On wanting to visit the parts of London that Time Out and Spoonfed don’t care about, I decided to make a voyage to the hitherto unexplored district of Wapping. The former maritime community has recently been transformed by the East London Line. The billion pound train line has carved open the capital’s rust belt and provided London with its first community tube service. By grafting through the industrial scars of the east, the fresh orange line is largely free of tourists as Hank and Wilma are highly unlikely to be dining in Shadwell on vacation.
The East London’s line extension northwards towards Highbury and Islington has led to a rush of culture trails and alternative pub crawls along its tracks. With visitors now able to celebrate the rusting underbelly of the capital, the forgotten holes of Wapping and Shadwell are becoming worthy of further exploration. The housing market along the East London Line has soared since its completion last year and as HSBC threatens to abandon the UK for tax breaks abroad. The banker sponsored affluence of Wapping becomes immediately apparent on arrival.
Best known for hosting the unelected court of James and Rebekah, the Docklands community is also resting place for the financial services industry. Wapping’s streets appear to have been scrubbed clean with a gigantic toothbrush as BMW’s and Mercedes ripple over the cobbles of the past. As the wealthy symbols of city boy lifestyles flaunt their tyres along the new streets of commerce, reminders of Wapping’s docking past hang from the walls of converted warehouses.
There is however a residential emptiness to Wapping and the sound of cranes, barges and tugs have long since been transferred to India. The Victorian facade of warehouse conversions provide a crisp melancholy flavour and nostalgia is readily available on tap inside the Prospect of Whitby. Dating back to 1520, the rickety old inn sits on the banks of the River Thames and overlooks the financial crisis on a daily basis.
Regrettably even one of the oldest of pubs in England still thinks it is appropriate to serve Stella in the 21st century and those wanting a more cerebral experience may like to stumble across the Wapping Project instead. Deeply enigmatic from the outset, the cultural centre of Wapping’s renaissance is very poorly signposted and built in traditional red brick; the post-modern restaurant could easily be mistaken for a poor house in Manchester.
The former Hydraulic Power Station is one of the strangest restaurants in London with its austere green interior and avant-garde exhibitions. Fittingly the next installation is devoted to iconic Japanese designer Yohji Yamamto and involves an oversized silk wedding dress in the Boiler House. The Yohji Making Waves exhibition will only be fully visible from a small wooden boat, and future visitors will be rowed to the centre by a boatman every 15 minutes.
Unsurprisingly the Wapping Project doesn’t serve pie and mash to their arty visitors and prefers to indulge in a spot of braised osso burro, saffron risotto, kale and gremolota on a Saturday afternoon. And while their city boy neighbours continue to buy up properties along the water, further inland towards Shadwell there is a depressingly familiar story of urban deprivation. Raw, uncompromising and a throwback to the 1970s, the inner city suburb is best known as the birthplace of Bob Crow.
As the source of muscular trade unionism in the 21st century, Shadwell provides a stark contrast to the gentrified Wapping only five minutes away. With its ceremonial symbols of a maritime past no one in the area has ever known, there is a disconnection that not even a billion pound tube line can hope to make equal. Meanwhile the cultural pursuits and middle-class drinking games will only continue as millions of passengers set on board a cinematic journey inside London’s industrial past.
East London Line photo used with kind permission by Chris Hill-Scott