As anyone will tell you, an expedition requires planning – it’s all very well talking about “the great unknown,” but only a madman would set out on a voyage of discovery with anything but the most rigorous preparation for anything he or she might encounter along the way. In general, deciding what you’re looking for after you’ve got on the train, as I did yesterday, is not a good idea.
What I was specifically trying to find was the launch site of Brunel’s magnificent steamship, the Great Eastern. All I knew was that it had been launched from Millwall. Had I known that I was going to look for the site, I’d probably have done a bit more research. As it was, I was exploring the Isle of Dogs with an A-Z and a series of educated guesses. It turns out the I-Love-Dogs is a complicated place to explore on foot, and not exactly congenial to the aimless wanderer.
It doesn’t help that the area consists of large, open spaces of water and huge, square tower blocks. The Canary Wharf development is as cold and windy as an 18th century slum lord (note to self: do not hit “publish” until you’ve found a better metaphor). Plus there’s the fact that you have to keep dodging around construction work.
Every so often you’ll come across some random reminder of the Island’s industrial heritage. I, however, could find nothing whatsoever to indicate where the launch site might be. My A-Z listed something called the “Great Eastern Enterprise Centre,” but that was no help at all. You wouldn’t think it would be that difficult, the site must be seven hundred damn feet long.
Anyway, after scouting around for a good couple of hours, earning suspicious looks from residents and police alike, I thought I’d call it a day and head back along the riverside. The riverside is where Millwall gets its name. Back in the day, the bank of the Thames supported seven windmills, taking advantage of the aforementioned windsweptness of the location. A wall was built to keep the ground stable, hence “mill wall.”
In the nineteenth century, the area was a perfect location for the development of massive new enclosed docks that would relieve the pressure on the massively overwhelmed Pool of London and also reduce the risk of river piracy. It was also the only place in London where a ship as massive as the Great Eastern could be launched, and even then it had to go sideways.
In due course, I found myself back at the West India Dock, a short walk from my starting point at Canary Wharf. Rather than accept that I’d wasted an afternoon and just going home, I thought I’d indulge in a bit of “stitching.” This is a psychogeographical term wot I am pretty sure I have invented. Basically, it’s when you explore the space between two areas that you have previously explored.
Hence, the two patches are psychologically “stitched” together, and can be related to each other. I figured that a short walk would allow me to stitch the Isle of Dogs to Limehouse. I’ve already walked from Limehouse to Shadwell, Shadwell to the City and the City to Bermondsey and London Bridge, so that’s a pretty good patchwork quilt thing I gots going on there. I also did a bit of exploring around Limehouse, because I’d only previously really covered a small area of the place.
Limehouse is a place that likes to make something of its history, which is fair enough. It’s a place with an interesting history and is probably vibrant, whatever that’s supposed to mean. For this reason, there are lots of signs dotted around explaining the history of what you’re looking at – hence the caption on the right. If you duck down the back streets, you can find plenty of remnants of its history, though sadly no opium dens. Having read The Picture of Dorian Gray, I was hoping to be seduced into a life of sin and licentiousness. Particularly as I had no plans last night.
Ramble ramble ramble. As you can see by these photos, by the time I got to the centre of Limehouse it was starting to get dark. However, being bored off my face and in an energetic mood, I decided that I’d stroll further on – into the City itself.
Rather than walk down the historically-significant Cable Street (you know, where the Battle of Cable Street was held), I figured I’d go via Commercial Road, which I recall as also being significant for some reason. Turns out that it just had a railway station that isn’t there any more.
I’ll spare you the endless psychogeographical-type photos that I took along the way. It was dark when most of them were taken anyway, so there’s not a huge amount to see. I quite like the art deco club on the right, though. It looks like it was once a cinema. Cinemas these days are just rubbish, I long for the days when cinemas actually looked a bit glamorous, like maybe you’d have an exciting night out just by stepping through the door. Hey ho.
In due course I arrived at what was either Whitechapel (according to the signs) or Aldgate East (according to the District Line). I suspect the station was named in the hope of filching some of the Metropolitan Railway’s traffic from a couple of hundred yards up the road, where Aldgate station is located. By the way, those of you who read this thing regularly may recall a previous expedition that took me from Embankment to Aldgate, so that’s some more stitching done. Aldgate is pretty well opposite Minories, so again, more stitching.
Then it was a fairly short but meandering walk into the City. Well, technically anything past the site of Aldgate is the City, but I decided to make Bank my endpoint, because 1) it’s the station at the centre of the ancient city and 2) I could get a Tube straight home. I passed many interesting sights – the Lloyd’s building, Simpson’s eating house, the Jamaica Winehouse and Leadenhall Market among them. Unfortunately, most were too dark for me to take a decent photo, so sorry about that.
One last bit of stitching occurred when I reached Bank. The road you see on your right is the one I came down when I walked from Bethnal Green.
What did I learn from my walk? What pieces of enlightenment did I attain? Actually, I learnt lots of things and am a substantially better person as a result. Unfortunately, like many psychogeographers, I’m going to be all like “Oh you wouldn’t understand.” Sorry. Just what I do, dude.
(note to self: better come up with some fake wisdom or they’ll totally realise that psychogeographers are all making it up as they go along)