When London Became An Island
Beyond a railway bridge that always seems to be busy with passing trains are another set of locks, which take their name from a nearby street. At Salmon Lane lock I spotted the feathers of the Prince of Wales (1), much like those painted on the gondola of a balloon when it drifted over this area on August 12th 1811 just at a time when enthusiasm for the intended Paddington to Limehouse link was being generated. The date was significant as it was the Prince Regent’s birthday and the balloon carried two voyagers who evidently intended to raise glasses of Medeira in celebration as they floated over the growing docklands and Essex.
James Sadler was a well known balloonist of the period and his lighter-than-air craft was pumped up in the grounds of the Mermaid Tavern, close to St John’s Church, Hackney. In the early afternoon Sadler and his passenger, a Captain Paget, took off and drifted towards the Thames. We can well imagine the impact the sight of this wonder of modern technology had in the streets of Limehouse and it must have seemed quite incredulous to many that humans would dare to be transported in such a way. It was unclear how much Madeira was left when the balloon eventually landed, but the two aeronauts were both safe, quickly hired a post chaise and set off back to the Mermaid where they were met with great acclaim. No doubt the Prince Regent enjoyed reports of the success too.
On Salmon Lane itself, close by the bridge there is a pub called the Prince Regent. The pub sign (2) has gone now but I do hope that generations of patrons, feet firmly on the ground, raised a glass every August 12th to the Prince’s portrait and memory and will do so in the ‘new normal’ future.
Perhaps we might also raise a glass, wherever we are, to those volunteers who help with canal clean-ups. Thames 21 have played a part in this vicinity as have the Canal and River Trust and Moo Canoes too.
After passing under the footbridge and then Salmon Road bridge a large oblong box, on the far side of the canal, soon becomes visible (3). At first glance the box may seem just to be randomly camouflaged in an abstract way in bright colours, but look closely and you will see the wrap-around mural represents aspects of bird life. This is fitting as the structure, which is a super size nesting box, was built in order to encourage kingfishers that over-winter in the locality to remain through the spring and summer. Construction was supported by Tower Hamlets Council and the Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park and actually built by volunteers from Grounded Ecotherapy of Providence Row Housing Association. The painting was done by Chris Hylton, who was supported by Trapped in Zone One and the Lower Regents Coalition. Let’s hope all this hard work pays dividends. Click on photo 4 for more details about the nest bank.
The next point of note is the unusual twin arched bridge carrying Commercial Road (5). Commercial Road was an important link between the new docks, which were established at the turn of the C19th, and the City. When the first railway link was built it followed much the same route and the viaduct which carried it may be seen just beyond the last lock on the canal. Today, the viaduct carries the Docklands Light Railway (6) and it is rather ironic that trains on this system have no drivers. The civil engineer who designed the original railway was Robert Stephenson and he decided that fitting steam engines at either end of the track would be a better option than using conventional locomotives - so there were no drivers on his trains either. When services began in 1840, passengers boarded at either the Minories or Blackwall or one of the intermediate stations and the carriages were hauled to their destination by a long rope. Several years ago a biography of Sir John Bowring, by Philip Bowring, was published by the Hong Kong University Press. The title ‘Free Trade’s First Missionary’ is apt and the book has a photograph of the Regents Canal at the point where it is crossed by the viaduct - Bowring became chairman of the company that operated the railway in 1845. More on Bowring in ‘Soochong, Shogun and the Saracen’s surveys’.
Once under the viaduct we arrive at Limehouse Basin. No longer a freshly dug basin serving new patterns of Georgian domestic trade nor a busy late Victorian commercial dock handling goods from every corner of the earth it now gives service as a C21st leisure marina. Walk over the footbridge immediately ahead and carry on by the side of Stephenson’s viaduct. A danger sign (7) was once displayed here. It seems to have disappeared but look closely and you will see it was just a warning about your happiness levels! I hope, if you feel happy, it is as a result of having completed your walk all the way from Paddington.
If you want to leave the walk here go straight ahead. You will soon come to Limehouse station on the Docklands Light Railway. Alternatively, turn left at the corner of the dock and follow the dockside to Narrow Street where a lock allows boats access to the Thames.
Turn left on Narrow Street and walk along to a little triangle where you will see a giant bird and the 'Grapes' and 'Booty's' and then turn right onto the Thames Path. The entrance is through an 'arch' a little beyond the little park called Ropemakers Fields, which is on the left-hand side of the road. If you follow the Thames Path path you will get good views of the river (8) and will eventually come to Canary Wharf, a modern centre of commerce built on the site of the old West India Docks. Some of the old warehouses remain and here you will find the Museum of London Docklands.
The Museum of London Docklands is well worth a visit as it gives an excellent overview of the development and operation of the old docks over the best part of two centuries. There is a coffee shop there too so if the last cup you tasted was at the Waterside (and that will probably seem like an age ago) why not treat yourself and forget about the hand that set free the world for half an hour. Alternatively, close to the museum is a Wetherspoons pub housed in the old Ledger Building, which, long before the invention of the filing cabinet, let alone the computer, was the administrative heart of the docks. The interior still seems to retain something of the atmosphere of the C19th.
A long time ago?
It is now two hundred years since the construction of the Regents Canal was completed and this probably seems in the dim and distant past. But in the 1980s a Bethnal Green neighbour of mine, who was born in 1894, told me a number of stories about her childhood and adolescence. Of soldiers returning from the war (the Boer War), of nearly being sacked from her job for taking time off to watch an exciting event (the Siege of Sydney Street) and of going off to central London on a horse drawn, open topped, number 8 bus (she would have been 30 when the 1924 film was made and, who knows, might even been one of the gongoozlers on one of the bridges!). Perhaps some nonagenarians of 1900 may have remembered seeing the arrival of the grand procession at Limehouse on August 1st 1820 just as clearly as my neighbour remembered events in her childhood. So it is not so long ago really is it?
Click here to go back to Paddington by film.
Bethnal Green to Limehouse
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