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Searching for the River in Docklands – Benny Green 1971
There is nothing better on a warm summers day than to take a walk next to the river, on the Isle of Dogs there are many areas where you can enjoy these walks.
However to get access to the river on the “Island” in this way is a relatively recent phenomenon for up to the 1980s much of the riverfront was taken up by various industries and was not accessible to the general public.
The ability to gain access to the river is the theme of the following humorous article written by Benny Green who was a well-known broadcaster, writer and Jazz musician in 1971.
The first things I see are these: outside a shop in West India Dock Road the suits of sou’westers dancing on hangers like headless men celebrating their own whimsical condition; overhead the Limehouse sky punctured by cranes which took from a distance like the ship’s rigging that nobody will ever see again on London’s river; across the road the glum functional solidarity of ‘The Mariners Hotel,’ belying its name and telling you somehow that very little bridge ever goes across the water in these parts. Three contradictions almost before I have begun, so I wander off in search of at least one aspect of Dockland able to corroborate itself, and stumble on to a semi-detached out to be which on closer examination turns out to be advertising itself as the Public Baths, whether fraudulently or not I do not stay to see. By now I am altogether confused, and not helped by the presence all around me of a vague aroma compounded of fish, wood, rust, dry rot, damp, salt, tobacco, spice, seamen and poverty, an insidious perfume which keeps suggesting to me that now might be as good a time as any to find out once and for all, from the horse’s mouth, the difference, if any, between a binnacle and a spinnaker.
The foreshore of London’s river is so cluttered, so obstructed by the processes of commerce, so masked by perspective that it is very nearly impossible actually to arrive at the water’s edge and trail your fingers in the muddy tide. At first it looks simple enough. A ship’s funnel behind the rooftops, a flight of gulls hovering, human voices amplified by the freakish acoustics of all large bodies of water, these are sure signs that the open sea cannot be very far away. But always there is a wall, or a warehouse, or a row of houses, between you and it.
A man might walk for miles without finding a gap in the fortifications, although with luck and perseverance he might get his reward. The river glimpsed silver-grey from a side street, through the cavern of an empty warehouse, can still seem like a seascape suddenly rendered animate; or an incoming ship spotted from the top deck of a bus, reminding the eye that the Thames remains what J. B. Priestley once called it, London’s broadest street. And then there is the water itself, opaque with filth as it slops on to the foreshore, cutting its serpentine path around the Isle of Dogs, another romantic name, by the way, which has more or less nothing to do with the thing it is supposed to be describing.
The Isle of Dogs is neither an island nor a dog sanctuary, but only a stark peninsula looped by the twisting lines of the river. There is only one main road in and out, and the explorer on wheels repeatedly finds himself brought up short by a notice saying ” Shipping supplied “; a corrugated iron fence whose forbidding aspect has to be seen to be believed. Overhead the gulls wheel in with their rumour of the river beyond, but on casual examination the back streets of the Isle of Dogs — there are no front streets — might be any back streets. But then, like ghosts materialising, the signs of maritime life make themselves apparent to the naked eye. A fruiterer whose chromatic display of apples and oranges is overhung by a notice saying “Shipping supplied;” a plaque on the most improbable of all brick walls claiming that the ‘Great Eastern’ was launched here; the street names, Hesperus, Arethusa, Barque, Schooner, every one of them with grim facades mocking the poetry of their titles.
And occasionally the narrow space between wharves where a pedestrian can actually find the river’s edge. I found one such aperture, littered with the sad jetsam of river life, a rusting capstan, a seaboot, an anchor chain, a broken oar. And beyond this the river, grey under a fine afternoon rain, the gulls sitting complacently on its surface riding the tide, and on the far shore the fine lace filigree of the ‘ Cutty Sark’s’ rigging, tricked by the perspective into squatting in the lap of the eighteenth century, preserved in the lines of the Greenwich Maritime Museum. Though it is mid-afternoon, there is nobody in the streets, which makes me feel that tomorrow none of this will be here. A narrow street, hemmed in by wharves, and underfoot a forgotten length of tramline intersecting the road at an angle. Perhaps tomorrow the houses will be removed to make way for a spectral tram to retrace its old route. Dockland Settlement, where they dispense Christian charity in what looks like the purlieus of hell. And then the, grimmest joke of all, Wapping High Street, surely the maddest named thoroughfare in all the world. There are no shops in Wapping High Street, no residents, no houses, only cavernous wharves and bonded warehouses, many with “To Let” signs dangling from their railings. The dim light in a first floor window suggests that at least one man is ticking off his bills of lading. Otherwise there is no evidence that anyone has ventured up Wapping High Street this century. Rain falls on the pleasure gardens running down to the river’s edge. Today nobody seeks pleasure there. On the wall at Wapping New Stairs the notice tells you that bathing is dangerous. You are staggered that bathing should be allowed there at all, or that there is anyone anywhere who would want to indulge in it.
And there, at the end of those cul-de-sacs that promise you the river and then cheat you at the last minute, there is a rusting tin door. On it, painted in erratic red paint, is the banner, ” Millwall FC forever.” How impressive the pedantic correctitude of that ” FC “. The work of some exultant supporter, perhaps, who drifted too far afield after a victory one Saturday night and could think of no better way to express his sense of triumph? At the Millwall ground they are said to throw the occasional milk bottle. If environment is any true guide to conduct, it is a source of wonder to me that they did not long ago tear up the goalposts, start a bonfire and broil the referee.