I’m not sure what seems more improbable, an island of dogs or being able to walk under the Thames. Then again, East London is full of surprises. Starting next to the historic and enormous (and closed) Hawksmoor designed St. Anne’s Church, my route passed through Limehouse’s narrow streets to the corporate glass and steel towers of Canary Wharf; arriving at the Cutty Sark in Greenwich via the Thames Path and the marvellous Greenwich Foot Tunnel.
No one really knows the origin of the name ‘Isle of Dogs’ – the great bulge in the River Thames. Theories, however, abound: royal hunting dogs were kept here; a corruption of the name ‘Isle of Ducks’; dead dogs washed up here; a nickname because people who lived here led a ‘dog’s life’. None of which make it sound particularly appealing. While the meaning is lost, the name was in common use by the 16th Century and has stuck.
Its almost unimaginable today, but this was a rural area until the 19th Century. Known as Stepney Marsh, it was a wetland criss-crossed by waterways, accessible only by bridge or boat. The marsh was drained in the 17th Century, becoming an important agricultural area providing food for London. This all changed in the 19th Century. It was transformed from cattle pasture into London’s most industrialised area, teeming with people and activity.
Mid-19th Century, this area was the powerhouse of trade and communication with the British Empire. A relationship born witness to by the series of docks and wharfs dotted all over this area, all of which serviced the massive maritime ambitions of the British nation. Trade and Empire can still be recognised in names: West India Dock, Ontario Way, Cuba, Tobago and Malabar Streets. Today those connections are maintained by the international workforce involved in international finance at Canary Wharf.
The streets here were lined with wharves and hundreds of warehouses, built to house goods arriving or departing to every corner of the globe; it was the engine of Britain’s economy. That status made the Isle of Dogs a target in World War II. Starting on 7th September 1940, and continuing for seventy six consecutive nights, this area was bombed with heavy explosives and incendiaries. The Blitz had come to London.
The Blitz intended to destroy Britain’s the economy and the nation’s ability to fight. The warehouses and wharves burned for days on end, as did their contents. One bombing raid set fire to 380,000 tonnes of timber at Surrey Docks. By the time The Blitz ended a third of the Isle of Dogs’ warehouses, and tens of thousands of homes, had been destroyed. Bombs from World War II continue to be unearthed even today.
Ironically, the end of the war was even more destructive for local communities. The end of Empire and shifting global trade made the docks obsolete. Britain was bankrupt and rebuilding was little more than a pipe dream. This area remained – and still is in parts – a severely deprived area. Even the Docklands development of the 1980s, which bequeathed us Canary Wharf, did little to solve entrenched poverty.
Along the Thames Path occasional signs impart bits of forgotten history. One stated I was stood on the site where the Great Eastern was built. The SS Great Eastern was the brainchild of legendary engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. When it launched in 1858 SS Great Eastern was by far the largest ship ever built, capable of sailing to Australia without refuelling. Sadly, the SS Great Eastern was a commercial failure, ending its days in ignominy as a floating advertisement for a department store.
Leaving Canary Wharf behind, I arrived at the most exciting section of my walk. A small glass-topped dome marks the entrance to one of London’s hidden wonders: the Greenwich Foot Tunnel. Descending the iron stairs, you walk the 370 metres through a tiled tunnel less than 3 metres in diameter underneath the River Thames. A few fun-filled minutes later you emerge next to the Cutty Sark in Greenwich. The northern end of the tunnel has a section of steel reinforcing it where it was damaged by bombs in 1940.
It’s thrilling to walk through the tunnel. It has been used for all sorts of filming, events and ridiculous activities – bizarrely, it forms part National Cycle Route 1 (from Inverness in Scotland to Dover on the English Channel). More ridiculous, a marathon was run in the tunnel to mark it’s centenary. It takes 58 laps to run a full marathon in the tunnel, and there’s not much scenery en route. One hundred runners took part, and British marathon legend, Hugh Jones, won the race in a very credible 2 hours 45 minutes.
Rather him than me.