Landing at London City Airport is an absolute pleasure. I’ve flown in and out of there a few times recently and each time I’ve been on the platform at the adjoining DLR station within minutes of my plane touching down.
If I’d have gone to Gatwick or Heathrow, I’d have probably still been stuck in a long queue waiting for my passport to be checked or for my luggage to arrive on the baggage carousels, but by using City I could actually already been in central London by then.
And City also has the added thrill of it seeming like the pilot is going to land the plane on the Thames. But at the last minute swoops the water disappears and you touch down on a slither of land between Royal Albert Dock and King George V Dock.
Flying into City is one of the best ways to see how this area has been transformed in recent decades. Three decades ago docks these were operating as commercial docks, but now it’s an emerging new district of London, which includes the ExCeL exhibition centre and a number of hotels. Meanwhile, London’s main freight port is today 15 miles away at Tilbury.
Having experienced the area from the air on a number of occasions in recent months, it was pleasant to be able to walk through the old docks as part of my effort to walk the Capital Ring – a 78-mile waymarked circular route around the outskirts of London.
Setting off from Cyprus DLR, where I ended up on the last leg, my walk took me through the new University of East London campus (opened in 1999 and a one-time Royal Institute of Charted Surveyors building of the year). As it was the weekend, many of the buildings are closed up, but I got to appreciate the amazing water-side setting for this institution right overlooking Royal Albert Dock.
Joggers were making good use of the wide promenade along the side dock of while in the water itself people in rowing boats were out in force. Students who live here and get to appreciate this view must feel themselves extremely lucky, especially as the DLR means they can also reach central London with ease.
Royal Albert Dock, which was opened by the Katharine Dock Company in 1880. It was the second (the first being Royal Victorian Dock, opening in 1850) of the Royal Docks trio which dealt with commodities, such as frozen meat and grain, as well as transporting passengers on large ships. And during the Second World War they formed an arms and naval base. The dock was the first to be lit by electricity.
And the Gallions Hotel was built between 1881 and 1883 for first-class P&O steamer passengers. There were two subways, which gave direct access from the hotel to the quay. The hotel closed in 1972 and remained empty until 2013 when extensive restoration work began to create the headquarters of a construction company. Rudyard Kipling wrote about it in the poem, The Light That Failed: “Is it Tilbury and a tender, or Gallion’s and the Docks”.
Further on, I reached King George V Dock, the newest of London’s many docks which was begun in 1912, but didn’t actually open until 1921 because of the First World War. And then its official opening ceremony was cancelled because of a docks strike.
King George V Dock had 14 berths which were regularly used by Cunard, White Star, P&O and Blue Funnel companies. And its gigantic gates could handle large liners, including the 36,644 ton Mauretania – the ‘Grand Old Lady of the Atlantic’ – in 1939. There was little spare space on either side as it passed into the dock.
Taken together, the three Royal Docks formed the largest area of enclosed dock water in the world.
The Royal Docks flourished immediately after the Second World War, but then came a series of protracted strikes in the 1950s and 1960s which helped hastened its decline. And Britain’s entry into the Common Market and the emergence of containerisation which favoured ports elsewhere brought the Port of London Authority (created in 1908 to bring various competing interests together) to the brink of insolvency and so the Royal Docks were closed in 1981.
There were many years of uncertainty ahead for the area, with several shelved plans, until the likes of London City Airport and ExCeL were opened in 1987 and 2000 respectively. The DLR (began in 1984) and the Jubilee Line extension have also been instrumental in helping this area be used again following the closure of the docks.
And more exciting things are planned for Royal Albert Dock, with a £1.7 billion proposal in place to make it London’s third business and financial district, after the City of London and Canary Wharf. The Chinese developer, ABP, behind the project believes in will create more than 20,000 jobs be worth £6 billion to the London economy once complete. And the first phase of the mixed development – backed by Mayor Boris Johnson – of offices, homes, shops and public space could be completed by 2018.
But although I found pockets of housing on this section of my walk, for the most part – away from the iconic new attractions I’ve mentioned – I felt like I was passing through a desolate waste land. There are some industrial premises here, yet there is much brownfield site waiting to be re-developed. Walking along waymarked paths, which were slightly overgrown in parts, I saw virtually no-one, bar a security officer who opened a locked gate for me.
The boarded up and increasingly derelict old North Woolwich station – which was in use until 1979 – is a case in symbolic of a much wider need for more investment in this part of the Docklands. Underneath the boards you can see that it is a fine station building, dating back to 1846, and which between 1984 and 2008 housed a small museum dedicated to the Great Eastern Railway.
After a quick stroll through Royal Victoria Gardens – a pleasant, yet underused park with tennis courts overlooking the Thames – I end my walk on the south side of the Thames, after having passed through Woolwich Foot Tunnel. Built by London County Council in 1912, and running adjacent to the 800-year old pedestrian and vehicle Woolwich Free Ferry, it allowed workers to reach their workplaces on or around the Isle of Docks. Thousands worked in the shipyards and docks on the north side of the Thames and needed all-weather access – the ferry was often delayed by fog.
Heading for one of the glazed entrance dome (they are identical on either side of the Thames), I took a headed down the helical staircase to reach the tiled, sloping cast-iron tunnel below. It took me around 10 minutes to walk the 370 metres to the other side, whereby this time I went for the lift option to get back up to the surface and the end of this leg of exploring the Capital Ring route.
My trip along the Capital Ring continues next Thursday on Pastinthepresent.net when I walk from Woolwich Foot Tunnel to Eltham Palace. If you missed last week’s instalment from my trek, you can read it here.