East India Dock Basin, London City Island, and Trinity Buoy Wharf.
For those literary types, who are hoping that this about Virginia Woolf, please forgive me because it is not. I thought that her 1927 novel's title would make a great heading for this essay, which is, in case you are becoming worried about its relevance, about a lighthouse - the only such structure on the River Thames. First, let me set the scene!
The River Lea is a tributary of the River Thames. Rising in the Chiltern Hills northwest of London, it winds its way southeast into Hertfordshire, and then southwards through east London. It joins the Thames in Poplar. At the point where the Lea enters the Thames, stands the only lighthouse on the River Thames. Erected in 1864-66, it stands in an area known as ‘Trinity Buoy Wharf’.
The River Lea makes two sharp turns just before it joins the Thames. Here, the Lea is called ‘Bow Creek’. Each of the curves flow around finger-like peninsulas of land, each of them almost an island. It is the last of these two peninsulas, which is the subject of this essay.
The reason I visited this area was to visit Trinity Buoy Wharf. Following instructions on the Wharf’s website, I disembarked from a DLR train at Canning Town Station, and headed for the new, bright red pedestrian footbridge that crosses Bow Creek onto a part of the peninsula that is being re-developed to become London City Island – a mini-Manhattan that will eventually consist of high-rise apartment blocks. Currently, it is a gigantic building site around which Bow Creek flows silently. When it is completed, I fear that like so many of the riverside estates east of Tower Bridge it will become yet another sterile dormitory area that only comes to life when its residents scurry to and from their jobs in the City.
The tide was out. The sun was low in the sky, highlighting the folds in the mudflats.
I was curious to know what existed before the developers of London City Island moved on to this peninsula almost completely surrounded by Bow Creek. An essay in The Survey of London (Vols. 43 & 44, published by London County Council in 1994) provides a good detailed history, which I will attempt to summarise.
The peninsula was one of the least accessible parts of Poplar by road. With the construction of the East India Dock Basin in 1803-6 at the base of the peninsula, it became even more isolated. At the end of the 18th century the peninsula consisted of two freehold estates: Orchard House and Good Luck Hope. The former, nearer the Thames, included what was to become Trinity Buoy Wharf; the latter to its north is where London City Island is being put up.
The former Good Luck Hope estate is that part of the peninsula onto which I stepped after crossing the slender new red footbridge. Its name goes back to at least the 14th century, when it was called ‘Godelockehope’ or ‘Godluckhope’. This ancient name persists in the existence of Hope Street that runs through what will be the new London City Island. At its southern end, Hope Street becomes Orchard Place, a street whose name recalls the Orchard House estate. In the 15th century, the land on the Hope was used for farming and fishery. By 1804, after a few changes of ownership, the Hope had been acquired by the East India merchant Sir Robert Wigram (1744-1830). He was a shipbuilder, businessman, and a Member of Parliament (for a few years). Later at the beginning of the 19th century, Wigram bought several pieces of the neighbouring Orchard House Estate. Until the 19th century, the Hope remained largely undeveloped. Thereafter, various industrial buildings were erected on it.
An Ordnance Survey map dated 1867-9, reproduced in the Survey and is also accessible on the Internet (http://maps.nls.uk), shows that these included a plate glass factory, an iron foundry, and an oil mill. All of this has disappeared, and is now being replaced by the new housing estate.
The Orchard House Estate, whose southern limit was the bank of the Thames, was located to the south of the Hope. This plot of land was also known as ‘Leamouth’. During the 16th century, this plot of land contained a moated property on which Orchard House and its orchard stood. Orchard House is believed to have been a public house (a ‘pub’) between the 18th century and the 1860s. The moat survived until the early 19th century. The name of the house that it surrounded has survived the destruction of the building (in the 1870s) and the passing of time. The street names Orchard Place and Street attest this.
During the 19th century, the Orchard House Estate, like the Hope to its north, became used for industrial purposes including coopering. To its west, stands the former East India Dock Basin (see later). The eastern most part of the former Orchard House Estate is now the Trinity Buoy Wharf area. A lighthouse was built there first in 1852, and then demolished in the late 1920s. The surviving lighthouse was built between 1862 and 1864 for Trinity House (a corporation chartered by the Crown), which maintains all of Britain’s lighthouses. This one was used mainly to test developments in lighthouse technology. The two lighthouses were also used to train lighthouse personnel. Trinity House continued using the existing lighthouse for training purposes until 1988, when it shifted its operations to Harwich.
The scientist Michael Faraday (1791-1867) conducted experiments at Trinity Buoy Wharf. He had a great interest in the construction and operation of lighthouses, and conducted experiments at Trinity Buoy Wharf. His workshop, where he did experiments to develop electric lighting for lighthouse, was above the Cable and Buoy Store and still still exists. Faraday was appointed as Scientific Advisor to Trinity House in 1836, a position that he held for 30 years. According to an article (http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/london/hi/people_and_places/history/newsid_8516000/8516036.stm) on the internet, Faraday:
“… worked on the optical adjustments of lighthouse lenses, ventilation and improvements. He invented a new form of chimney for lighthouses which would prevent the products of combustion settling on the glass of the lantern. The result proved so successful that it was installed in all lighthouses run by Trinity House. This was the only invention of Faraday's ever to be patented.”
The reason for the wharf’s name is that in 1803 Trinity House set up a workshop for making and repairing wooden buoys. Later, iron buoys were both developed and repaired here. By 1910, the workshop employed 150 workers. Today, in 2017, many of the original buildings remain at Trinity Buoy Wharf, but alongside some exciting new additions, which I will describe later. No longer is this place a centre for maritime safety. Now it has been given a new lease of life. It has become an active creative arts zone.
I crossed Bow Creek by means of the new red bridge. Then, I walked along a path that threaded its way between the building construction sites on what was once Good Luck Hope. I was reminded of my only visit to New York’s Roosevelt Island, a strip of land parallel to Manhattan but quite peaceful in comparison to it because it consisted mainly of residential high rise buildings by the water’s edge and it was devoid of crowds. At the southern end of the future London City Island development, where Hope Street changes direction and becomes Orchard Place, I noticed two things of interest. One of them is an entrance to what remains of the East India Dock Basin, which I will describe later. The other is a curious sculpture.
This consists of a traditional London taxi (‘Black Cab’) which appears to have a tree growing up through its roof. The tree is an artificial sculptural construction made of metal. It was made by the artist Andrew Baldwin, who spent many years training as a master blacksmith and welder. The taxi/tree sculpture is a good example of Baldwin’s witty approach to artworks. There are some more of his unusual and original metal sculptures to be seen in the Trinity Buoy Wharf.
Beyond the sculpture, Orchard Place heads towards the wharf area, passing between industrial buildings some of which are still in use. Baldwin’s taxi piece is the first of many artistic visual delights lining the rest of Orchard Place.
One of the first is a giant metal buoy painted with the words ‘Trinty Buoy Wharf’. Behind it there is a large mural showing a woman’s face. On the same side of the road, there is a large mural depicting maritime creatures on a blue background.
This was painted by the artist Bruce Mahalski. A tree was growing through part of it. Further along the road, there are more entertaining art works to be seen. These include a huge model of a white fish suspended between two neighbouring buildings.
High above the road, a pair of shoes was suspended from a wire that crossed from one side of the road to another. I am not sure whether that was an artwork or someone’s idea of a joke.
Further along from this, I spotted a large, battered, spherical metal buoy that was suspended next to a wooden door, decoratively painted.
Finally, I reached the entrance to Trinity Buoy Wharf. To one side of it, there is another large buoy like that next to the wall painting of the woman’s face at the far end of Orchard Place. There is so much to see in Trinity Buoy Wharf that at least several visits are needed to do it justice. But, let me tell you my first impressions of the place having spent almost two hours there.
The whole place is dominated by the brick-built lighthouse that is attached to a warehouse like brick building. It is right next to an American-style metal and glass ‘diner’ called ‘Fatboy’s Diner’. Maybe, ‘Fat Buoy’s Diner’ would have been a more appropriate name!
Moored in Bow Creek opposite the diner and lighthouse, there is a red painted lightship, which is now the home of a recording studio.
The lighthouse overlooks an open space containing a car park and an artwork that emits sounds according to the state of the tide.
Parallel to the lightship but on terra firma, there is a café, the ‘Bow Creek Café’, which faces the diner across the open space. A modern building housing the Royal School of Drawing also fronts the open space. Behind it, stands the Faraday School, a small independent primary school (for children aged 4 to 11 years) that was founded in 2009.
Trinity Buoy Wharf, a square-ish plot of land, is surrounded on three sides by water: to the north and east by Bow Creek, and to the south by the Thames. The views across the Thames are spectacular. The Millennium Dome can be seen in all its splendour. Beyond it, the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf rise from the horizon. In another direction, downstream, the cabins of the Emirate Airlines cable-car drift past from north to south and vice-versa.
Close to the warehouse, to which the lighthouse is attached, there is what looks like a garden shed. There is a sign above its door that reads ‘The Faraday Effect’. This has little to do with the scientific phenomenon that bears this name, but rather more with what Faraday did to enlarge scientific knowledge. The inside of the shed is furnished with various objects and papers that are supposed to document the life and times of the great scientist who worked a few feet from this shed. I did not spend enough time in it to gain any insight into what Faraday contributed to the world.
The shed is next to a large warehouse, in which several artists (sculptors, I think) were working and chatting. This building used to be the Chain Store. It is attached to another building that contains spaces for performance art and training. These buildings characterise the present purpose of Trinity Buoy Wharf: an area dedicated to artistic pursuits.
Amongst the amazing things to be seen at the Wharf is what is known as ‘container city’. Enormous shipping containers have been put together and piled on top of one another to create buildings. Windows and doors have been cut into the containers to create offices and workshops. There are at least three of these container constructions. Many of the ends of the containers have been modified to create balconies.
Trinity Buoy Wharf is well supplied with sculptures. Many of these are by Andrew Baldwin.
A couple of lifelike human figure sculptures made in metal are suspended from the walls of a building, Trinity Art Studios, that faces the Bow Creek Café.
These figures, a woman and a man, appear to be holding up an outdoors staircase with their outstretched arms. I am not sure whether these figures are permanent or on temporary display, but they looked most impressive.
Of the two refreshment places in the wharf area, I chose to try the Bow Creek Café. I will save Fatboys Diner for a future visit. Bow Creek is housed in a shoe-box shaped building of contemporary design with huge plate glass windows looking out across the parking area. The café sits on the bank of the River Lea a few feet from where it merges with the River Thames.
Quirkily decorated inside, there are tables with chairs and a few really comfortable armchairs. A wide range of savoury snacks is available as well as hot and cold beverages. If you fancy something more substantial than a snack, then heartier dishes are on the menu. It is a lovely place to ‘chill out’.
My first visit to Trinity Buoy Wharf was made on a weekday. A security man at the gatehouse told me that the best time to visit is in the weekends, when the place really lives up, and also it is possible to climb up the staircase in the lighthouse. Well, my first visit to the wharf, albeit on a quiet weekday, has whet my appetite for many more visits.
I retraced my steps along Orchard Place until I reached the entrance to the East India Dock Basin. This entrance has curious looking gates, which I photographed. They are called the ‘Salome Gates’. It was only much later that I realised how special these gates are, and that I have a very vague connection with the artist, who made them.
My late mother was a sculptor. For a while, she worked at the Saint Martin School of Art in its sculpture department. While she was there, she worked alongside the late Sir Anthony Caro (1924-2013). I believe that Caro was one of the people who taught my mother how to weld metal. It was Caro, who created the ‘Salome Gates’, and when you look at them, it is easy to see that they are typical of his sculptural woks, most of which I admire.
The East India Docks were built between 1803 and 1806 to allow docking of the large East Indiamen vessels, the largest ships in Britain’s merchant navy at the end of the 18th century.
The East India Dock Basin was connected to the River Thames by a series of lock gates, which have recently been carefully restored. Separate short canals connected the Basin to each of two docks: The Export Dock and the larger Import Dock.
During WW2, the Import Dock was drained for the construction of Mulberry floating harbours (used to disembark men and materials during the invasion of Normandy in 1944). It was never re-used as a dock. During that war, the Export Dock was badly damaged by bombs. Despite the damage inflicted by bombing, the East India Docks (Basin and Export Dock) continued to be used until the late 1960s.
Now, all that remains is the Basin and a short stretch of the wall of an original building on the west side of the basin. This may be closely approached by walking along Newport Avenue in the housing estate west of the Basin. Today, the Basin, which has been tidied up with footpaths and lawns, has become a wildlife sanctuary. When I visited it, I saw some waterfowl, but, apparently, there is a great range of flora and fauna that can be observed by someone who knows what they are looking at!
By the time that I had looked at the Basin, I was becoming weary, but was a long way from any public transport. I could have retraced my steps to Canning Town, but instead I walked a short way upstream along the Thames Path until I reached what little remains, a mere memory, of Virginia Quay. It was from near here in December the year 1606 that 105 intrepid settlers set sail for Virginia in what is now the USA. They departed in two ships, ‘The Susan Constant’ and the ‘Godspeed’, to start new lives, and to make their fortunes, in Virginia. They arrived in America in April and May 1607.
There is an attractive monument, made of granite and metal, to commemorate these enterprising souls. Sadly, it stands against a background of soulless, drab new residential dwellings. The view from the monument across the Thames to the Millennium Dome compensates for the dreary backdrop. Virginia Wharf is a short walk from East India DLR station, from where I returned to central London.
Although my essay has had nothing to do with Virginia Woolf and her lighthouse, it is about a lighthouse and Virginia, but not Woolf.
I am indebted to my friend Sue Dossa, who recommended that I took a look at Trinity Buoy Wharf. I hope that many others will want to follow her advice, having now read my article!