Ghosts Of London Past

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Urban Walking – London


London is a great city for hikers. For one because there are so many scenic trails and nature reserves near-by – the Ridgeway, the South Downs Way, the New Forest – and for another because they are all so easy and convenient to reach by what is probably the world’s best public transport system. (I know the London urban and suburban rail networks get a lot of stick, but I still have to find another city in the world where it is as easy to get around even if you have no car.)

We will spend more time in London in the near future and intend to explore the walking trails of the area in some detail, although the more serious hiking trips will have to wait until the spring.

For the time being, however, we will keep things simple and start you off this week with two short walks along the Thames, one in the east and one in the west, each roughly two to three hours long, allowing you to set out late, after a leisurely breakfast on a weekend for example, and still be back in time “for tea” to watch the afternoon soccer game “on the telly”. Are you still with me, “guv”?

Ghosts of London Past

Wapping in the east of the city has always been my favourite part of “walking London”. I have done this walk several times over the past twenty years or so, but it was never the same walk – because the area has changed and still changes so quickly.

"An old dock warehouse in the London Docklands among the ghosts of London past"

This stretch of London – between the Tower and Greenwich – was once the most important hub of global trade, the place where shiploads after shiploads of coffee, tobacco and sugar from the British colonies arrived on their way to the European consumers.

The London docks were abandoned in the 1960s, and the area lay fallow, a barren industrial wasteland, for twenty years before it was redeveloped in the 1980s. When I came here first, a little over twenty years ago, this process was still very much ongoing, and the “docklands” at the time were a surreal blend of derelict industrial buildings, waste dumps, modern office developments and handsome 19th century mansions.

Nowadays, the docklands are very trendy and chic, but they are still nothing like similarly trendy and chic areas of West London. They are, for one, much less lively. Wapping High Street is a residential area, but when we went there, on a Saturday around lunchtime, we were almost the only people in the street, give or take the odd jogger. Between old warehouses, centuries-old taverns and narrow stairways that lead down to the river, you feel that ghosts are walking with you every step of the way.

"A pole with a noose in the London Docklands among the ghosts of London past"

Our walk starts at St. Katharine Docks in the back of Tower Hill station. Walk down the stairs on your left hand side, turn left in front of the moat of the Tower of London and simply follow the signs.

The three basins of St. Katharine Docks were developed in the 1820s when one of the largest London slums – with over 10,000 inhabitants – was razed to the ground. (The rubble of the destroyed dwellings, ironically, was used to lay the foundations for one of London’s most luxurious property development projects in Belgravia.)

"St Katharine's dock in London among the ghosts of London past"

 The St. Katharine Docks were never a great commercial success – the gates to the river Thames were too narrow, preventing larger ships from entering – and, having been heavily bombed in WWII, never fully rebuilt and gradually abandoned.

"St Katharine's dock among the ghosts of London past"

They became, however, also the first of the London docks to be redeveloped as a leisure-plus-retail facility and the blueprint for all such projects since, in the capital and all across Britain. They are a very pretty sight indeed, particularly on a sunny day. (Unfortunately, we were not quite so lucky on our walk.)

"Old housing along the docklands among the ghosts of London past"

Leave St. Katharine Docks in the back of the Dickens Inn through Thomas More Street and turn left into Wapping High Street along the Thames. Look out for Wapping Pier Head, two early 19th century brick buildings that were erected right on the entrance to the docks to accommodate leading dock officials and their families …

"The Ramsgate pub among the ghosts of London past"

… and, a few houses down the road, the ancient Town of Ramsgate pub. The Wapping Old Stairs beside the pub – they lead down to the river – are said to be haunted: for many men, convicts on their way to Australia and drunks who were imprisoned in the pub’s cellar before being “press-ganged” into the navy, these stairs would have been the last things they ever saw of England.

A little further on, in the garden next to the modern HQ of the London River Police, the City of London used to execute pirates – not removing their bodies before three high tides had washed over them, as a kind of deterrent presumably. The infamous Captain Kidd was hanged here in 1701, and a couple of blocks down, there is a pub that was named in his honour. (Go check it out. It has stunning views over the Thames.)

"The garden where pirates were hung in olden days by the river Thames is among the ghosts of London past"

Continue past some more old warehouses before turning right into Wapping Wall – look for London’s oldest riverside pub, the Prospect of Whitby – and crossing the bridge into Shadwell. (Another modern development, called Shadwell Basin, appears on your left.)

Immediately after the bridge, turn right in the direction of King Edward VII Memorial Park, and continue by the bank of the river with some spectacular views of Canary Wharf in the distance.

"A view of the Canary Wharf from the Limehouse Basin in London"

Turn left into Spert Street for Limehouse Basin, where this walk ends. There is a DLR station on your left hand side from where the trains of the “Docklands Light Railway” take you back into the centre of London within a few minutes.

"The Limehouse Basin in the London Docklands"

  Have you been to this part of London?

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16 comments to Ghosts Of London Past

  • Pub crawl and walking along the river Thames is indeed not ideal. Thanks for dropping by, Johnny.

  • Hi guys – nice site and some great tips there. When I lived in London I often thought of a pub crawl where you keep the river Thames in sight and head from zone 6 in the east to zone 6 in the west! Sadly thanks to bus routes you will not be able to properly do it unless you just walk it, and that would mean less drinking. I was in that Town of Ramsgate pub some time ago…Jonny

  • Funny, but despite all the walking I did in London, I saw very few of the same things you did. It’s so vast and varied!

  • That’s why I love London so much – there is seemingly always a new part of it to go discover!

  • I do love the vast and varied history of London! Its always great discovering new neighborhoods and learning about the local history and ghosts. There is no better way of getting to know a city than by walking. Thanks for the interesting jaunt through London!

  • There were just so many photo motifs along the way, Leigh. And the weather also cooperated for some shots.

  • I always get out of London to do some of the major hiking trails in the country – but this is great to know that such an interesting walk exists in the city and it’s so accessible. Great job on the photos in this post!!

  • What a beautiful walk despite the dark clouds. There’s so much history here. I haven’t been to this part of London but we hope to be back next year and will keep this walk in mind. I think we’d have to do this during daytime knowing about those executed pirates.

  • Oh, how I love London! I’ve been to this part of London, but didn’t walk as far east. I’d like to follow right in your footsteps. St. Katharine Docks is very special to me. My very first time in London, I stayed at the hotel in your 4th pic. Not what you would call a “charming” hotel, but awesome location.

  • Count me as another one bookmarking it for next time! The brief time I had to spend in that general area last week fascinated me!

  • Wonderful tour through London. Oh, how I want to travel to some of the places you write about and walk in your footsteps to see all of glorious sights. That hanging noose is so ominous…quite frightening actually. Glorious post and pics too!

  • Ah you’re bringing back great memories here! London’s history get’s me so excited. Cool photos!!

  • I second what Marcia wrote; we’ve also hit bits and pieces in previous visits but this will definitely be a guide we use on the next visit! Most helpful and great photos, Michael.

  • Nice walk, Michael! I’ve only done parts of it but will definitely bookmark this post for my next visit. I love walking around London, especially without a map to see what pops up. It really is a beautiful city, even more so when the sun’s out. Sorry it didn’t for this walk.

  • Sounds very interesting, Jaklien. I’d have to look up that Capital Ring walk and of course the London Loop, too. Thanks for dropping by and for the heads up!

  • Yes I have!
    I love hiking in London. Finished the Capital Ring this summer and now onto the London Loop!!

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