thames Path follows what was formerly Brunswick Wharf and Brunswick Pier, the latter being in front of the London and Blackwall Railway Terminus. All traces of this have gone but, hang on folks, there is a pub story here involving the restored Virginia Settlers Memorial which stands on the opposite side of the river from the O2 Arena. Unveiled in 1928, the original memorial plaque, commemorating the voyage of three ships that left near this spot in 1606 to create the first permanent English settlement in North America, was mounted on the wall of an old public house called the Railway Tavern. The building seen to the right of the above photograph is roughly where the Railway Tavern stood.
The Railway Tavern was built by the dock company at the eastern end of the railway terminus in 1844. It was seen to be an altenative refreshment house to the rather exclusive Brunswick Hotel. The tavern was even designed by the dock company's surveyors and, when erected, was leased to Samuel and James Lovegrove, sons of Samuel Lovegrove whom they had succeeded at the Brunswick Hotel. The family would be monopolising trade at the quay, wharf and terminus! Unfortunately, following complaints from ship owners that the Railway Tavern 'encouraged drunkenness in sailors,' the place was closed down in 1871. Although several alternative uses were considered, including conversion into a river police station, the building became a dockmaster's house. Damaged in the Blitz, the former tavern, along with the extensive remains of the station were demolished in 1947.
The bronze plaque which had been mounted on the wall of the building was saved. It had originally been commissioned by the Association for the Preservation of the Virginia Antiquities. Erected in 1951 by the Port of London Authority, a new memorial, designed by the Ulster-born sculptor Harold Brown, included the original bronze plaque. A replica of his work was actually shown in the previous year at the Port of London Authority's stand at the United States International Trade Fair at Chicago. The above Pathé film clip recorded the unveiling of the memorial by the U.S. Ambassador Walter S. Gifford. The memorial stood 18 feet 6 inches high and consisted of a granite base, hewn from the old quay wall of the historic West India Docks, on which was mounted the original commemorative plaque, and the whole was surmounted by the bronze figure of a mermaid in a sea-shell, riding the waves of the Atlantic. It was reported that the sculptor had to use four different models for the mermaid, the difficulty being to find a model with very long hair!
Over the years the monument was vandalised and the mermaid stolen. Barratt Homes, the developers of the housing here, commissioned a new monument. Unveiled in September 1999, the memorial stands in a new position and the mermaid was replaced by a mariner's astrolabe designed by Wendy Taylor. It was presumed that the bronze mermaid had been melted down for scrap but, incredibly, it turned up at an auction in 2007. The owner, Alan Marks, told reporters that he bought it from a man in Hatfield Heath some 15 years previously and used it as a display piece in his back garden. In redeveloping the area into Virginia Quay and spending some £90,000 rebuilding the monument, Barratt Homes were not interested in acquiring the piece. I wonder where the mermaid lives today?
We crossed the Grade II-listed lock gates of the East India Dock Basin, the only intact part of the former East India Docks complex. The gates were refurbished in 1997 and I assume this is when the foot and cycle crossing was installed - we are grateful for such work. Allowing larger vessels access to the docks complex, the entrance lock was opened in August 1879. The gates were supplied by the nearby Thames Iron Works Company.
In terms of maritime history and industrial archaeology there is not much to see at the East India Dock Basin. The water level was extremely low and was almost mud. The docks were constructed between 1803 and 1806 and were the third set of wet docks built on the Thames in the early 19th century. Founded in 1600, the East India Company shipped valuable goods from the East to the Thames. It was a rich, powerful and well organised body using the largest ships that frequented the Port of London. At its height, the company accounted for half of the world's trade, particularly in commodities such as cotton, silk, indigo dye, salt, spices, saltpetre, tea, and opium. A legacy of the company is that it stimulated the growth of the British Empire. Depending on your political and ethical views, this had either a great or terrible impact on the lesser-developed world. Ports such as Bristol and Liverpool have acknowledged the darker side of their history but this is not so palpable in London's docklands.
Many plants on the shore of the northern edge of the basin are salt marsh species that have evolved to cope with the high levels of salt and regular inundation by water on the highest tides. This kind of habitat is very rare in south-east England, where most shore that would develop salt marsh have been heavily engineered to allow boats the access the land or to grant permission to building right up to the water's edge. The East India Dock Basin now enjoys a new lease of life as a wildlife sanctuary where Kingfishers can be seen, along with occasional Black Redstarts and nesting Common Terns. However, all we spotted was a gang of herons. We were quite excited by this as they didn't give two hoots about us and sat in the trees, chilled out, ready for the next feeding session.
From the East India Dock Basin we took a path to Orchard Place where many moons ago there was the Steampacket, Crown, Trinity Arms and the Orchard Place Tavern. All of these pubs would have served the employees of the Thames Iron Works, Graving Dock Ship-Building Yard, the cement works and a large cooperage. We headed eastwards to the end of the Leamouth Peninsula. Well, we couldn't miss out a peninsula! Besides, there was a good reason to cycle into Trinity Buoy Wharf as it is the site of London's only lighthouse. We like lighthouses, particularly when they contain an audio arts project. Would it be open? We do not have a good record when it comes to such luck and, lo and behold, Bow Creek Lighthouse was closed. Still, there are other things to see at Trinity Buoy Wharf, particularly a shed in which there are exhibits relating to Michael Faraday's work. It was at this location that he carried out the first experiments in electric lighting for lighthouses.
The purpose of Bow Creek Lighthouse was not the familiar one of maritime navigation but to experiment and develop lighting for the network of lighthouses and lightships maintained by Trinity House, the official authority for lighthouses in England, Wales, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar. The organisation was once formally known as The Master Wardens and Assistants of the Guild Fraternity or Brotherhood of the most glorious and undivided Trinity and of St. Clement in the Parish of Deptford Strond in the County of Kent so it easy to see why an abbreviation was applied!
At one time there were two lighthouses at Trinity Buoy Wharf. An earlier structure was built in 1854 but demolished in the late 1920s. This was the building used by Faraday, scientific advisor to Trinity House, to pioneer electric lighting for the South Foreland Lighthouse in Kent. The present lighthouse was built in 1864, and like the older building, was used to test maritime lighting equipment, including the red and white flashes for the Wolf Rock Light in 1869. The roof space adjoining the present lighthouse housed Faraday's workshop for examining lenses and other apparatus.
Another key role of the experimental lighthouse was as a training facility to teach lighthouse keepers. The lighthouse is now home to Long Player, a unique sound installation by Jem Finer and Artangel. It features a twenty minute recording of the sound of Tibetan "singing bowls," continuously repeated, and infinitely varied by a computer programme which ensures that the same sequence of sound will never be heard more than once in a thousand years. Look, I have to completely honest, it does not float my boat but check out the video below for a flavour of the sound. I love some of the comments though, such as "wait for the bass drop in 2751, its fire bruh..." or "So in 3000, will there be a Long Player Remix?"
Blimey, it was late morning already and we had only covered a few kilometres. Just time for tea and cake at the Orchard Café where the service is rather arsey. Still, the view is interesting next to the lightship and the toilets are extraordinarily clean considering there is an army of construction workers milling around the place.
The only way over Bow Creek and the River Lea is the busy A1020 but there is a dedicated cycle path so it is perfectly safe. We rolled along Dock Road towards Silvertown, a settlement that gained its name from the factories established by the London merchant Stephen William Silver. However, the chief industry in the 21st century is that of the Tate & Lyle sugar refinery so perhaps there is an argument for the place to be called Silver Spoon Town. The pong of a sugar refinery is probably preferable to that of the rubber works of S. W. Silver. Of course, he did not have to endure this himself for he lived in style at York Gate, the entrance to Regent's Park. His Silvertown works developed into the India Rubber, Gutta Percha and Telegraph Cable Company. Silvertown attracted more smelly industries such as a manure and chemical works, along with paraffin and oil storage depots. The large workforces required to operate the factories resulted in dense housing and lots of public houses, fostering a tight-knit community. Badly damaged during World War 2, much of old Silvertown has vanished in regeneration projects that has seen new apartments and housing being erected. The old street patterns have changed considerably.
We rode along Dock Road at West Silvertown but did not see any activity at the railway arches on the North Woolwich Road where Husk Brewing are based. We were hoping for a sneaky peak and maybe a taster from this small family-owned brewery established in 2015 by Chris van der Vyver and his partner Martha. The tap room is only open on Friday and Saturday between 17.00hrs and 23.00hrs so we were just hoping that somebody would be around. I have borrowed their photograph of the tap room to give you a sense of how it looks. The couple are running the place with a sound ethos - for example, they are initiating a work experience programme for local young people with disabilities and establishing a monthly home-brewing club. Husk Brewing has a core range of six beers with seasonal brews throughout the year.
Lurking under the concrete of the DLR railway on the opposite side of the road is the former Ram Tavern, a pub rebuilt and operated by Truman, Hanbury & Buxton Co. Ltd. In more recent times it was converted into a nightclub specialising in Afrobeats which sounds rather exciting. This was one of many pubs on Dock Road and North Woolwich Road. Upsetting the publicans of the City Arms and the Bell and Anchor who feared competition for trade, an application for a licence was submitted by Morrison Longlands in September 1867. By 1870 the original Ram Tavern was being run by Southampton-born Arthur John Bennett. In fact, he kept the house for the rest of the 19th century. One of the largest pubs was the aforementioned Bell and Anchor which stood close to the swing bridge that crossed the waterway linking the tidal basin of Royal Victoria Dock with the River Thames. The swing bridge created problems for the road to Woolwich Ferry and led to the construction of the elevated Silvertown Way, one of the earliest urban flyovers in the UK.
More industry was established at Silvertown and by the First World War the shoreline of the Thames was lined with factories. As part of a clean-up for new residential development, one of the most impressive land conversion schemes has been undertaken near the Thames Barrier. A large park was opened on the site of a petrochemical and acid works in November 2000, making it London's largest new riverside park for over 50 years. The park is the result of collaborative work by the Paris landscape architect Allain Provost and architects Patel Taylor of London. The subsoil was so contaminated that it required a six-foot layer of crushed concrete before work could begin on fresh top soil. The Green Dock sunken garden is the centrepiece of the park and a real beauty. The undulating hedgerows, reminding us of the river waves, encourages a sheltered microclimate in which a variety of plants and wildlife can thrive.
I cannot help but wonder if the UK could build a Thames Barrier nowadays. The government would probably telephone the French and/or Chinese to build something to prevent oligarchs from having to empty buckets of water out of their bedroom windows onto the heads of the lower classes. With rising sea levels, a bigger barrier will be needed to stop the Houses of Parliament from flooding. Some might argue that would be a good thing.
Our experience of the Thames Barrier was somewhat disturbed by an African bloke having a photoshoot with the flood defences acting as the backdrop. Rather portly in appearance, he was hardly a looker so I wondered to whom he would be pitching his portfolio folder.
The Thames Barrier is clearly not made of Lego otherwise it would not have survived 15 boat collisions over the years. I can imagine a ship's captain ringing his nearest-and-dearest with a message "I will be late for dinner darling as I seem to have driven into the Thames Barrier and there will be a bit of paperwork to fill in." Unfortunately, the Boaty McTwat-face that is Jeremy Clarkson made it through unscathed when racing fellow twonks James May and Richard Hammond to London City Airport. If he had made a splash on the red-top pages he would probably once again blame everything on the fact that a fellow Repton scholar did a shit in his tuck box.
Although the Railway Tavern has gone, I have to pick out the location as it was the place where workers used the public-house as their headquarters during a notable strike in 1889. A block of apartments now occupies the site on the corner of Connaught Road and Constance Street. There is perhaps a case for a blue plaque to be mounted on the building because this industrial action is thought to have contributed to the formation of the modern Labour movement.
The public-house can be seen below as the Railway Tavern. Towards the end of its life as a boozer it traded as Cundy's Tavern. This was already a colloquial name for the house as it was kept by Simeon and Elizabeth Cundy from 1890 until just before the First World War. Born in Old Basford in Nottinghamshire, Simeon Cundy had previously served in the Royal Navy. On leaving the service he took up residence at the Railway Tavern at Custom House, Canning Town, a pub being run by his brother Thomas. He married Elizabeth Saddington in January 1890.
Just before their marriage, trouble was brewing at the factory of S. W. Silver and Co. that had evolved into the works of the India Rubber, Gutta Percha and Telegraph Cable Company. Leading the world in cable production and installation, the company was making considerable profits and paying high dividends to shareholders. However, the conditions of the Silvertown workers were poor and the air breathed in by the community at large created health issues. Pay was low and, despite working long hours, there was no overtime. The women in the factory were not paid when the production line failed. Better pay and conditions had been secured by dockers in the East End and other large factories so 1,200 of the labour force at Silvertown started a strike for a better deal in the autumn of 1889.
A key influence in the refusal to negotiate with the workers was the pressure applied by the government and the establishment, many of whom, including the Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, held shares in the profitable concern. The managing director was obstinate and refused to negotiate with the workforce. Furthermore, he even refused to discuss terms of settlement with the Mayor of West Ham.
Led by key activists Fred Laing and Will Thorne, the strike committee held meetings in the Railway Tavern. Leading figures in the bitter struggle included the trade unionist and founding member of the Independent Labour Party Tom Mann, along with Eleanor Marx, the daughter of Karl Marx.
It was reported that the company were paying dividends of fifteen per cent to shareholders. However, the management, pressured by the government and the establishment, were determined to break the spirit of the strikers. There was palpable anger in the streets but they were determined to quash the action. Sadly, the Silvertown workers were eventually starved back to work. Their cause was not helped by the extraordinary action of the Amalgamated Engineers who continued to work at the factory. This was compounded by other work being outsourced, particularly at the company's plant in France where the French socialist Jules Guesde failed to prevent the undermining action of the workers.
With 'Tussy' Marx present at all the strike meetings, the solidarity and resolve of the workers gained wider attention with Engels commenting on the resoluteness of the Silvertown workforce. Their efforts would lay the foundations for future industrial action.
The Docklands Light Railway has bestowed Silvertown with its own Berlin Wall. In this case, rather ironically, one has to head into the east to get across the no-man's land where the track runs out. However, this affords access to North Woolwich Pier and Ferry. This is not too far from the location where, in September 1878, the paddle steamer S.S. Princess Alice was in collision with the collier Bywell Castle causing the loss of around 650 people. This is the greatest loss of life of any British inland waterway shipping accident. The paddle steamer was returning to London from an excursion to Sheerness when the accident happened. The tragic events are remembered at Tripcock Point so I will return to this disaster when we cycle back along the River Thames on the Kent side of the river.
The paddle steamer S.S. Princess Alice was due to stop at North Woolwich Pier so that some passengers could disembark and walk across to the railway station to travel into the east end of London. Now in a rather ruinous state, the pier must have witnessed terrible scenes in September 1878 when large crowds travelled to North Woolwich and gathered at the pier to discover the fate of their relatives that had made the journey on the steamer.
Built just across from the railway station, the pier was a key connection between North Woolwich and Woolwich Arsenal on the south side of the Thames. Eventually, it was superseded by the municipally-operated Woolwich Free Ferry and the Foot Tunnel but in the 19th century many thousands of people walked the planks to awaiting boats. Owned by the Eastern Counties Railway, the two parts of Woolwich were connected by steam ferries, appropriately named Kent and Essex. The pier also acted as a terminus for boat and shipping services whereby passengers could board larger vessels after travelling to North Woolwich on the train. Indeed, the post-war photograph shows that it was being used by the L.N.E.R. Although the ferry service had ceased many years before, the railway company were using the pier for large boats operating a service to Southend and Margate.
North Woolwich was like a ghost town during our cycle ride. It has always been at the end of the line but there was not a single soul around the old pier and railway station. All we needed was a bit of dust and tumbleweed rolling down the road and we could have revelled in a spaghetti western scene. We half expected a head to appear out of the window of the old ticket office to deliver the classic line: "There isn't anyone got the guts to face that killer, eh?"
There was not much here when the railway built a station close to the river in 1847. The station was erected amid the former marshland and it became the southern terminus of the Eastern Counties and Thames Junction Railway. The sudden sight of Italianate architecture must have looked rather odd at the time. However, once a railway building was erected, a public house generally enjoyed some spin-off trade by meeting the needs of travellers. Although a little to the east of the station, and located at the earlier ferry crossing point, the Barge House went from serving local shepherds to catering for tourists.
The original Barge House was literally a wooden house built on a floating barge attached to the shore. A more permanent structure, also known as the Old Ferry House, was erected on dry land and, in 1840, the landlord, Thomas Lowe, completed the construction of a long esplanade in order to cater for visitors. When George Lucy was the proprietor in the 1860s, he advertised that it was the place for a pleasant afternoon. With a lawn overlooking the Royal Arsenal and Shipping, the Barge House offered swings, quoits and skittles. The Barge House was also the start and finish line of several boat races in the 19th century. By the way, it is thought that the older ferry crossing was operational by the early 14th century. The slipway seen in the above photograph is roughly on the site of the old ferry. This is close to Gallion's Reach, thought to be named after a 14th-century landowner named Galyon.
In December 1899 a giant bottle-nosed whale was spotted by a tug near Woolwich and this started a frenzied whale hunt. The poor creature was chased to exhaustion and it ran aground on the river bank. It was reported that "scores of people put off in boats and tugs to look at him. In the afternoon someone hitched a chain round his tail, to hold him when the tide rose, and it was decided to tow him up the tide to the Barge House, where he may be dry-docked and exhibited for one day. It was suggested that for a few days the 'monster' should be exhibited at a small fee for the benefit of a local hospital or the Soldiers' Families' Fund. While this was being discussed a score of rivermen got jack-knives to work, and took home whale-tail steak for tea."
A new, and rather more plain and functional station was built in 1979. The old station buildings were later converted into a railway museum and officially opened by the Queen Mother in November 1984. However, the museum closed in 2008 with many of the exhibits being removed to the East Anglian Railway Museum, Mangapps Railway Museum and the Great Eastern Railway Society.
We rolled around the corner to the rather sorry-looking former Three Crowns. The once-resplendent building has been converted into residential use but the ground floor looks awful. It has been a few years since pints of beer were pulled in the Three Crowns, the public-house having closed in the 1990s. The building quickly deteriorated and in very little time was a real eyesore. Still, I guess we have to be grateful that some tangible memory of the Three Crowns has been preserved - better than being flattened and lost forever.
Of course, as can be seen in the photographs, this was not the original Three Crowns. Charrington's rebuilt the house in the early 20th century. The Three Crowns, like the rest of the public-houses in North Woolwich, stood on the Essex side of the River Thames but was administered with Woolwich across the water so formed a pocket of Kent. However, in the old licensing days, the pubs here closed at 22.30hrs which often saw a mad dash through the foot tunnel so that another beer could be ordered at Woolwich where the boozers did not call time until thirty minutes later.
The original Three Crowns was famous for its music hall where all and sundry performed on stage. Day-trippers may have come to North Woolwich for the elegance of the Royal Pavilion Hotel, river views from the Barge House, but for those seeking a right-old knees-up they piled into the Three Crowns. The pub's music hall tradition continued into the 20th century. This genre is maintained up the road at the former Saint Mark's Church which is now home to the Brick Lane Music Hall.
Dating from the mid-1850s, the Three Crowns was once part of the estate of public-houses operated by West's Brewery Company Limited, a firm based ironically at the Three Crowns Brewery on the Hackney Road at Bethnal Green. Ownership of the Three Crowns at North Woolwich changed when West's Brewery was acquired by Hoare & Co. Ltd. in November 1929. The Three Crowns was one of 60 public houses taken over by Hoare's who were based at the Red Lion Brewery at Lower East Smithfield. Any new signs put up in North Woolwich lasted only four years because Charrington & Co. Ltd took over Hoare & Co. Ltd. in 1933.
On a Saturday afternoon in February 1884 Samuel Dolby, a drayman for West's Brewery Company, when delivering beer to the Three Crowns, suddenly heard a woman crying out for help. When he ran around his waggon he saw Frances Elizabeth Charles lying on the ground. The woman had just been stabbed by her husband John Charles. The drayman grasped the handle of butcher's knife, the blade of which was sticking in the woman's left side, and pulled it out. He told his mate to look after the woman whilst he dragged John Charles across the road and into the police station.
It transpired that he was a seaman and, on returning from a recent voyage, he "found some fault with his wife in reference to something which was alleged to have happened during his absence." Outside the Three Crowns, Frances Charles was seen by a local surgeon and conveyed to the Woolwich Union Infirmary. At the police station John Charles was charged with feloniously wounding his wife. However, this was upgraded to attempted murder.
From the Three Crowns we pedalled into the Royal Victoria Gardens. Although this is a pleasant recreational area, there is little of the old Victorian layout, largely because it suffered from bomb damage during WW2. William Holland, the proprietor of the Royal Pavilion Hotel, is credited with creating tea gardens as an extension to his hotel business. Opening in 1851, the gardens attracted visitors from the centre of London with trains from Bishopsgate and steam boats from both Hungerford Pier and London Bridge. Admission to the grounds was six-pence with Gala Nights on Monday, Tuesday and Friday. Most evenings ended with a fireworks display. By the late 1880s the visitor numbers dropped and the business failed. With funding raised through public subscription, the grounds were taken into public ownership and opened as a park in 1890.
We had made a conscious decision to head inland at North Woolwich. I think it is possible to battle through some narrow footpaths around the gungy industrial sprawl at Beckton and Creekmouth but there is also the River Roding to consider. To be honest we had no desire to get up-close-and-personal with Beckton Sewage Treatment Works so we planned a little diversion that would be much more enjoyable on two wheels.
We headed north across the entrances to the Royal Docks via a relatively new flyover, part of which is named in honour of the Olympic rower Sir Steve Redgrave. The bridge passes over part of the Royal Albert Dock which is now used by the London Regatta Centre. The above photograph was taken from the bridge and shows the old Royal Albert Dock and London City Airport. As we pedalled across the bridge we encountered a man with binoculars. He was not here to spot rare birds heading towards Rainham Marshes but to tick off metal tubes landing or taking off from the airport, the airstrip for which is slap bang in the middle of the docks. Well, I guess we all have our cross to bear.
We cycled along the north side of the Royal Albert Dock and could watch rowers of different abilities as we pedalled along the waterfront. Originally planned as an extension of the Royal Victoria Dock, the Royal Albert Dock first opened to shipping in 1880 when it was widely regarded as the finest dock system in the world. One of the principal goods brought into the country at this dock was tobacco from the Americas. This was transported in large hogsheads. Following the closure of the dock in the 1980s, the site fell into decay. It has since been redeveloped with the Royal Albert Wharf housing development, along with quayside office and educational blocks.
The Royal Docks were served by plenty of public-houses. Amid a sea of tightly-packed housing, there was once a pub on most corners of Victoria Dock Road. The housing and pubs have long gone. There is one interesting survivor in the Connaught Tavern. The former Truman's house did close for almost two decades but was re-opened in 2003 as The Fox@Connaught. The imposing red-structure was opened not long after the Royal Albert Dock was in operation, though the hotel was aimed at passengers disembarking from ships berthing at the Royal Victoria Docks. As a business model it was doomed as the times changed. Passenger numbers declined and the building increasingly relied on trade from dock labourers. It was rather grand for a docker's boozer! Things have partly come full circle in that the old Grade II-listed hotel now enjoys trade from the hotels dotted around the periphery of the airport. Sadly, however, the interior is rather soulless and looks like, well, most large restaurant pubs, the sort operated by Wetherspoon's or Marston's.
We made our escape from the spaghetti of busy roads and concrete and headed towards Newham City Farm, a lovely community facility opened in 1977 connecting youngsters with wildlife and animals amid an urban environment. Housing traditional farm animals and a few exotic creatures, the farm is an oasis within King George V Park. We headed along Stansfeld Road to pick up the Beckton Corridor, an arrow-straight cycle path created on the old railway once operated by the Great Eastern Railway following its original use as a line for the massive gas works close to Beckton Station. Passenger services closed in December 1940 though the line continued to be used to transport coal trucks until 1970.
The former railway line was nice and quiet but the road up to East Ham could not have been busier. We could have found a quieter route to Barking but we wanted to take a look at the magnificent town hall and library.
Route Notes to be continued....
Have Your Say
If you would like to share any further information on this route - perhaps you drank in different pubs? Or maybe you spotted something I missed en-route? Whatever the reason it would be great to hear of your stories or route guidance for others. Simply send a message and I will post it here.