Old Stairs of the Thames at Wapping and Shadwell

shadwell stairs

Onto the No.339 bus down to Shadwell in search of the locations of a series of old photos in Wonderful London (circa 1926) of two sets of the old Watermen’s Stairs on the Thames. This beguiling picture above is of the Ratcliffe Cross Stairs. The caption reads: “.. an ancient and much used landing place and point of departure of a ferry. There is a tradition that Sir Martin Frobisher took boat here for his ship when starting on his voyage to find the North-West Passage.”

ratcliffe cross stairs

Ratcliffe Cross Stairs

This is the Ratcliffe Cross Stairs today (or at least that is what I’ve deduced from old maps and descriptions of the location, at the junction of Broad Street, Shadwell and Narrow Street, Limehouse) protruding out from the bottom of a block of flats as the lunchtime City joggers pound across the wooden bridge above. The Watermen of the 21st Century cruising past in their City Clipper tour boats.

shadwell stairs

Wonderful London also offers this view of the Thames from the muddy foreshore at Shadwell at Low Tide looking eastwards.

IMG_3837-View from Shadwell

No barges marooned on the shore the day I was there – the Towers of Mammon rising around the river bend on the Isle of Dogs.

Pelican Stairs

Pelican Stairs Prospect of Whitby

Pelican Stairs

Running down from the historic Prospect of Whitby pub (dating from 1520) are the Pelican Stairs, where on the shore some wag has erected a noose in honour of the ‘Hanging’ Judge Jeffries who was a regular at the Prospect.

King Henry's Stairs Wapping

King Henry’s Stairs

Heading West along Wapping High Street you encounter King Henry’s Stairs. Although these historic riverside rights of way have been preserved, some have been allowed to slowly decay.

wapping old stairs

Wonderful London describes Wapping Old Stairs as “one of liveliest spots in the country” in the great days of the maritime Thames.

Wapping Old Stairs

Wapping Old Stairs today

“but the swaggering sailormen and the loathly crew of bullies and harridans who prey on these Jack Juncks and Bill Bobstays during their few days ashore have, happily, gone as completely as the foul dens that harboured them” – Wonderful London

Wapping Old Stairs video with the sound of the Thames lapping against the stone steps

Docklands Walk – Island Gardens to East India Dock

Docklands Walk - Canon Powershot SX230 hs video test from fugueur on Vimeo.

It’s taken 23 years but I’ve fallen in love with the DLR. I’ve used it twice in recent months and it has beguiled me with its charms. It makes me feel like like the early train passengers riding an iron horse.

Entrance to Greenwich Foot Tunnel

Yesterday my two urges of getting to water and riding the DLR coincided. The family were inert at home so I headed to Island Gardens. I was tempted straight away to head down into the Greenwich Foot Tunnel but had no interest in what was at the other end. I wanted to skirt the eastern periphery of the Isle of Dogs.

The memorial at Dudgeon’s Wharf is a reminder of life in Docklands before the biggest threat to the area was trouble in the money markets or a rise in the price of Bolly. In July 1965 six people, including five firefighters, were killed in an explosion at a chemical storage facility here.

Dollar Bay

I struggle to find much to say about Docklands, it already feels overly mediated. It is also puzzlingly paradoxical. There are fragments and echoes of its past like sections of wharfs and jetties, decommissioned cranes. But on the other hand it is utterly removed from the rest of the city – a private estate, a samizdat Singapore.

I always feel like an intruder in Docklands, unwelcome and illicit. I’m long-haired, bearded, wearing shorts and sandals topped off with a baseball cap – that probably breaks at least two recently imposed local by-laws.

Lady Daphne and the Greenwich Uplands

It’s the Thames Festival this weekend – maybe that’s where the urge to head for the water originated. I caught a glimpse of the Lady Daphne chugging her way eastwards after a day of ferrying passengers as part of the festivities.

signwriting worthy of Bob and Roberta Smith

The opposite shore in Greenwich still seems to be clinging onto some vestige of its industrial functions. But the glass and steel towers are on their way to keep the Millennium Dome company.

I wound up at East India Dock, unable to finish my walk with the statutory pint. So it was back on the DLR and into the Leyton Technical pop-up pub in old Leyton Town Hall for a fantastic pint of Windsor and Eton Ale – this could well be the best thing to come out of the Olympics.

Jubilee on the Thames

I think those people were waiting for the Sex Pistols barge to float by in a re-enactment of one of the great cultural moments in the history of the Thames during the last Jubilee – I know I was. Although, the London Symphony Orchestra did make a brilliant racket and the conductor flailed around in a manner redolent of Johnny Rotten before the butter adverts – not a bad subsitute

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Walk along the Walbrook

I was flicking through the pages of Wonderful London (circa 1921) Sunday afternoon and stopped at a photo of some young men on a set of steps by the river.

The caption reads:
“The Walbrook once ran down the gentle slope of Dowgate Hill and barges used to moor there … the Britons may have traded somewhere near this site with the ships from Gaul.”
This was enough to make me head out into the night to follow its course.  

Wonderful London has a chapter on Some Lost Rivers of London describing the route the river took through the City before it was buried in the mid-15th Century.
“It rose in Moorfields and went through the City wall, and so got its name, near Moorgate. It flowed under the site of the Bank past the Mansion House, along the street called Walbrook and so by Dowgate into the Thames.”

Ackroyd proposes another explaination of the name – that it is “derived from Weala broc, ‘brook of the Welsh’, which suggests there was still a defined quarter for the ‘old Britons’ in their ancient city”. 

It seems that the Walbrook was one of the most signficant rivers in Roman and early medieval London. It ran through the heart of the ancient City dividing it in two. When the Romans arrived they built a temple to Mithras and a port on its east bank. The invading Saxons later used it as the boundary between the east and west of the City – with the invaders on the West bank and the Britons to the East.

I headed to the street named Moorfields to look for where the stream rises, although I have a feeling the whole area once went by that name. When the Walbrook ran freely this was an area of boggy marsh-lands. This may explain the relatively large amount of open space hereabouts, of Finsbury Square (where the Ocuppy protestors camp) and the artillery grounds, in a zone that has some of the most expensive land in the world.

I can’t read a landscape like Nick Papadimitriou, that man can sniff out a buried stream like some kind of urban Navajo, but I’ve done enough river walks with him to pick up a few basics. Moorfields didn’t seem to have a river/stream valley in the area but there was the low lying area just off Finsbury Circus where the Cross Rail works are drilling deep.

When I get home I checked the Cross Rail archaeological reports and indeed they have struck the Walbrook running along the course of Blomfield Street and they are searching for the remains of the Roman bridges that crossed the stream.

I breach London Wall and am drawn into Great Swan Street which curves down to low-lying land – the course of the river? Passing the Chartered Accountants Hall and following the contours of the street I traverse Copthall Avenue and find myself at Angel Court.

The City is eerily deserted on a Sunday night – the only other people I see are the lonely figures sat on sentry duty at the front desks of the office blocks. Although I have the streets to myself, there is the ever-present feeling of my every step being picked up on hundreds if not thousands of CCTV cameras.

I have a note from the London Topographical Record of an excavation of Angel Court in 1974 that undercovered a portion of the river, noting that it “dominated the original topography and habitation of the district north of Lothbury and Throgmorton Street”. Remains of a Roman embankment were also discovered along with Roman relics, coins, shoes and painted wall plaster. Hundreds of styli for writing were also discovered where scribes had tossed them from their windows into the water, perhaps in frustration or disgust. In my imagination it is just one particularly bad-tempered Roman clerk who continuosly made mistakes.

Behind the Bank in Lothbury I note a dip in the road that could well indicate the course of the Walbrook. Lothbury is an ancient enclosure, or haga, of the city, a fortified burgh of Lotha’s folk, an early Kentish king.

An excavation of the stream in the 19th century found a large quantity of human skulls in the river bed. One theory is that they were the remains of a Roman legion that surrendered to British tribes following a siege of a city, they were massacred “in ritual Celtic style” and their heads thrown into the Brook.

Walbrook beside Mansion House

With the City now dominated by huge blocks of concrete, glass and steel and its workaday streets the parade ground of a besuited army of clerks and accountants it’s easy to forget the more earthy history of this place; when blood was spilt on these very streets in battles to control the City, when the trade was hauled up from wharfs rather than sent down a high-speed connection, when the City was the heart of London life rather than a capitalist encampment staffed by suburban commuters.

Past the Tallow Chandler’s Hall and into the darkness of Cousin Lane I find the set of steps that look like the ones from that beguiling collodion photo in Wonderful London at the top of this post. There isn’t a soul around, it’s low tide so I walk a little along the shore looking for where the Walbrook makes its confluence with the Thames but I find nothing.

But there’s no doubt that the Walbrook still lives – coursing beneath the City streets – waiting to spring back to the surface at the first opportunity – which I imagine will be anytime soon thanks to Cross Rail.

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