I wrote a while ago about the fact that an estimated 2.5 million people visit the Tower of London each year, but very few of those pop in to the fascinating church of All Hallows by the Tower situated (as the name suggests) right by the Tower. Last week I began a walk at St Katharine Docks, an area just a hop and a skip east of the Tower, but very probably as equally neglected by those checking out the Crown Jewels or the place where Anne Boleyn got her head chopped off.
St Katharine Docks doesn't offer quite the same majestic abundance of history as its more illustrious neighbour, but it is certainly a quiet little enclave and a calming haven away from the hustle and bustle of the Tower, that is definitely worth checking out.
St Katharine Docks was opened in 1828, after Parliament decided that some extra provision was needed to cope with the escalating growth of trade pouring in to London from the Thames. As such, it became the closest docks to the City of London and was designed and built by the engineer Thomas Telford and architect Philip Hardwick.
The whole area takes it name from a 12th century hospital and also a church which stood on the site and St Katharine is first recorded as being used to describe this particular docklands area during the Elizabethan period. By the 19th century when plans were afoot to build St Katharine Docks, the area was a slum. However, this was not going to inhibit the creation of a much needed resource and 1,250 houses were torn down and their inhabitants turfed out without compensation. Completion of the dock was remarkably quick. The author and London historian George Walter Thornbury noted in his book 'Old and New London: a Narrative of its History, its People and its Places' (first published in 1872) that it was "a Herculean bit of work, performed with a speed and a vigour unusual even to English enterprise".
This small but perfectly formed dock proved to be a great success. The vast warehouses which had been deliberately built right up against the water so that goods could be hauled straight from the boats and thus avoiding the attentions of thieves, took in cargoes such as sugar, rum, tea, wool, spices, perfumes, ivory, marble wine and brandy from all over the world. It is said that during the Victorian period you could expect to see the place crawling with turtles, as turtle soup was at this time, a bit of a delicacy.
As ships evolved from sails to steam, the docks struggled to cope with the larger vessels and larger cargoes. The fact that there was a lack of railway access and bomb devastation during the Blitz all conspired against this once busy docklands area and it limped on until closing for good in 1969.
Today, St Katharine Docks is still under the watchful eye of Tower Bridge, and retains many of its original features and warehouses, but has been turned in to a playground for those who have yachts. It is surrounded by a host of chain restaurants and often during the week is festooned with pop up food stalls serving lunches to those who work in the vicinity. Never-the-less, it's a lovely area to have a wander and on a pleasant day, you can pretend you're on the French Riviera, if you so wish.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.