Streets of London, Wapping High Street, E1
Time Out braves a pirate ship and the executioner's noose to explore the past, present and pubs of this riverside neighbourhood
Eighteenth-century seadogs would fall over their wooden legs if they tap-tapped their way down the Wapping High Street that we know today. The mile-long stretch of mostly cobbled street follows the north bank of the Thames and was built in 1570 to link quays with warehouses. For nearly 400 years, it took its entire reason for being from the river, but now the notorious filth-ridden slums, bitterly mean workhouses and pirates hanging from gibbets have gone and in their place are swanky converted warehouses and apartment blocks made of sparkling green glass.
There is a history of conversion on the High Street. To overcome the pilfering of ships’ cargoes, London Docks – the capital’s first enclosed dock – was built here in 1805, effectively turning the area from Hermitage Wharf to Shadwell Basin into an isolated fortress, surrounded by a brick wall. Iron catwalks ran high above street level between the warehouses, two of which can still be seen on Wapping High Street. London Docks was closed in the 1960s when the advent of shipping containers rendered such protective docks obsolete. Rather than pay to maintain them, the council filled in many docks and basins, with numerous derelict warehouses being pulled down. The space was filled mainly with apartments, Tobacco Dock shopping centre (although the vast majority of units within have long been deserted), and the imposing offices/printing presses of News International Newspapers (nicknamed Fortress Wapping).
Regeneration and re-evaluation started in the 1980s, stalled in the ’90s and today reflects the location – equidistant between the money-making centres of the City and Canary Wharf. The most recent development, at Cinnabar Wharf (Nos 22-26) is all glass windows and wrap-around balconies, overlooks a new riverside park and has a cracking view of Tower Bridge. To the east, an enclave of Georgian townhouses has an official, though unmarked, address of Wapping Pier Head, the garden in between built over what was once the maritime entrance to London Docks.
Further on, the modern cream and white façade of the Maritime Police Station (No 98), built in 1973, comes as a bit of an architectural shock, but from here on it is mostly Victorian warehouses. In between are parks, canals and basins (kids love the permanently moored, replica pirate ships in Tobacco Dock); the area around the John Orwell sports centre is one of the prettiest green spaces in the East End, with Georgian headstones propped up against old walls and spring flowers aplenty.
Riverside flats and warehouse conversions that nudge the million-pound mark show how far Wapping High Street has come, but there’s still a healthy amount of more affordable housing. In among the townhouses and warehouses are modern local authority blocks built with some sympathy to their surroundings. On Wapping Lane, near Wapping tube station, is the 1920s Wapping Housing Estate where a two bedroom flat will cost around £180,000.
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