FENCHURCH STREET to WEST HAM 3 hours
The train line is a combination of several old bits and pieces, so that its history turns quite complicated. The very oldest line was called the London & Blackwall railway and ran from a terminal at Minories (now Tower Gateway station) to Stepney (now Limehouse station) and beyond towards the Docklands. The Fenchurch Street terminal was opened in 1841.
This connection has disappeared since and some of the tracks were converted into the Docklands Light Railway. You can see the train tracks and the new DLR tracks side by side very nicely on the same old viaduct in places like Shadwell station.
In 1849, a branch was built from Stepney (now Limehouse) to Bow and Stratford and the current train line still uses a section of this branch until a junction near Bow.
Finally, in 1858, a train line was opened between the junction near Bow and Barking via West Ham. It runs parallel to London Underground District Line.
Between Fenchurch Street and West Ham, trains called at up to six stations of which one remains.
The first one was Leman Street station, opened in 1877, closed in 1916, re-opened in 1919 and finally closed in 1941. It was actually very close to the Fenchurch Street terminal if you look at a map.
The second one was Cannon Street Road station (a very weird name but this “street road” does exist). It opened in 1842 but was a short-lived experiment and closed as soon as 1848.
The third one was Shadwell & St George’s East station. The original station name was plain “Shadwell” from 1840 until 1900, but this was confusing due to a nearby Shadwell station on the then-East London Line (now London Overground) and the name was changed to the cumbersome “Shadwell & St. George’s East”. Like Leman Street station, it closed from 1916 until 1919 and was finally closed in 1941.
The fourth station was Stepney, later Stepney East and nowadays Limehouse, where trains still call.
The fifth station was on the branch built in 1849 and was called Burdett Road; it opened in 1871 and closed in 1941 due to competition from the nearby London Underground station at Mile End.
Finally, the sixth station was on the line opened in 1858 and was called Bromley. It is now used by the Underground District Line (under the name Bromley-by-Bow) and trains stopped calling there in 1962.
Routing note: The area around Fenchurch Street station is very interesting, but I have only written comments on buildings directly on my route. Many other buildings will be mentioned on additional routes (London Underground, Docklands Light Railway) that I will post at a later point in time.
This route connects in West Ham with route 2. It will also connect there with District Line walk 13, with Jubilee line walk 10 and with DLR walk 7. It will connect in Limehouse with DLR walks 1 and 2.
Fenchurch Street terminal is the oldest terminal built within the City of London and I think it is also the oldest London terminal still standing in its original form. Euston and London Bridge are older but were rebuilt. The present station building dates apparently back to 1854, with the unusual awning being added in the 1870s.
The building is weird in many respects. Like at Blackfriars, the platforms are on a viaduct above street level so that there is hardly any concourse and also no room for a grand arrival hall. It has only four platforms, which makes it the smallest terminal. Office towers were built above the station so that only small sections of the platforms still get outside light. And it has two main exits, one at each end of the platforms.
The terminal is also very unusual in having no major road passing in front of it – apart from taxis, the forecourt is akin to a pedestrianised area in the middle of boring glass-and-concrete office buildings with the ubiquitous sandwich shops. No bus calls directly at the station. Finally, the terminal is the only one in London with no direct access to London Underground. There is a station nearby (Tower Hill), but you cannot avoid getting wet if it is raining.
Exit station on the main forecourt
L down a few steps into
New London Street
On reaching Hart Street, you pass St Olave church, named after the canonised king of Norway who is said to have fought nearby against the Danes in the battle of London Bridge in 1014. The church is normally open during business hours and is well worth a look. It was built around 1450 and escaped the Great Fire of 1666; unfortunately, it was damaged by German bombs in 1941.
There are several nice monuments in the church; I particularly noticed one where you can see a gentleman and his wife praying in the middle arch of the monument. In the right arch, an additional woman kneels facing the altar, which is normal procedure. But in the left arch, a third woman kneels with her back to the altar. This certainly has an important symbolic reason, but I have no clue as it is very unusual to see monuments with women on the left side (the male side).
An other interesting monument wraps itself around a pillar, a highly unusual idea as it implies that the two brothers face different directions. The church features in literary connections: Charles Dickens commented on the skulls decorating the entrance to the churchyard and Samuel Pepys was buried in the nave.
L Hart Street
(Ahead) Crutched Friars passing underneath the train line
The “crutched friars” were monks wearing cloth marked with a cross; the order was recognised officially in 1169 and suppressed by the Pope in 1656.
(Ahead) Portsoken Street
You pass an interesting commercial building on the left (North side) which is one the most elegant examples of Bauhaus-inspired construction in London. Vertical and horizontal lines interplay with German severity while black window settings contrast very effectively with orange brick walls. The central staircase is formed in a half-round reminiscent of the prow of a ship, a telltale design for this period. Such a building would befit a major corporation, but I found no signs on the building.
On the right (South) side of the street, you pass a small garden called Portsoken Street Gardens. It was originally a children’s playground built in the 1930s when the City decided to commemorate the deceased king George V by creating a number of sports grounds called King George’s Fields. There are not many children living in the area nowadays. The garden was being renovated when I passed the area so that I cannot tell whether there are flower beds of just the fountain.
L Mansell Street
R Tenter Passage
(Ahead) North Tenter Street
L St. Mark Street
R Alie Street
There is an interesting church in this street marked by the German inscription “Deutsche Lutherische St Georgs Kirche”. This is a distinguished building built in 1762 for German immigrants who worked in bakeries and sugar refineries in the area for nearly two centuries before they were expelled in 1915. It is still a church but is not used for regular worship since 1996 and is only open for special events. Anyway, Lutheran churches are not normally open outside of services. The exterior architecture is a fine example of Georgian neo-classicism on a human scale (the church tower is missing).
(Ahead) Goodman’s Stile
R Commercial Road (for about 1.5 mile)
This road was built by the East India Company in 1802 to give better access to the Docklands. I would normally avoid such main roads on my walks, but I used up many other roads in the area for other train and underground lines and I was actually quite interested in what I saw on the road.
It is a core area of the South Asian trade in garments and you will pass a large number of wholesalers whose shopwindows will give you a good idea of how high street fashion will look like six months later in provincial towns in the Midlands. There are also several reputable South Asian restaurants. I have particularly fond memories of the deliciously spicy cooking at Lahore (218 Commercial Road), although it is indeed noisy, crowded and a bit daunting if you are not familiar with the Pakistani names of dishes.
There are a few architectural details of interest here and there along the street. At number 48, a modest and elegant neo-classical building houses the Proof House of the Worshipful Company of Gunmakers, an important institution in charge with checking that firearms sold in the UK are safe to handle. No one tests them personally nowadays, they are fired remotely in a safe chamber. The proof house also checks that firearms disabled by collectors indeed cannot be converted back to working order.
At 352 Commercial Road, you reach the imposing new building called “the learning village”. It houses Bishop Challoner Catholic Collegiate School, cost 47 million £ to build and was opened in 2010. The lady who manages the school received the grand title of a Dame of the Pontifical Order of Saint Gregory the Great, showing how important this project was. It was the first ever federated school in Britain, whereby a girls school and a boys school are separate but under a common management. I expected attendance was for a sizeable fee but the vice-principal contacted me to point out that they do not charge students. As you would imagine, practising Catholics have priority in case the school is oversubscribed.
At about 450 Commercial Road, you pass a lovely square called Albert Gardens. This is a conservation area with neat brick houses all around a green space. The houses were build around 1840; at the end of the 19th century, speculators tried to build over the central square as well but the ground was purchased by the London City Council in 1906 to keep it as a green space. A statue was set up in 1903; I was surprised to read that it is supposed to show a shepherd boy as he looks rather effeminate. As you can see on the picture, there is a pretty flower bed around the statue in spring.
Opposite Albert Square, the large school building is a typically imposing Edwardian construction from 1913. More interesting is 490 Commercial Road, a stunning and listed building that obviously was a film theatre at the beginning. It was opened in 1933 and could entertain an astonishing 3,250 people. It was the height of luxury with pleasant smells being sprayed during the showings. The building was used for opera rehearsals in the 1960s, declined to the usual bingo hall in the 1990s but has been refurbished as a conference and event venue. It is closed for visitors but the façade is still duly impressive with typical sunray decoration in gold and white.
At 583 Commercial Road, there is a large office building with an imposing entrance. In the glass roundel above the door, it says that it actually is Stepney Methodist Church but I have doubts that it is still used as such.
The present Limehouse station was originally called Stepney as there was an other station called Limehouse (located near the present DLR station at Westferry). It opened in 1840 for trains to Blackwall that ran on the viaduct now used by the DLR. It was then extended in 1850 when a second viaduct became necessary to carry the new rail branch towards Bow. In 1923, the station became “Stepney East”; the Blackwall train service closed in 1926 but trains to Barking continued to call. When the DLR was opened using the old Blackwall viaduct in 1987, the station name was changed to Limehouse.
There is no station building to speak of, just the stairwell giving access to the platforms and a small, dark concourse. The original station building was demolished in 1936.
L along the train viaduct Yorkshire Road
R Salmon Lane
At the corner of Salmon Lane with Carr Street, you get a glimpse of Regent’s Canal. You will walk along the canal for a little while later on, but it is worth noting the elegant aluminium bridge crossing the canal above the lock.
L Carr Street
The street passes a roundabout in the middle of a recently developped area. I was unable to find detailed information about the previous occupancy of the location and I suppose it was industrial. The area was known in older times as Ratcliff (because of a small reddish cliff, not because of rats). The roundabout has been turned into a rather nice neighbourhood meeting place with benches, scrubs, steel gates with an interesting design and a construction above the gates possibly meant as a future pergola.
Because it was so clean and empty when I visited in March 2010, I suppose the development may have been just finished around that time. I am not confident about the quality of the construction in modern British developments, but I can commend the architect for his excellent sense of proportions. The buildings are just the right size to be dignified and there is the right amount of ornamentation and curving lines.
R Ben Jonson Road
If you can save the time, turn L just after the bridge over the canal into the side street in order to visit Ragged School Museum. You will need about an hour; as the museum has very restricted opening times for the general public, please check beforehand on http://www.raggedschoolmuseum.org.uk. The museum is interesting under three viewpoints.
– It is in an old Victorian warehouse, one of the few that can be accessed in London
– A large part is devoted to “ragged schools”, a major philantropist movement from the 1840s onwards launched to cater for poor children. One core concern was to teach them christian beliefs, but they were also taught to read. Dr Barnardo opened a ragged school in this building in 1877 catering for 400 children. The school fed them lunch and occasionally gave them clothes, an extremely motivating gesture in the East London slums. 1000 children attended Sunday school and 300 girls were taught household skills, their only chance to escape utter poverty in later life being to find a job as a servant or maid.
Ragged schools did not disappear before 1908, when the Government finally had opened enough free schools to cater for most children. Dr Barnardo went on to launch his next charity project, the huge organisation for orphans he is actually better known for.
It is quite amusing and a bit frightening to watch a museum guide teach in Victorian style – modern schools must love this as there are about 60 classes visiting every day !
– The third section in the museum gives a bit on information on the history of Tower Hamlets. It is mostly based on information panels and is a bit dry, but it does make one aware that the area was a hotbed of reformist agitation against inequalities. This includes suffragettes, poll tax protests, antifascist riots, socialist politicians etc.
R at the bridge over Regent’s Canal on the towpath (southbound)
Regent’s Canal was built in 1820 and was one of the most successful infrastructure projects ever launched in England as it bypassed the congested inner pool of London harbour. Even after railways multiplied, it remained very busy because it carried coal more efficiently than trains as it did not have to wait at sidings for passenger trains to pass. It only declined after Second World War because of competition of lorries and closure of many industrial premises in Central London. Most of the numerous industrial premises along the canal have been converted in more or less luxurious developments.
You are not walking the greenest or most exciting section of the canal, but it is a nice change from street walking. If you happen to visit in April, you will enjoy a rather nice display of daffodils between Ragged School Museum and the railway viaduct.
Pass underneath the train viaduct and you will soon reach steps leading to the green courtyard and playground of a small estate. Leave the towpath here L for
(Ahead) Salmon Lane
L Commercial Road
You are here at the heart of the former borough of Limehouse with several imposing buildings. The one you first pass overlooking the roundabout with an anchor has a big sign saying “The Mission”. It was originally built in 1923 to house passing merchant seafarers by a church charity, the Sailors’ Society, and is a very imposing Art Déco structure that does remind you of the Lutheran psalm “Ein fester Burg is unser Gott”. When the London Docks were transferred downstream, the building housed homeless people for a while and was then developed into luxury flats for Canary Wharf bankers.
On the opposite side of Commercial Road, the official rectangular building is the former Limehouse town hall, originally the Limehouse District vestry hall as Limehouse only became a town when it merged with Stepney in 1900. The building remained unused since 1965 but a grant was extended in 2006 and it is now used for artistic and cultural activities by local societies.
The now quite obscure media turn of phrase “to limehouse”, meaning to make an incendiary speech, dates back to a speech held here in 1909.
The third important building near the crossroads is St Anne’s church, one of the so-called Queen Anne churches built according to a 1711 Act of Parliament to cater for expanding population in the London suburbs. Like most Queen Anne churches, it was built on plans by Nicholas Hawkmoor, who had been Christopher Wren’s assistant. It had to be rebuilt in 1851 after a fire.
As usual for this period, what is called British Baroque actually is rather heavy-handed neo-classicism with many reminders of Italian Renaissance architecture and plain openings in Roman style. The reason for the very big clock faces high op the tower is that they were used by ships to set their clocks (exact time being a prerequisite for calculating correct ship position when at sea). This was normally done using the Greenwich time indication, but St Anne’s had a direct line of sight with Greenwich and ships could therefore rely on its clocks instead.
The church is usually closed, which is unfortunate as pictures on Internet look quite imposing. You can instead walk around the large churchyard with some nice tombs. The rather unusual one in form of a pyramid is even listed.
If you look around closely enough, you will also notice a monument that has been set upside down, probably after falling over. A rather unusual sight.
L Burdett Road, passing several imposing Edwardian office buildings
R Dod Street
L Stansby Road
L on path to the canal (this is Limehouse Cut)
Limehouse Cut was authorised by an Act of Parliament as early as 1766 and is therefore the oldest canal in London. It was built in order to link London docks with the Lea River without the long detour through tidal Bow Creek, past Greenwich and around the Isle of Dogs. In order to maximise access, the canal was protected from tidal effects by locks at both ends until 1968.
Honestly, the canal is not the nicest in London: it runs straight as an arrow and still passes a good number of scrap factories and similar industrial amenities. Any factory that closes though is soon replaced by a more or less elegant housing development because it is so close to Canary Wharf, the area still having a more working-class character than developments directly along the Thames.
At one point, the towpath passes a colourful mural that you can use as a map of the area. You cross DLR tracks shortly afterwards when you pass underneath a noisy bridge in blue steel. At the end of the canal, you can enjoy a pleasantly floating aluminium pathway built underneath the large bridge for a dual carriageway. Turn sharp R at the end of the floating path in order to cross the canal on the highway bridge.
R along the canal towpath until the large bridge underneath a major highway
Cross underneath the highway, then R before the locks up to the dual carriageway
R along the dual carriageway crossing the canal – you can walk on the side road of the main highway, called Gillender Street
R Twelvetrees Crescent
The road crosses the Bow River, giving you an interesting view of Canary Wharf. The locks just below the bridge are quite pleasant to look at, particularly the elegantly curving line of the footbridge.
Twelvetrees Crescent turns right and ahead on nearing gas reservoirs. It passes here a small green space that looks surprising in the middle of a light industrial estate. In this green space, you will find a statue of Sir Corbet Woodhall, governor of the Gas, Light and Coke Company, the ancestor of British Gas. The company was headquartered in Westminster, but must have had activities in Bow as there was a London Gas Museum nearby. Near the statue, there is a rather nice memorial built by the same company. Twisted columns with corinthian heads carry a wrought-iron cupola with a sculpted frieze – not exactly the simplest design, but pretty. And there is of course a large gas light nearby.
Continue along Twelvetrees Crescent past the roundabout and the security checkpoint controlling lorry access to the industrial premises.
(Ahead) Cody Road
L Stephenson Street in order to cross the rail tracks
From the top of the bridge, you can see away to the left West Ham Bus Depot. Obviously, you can’t visit; it was built on plans by renowned architects Pringle-Richards-Sharratt and is supposedly the largest bus garage in Europe. It is also supposed to have 50% “green” roofs, but I don’t know what this is supposed to mean as you don’t see much greenery on those roofs.
L along the tracks on Manor Road
The station was opened in 1901 by the railway company on a line that already existed since 1858 because it was necessary to provide access to a new football stadium nearby. When the London Underground District Line opened in 1902, the station became an interchange, but trains stopped calling here from 1908 onwards (with a few exceptions). Trains call again since 1999.
In 1979, platforms were built on an other train line that ran through West Ham on its way between Stratford and Canning Town. This interchange was available until 2006; the train line was replaced by a DLR line on the same route that opened in 2011.
In addition, West Ham is served by London Underground: District Line since 1902 on tracks parallel to the Fenchurch Street train line, Jubilee Line since 1999 on tracks parallel to the Stratford-Canning Town DLR line.
The station building is a rather impressive construction from 1999 with the walkway between the two London Underground lines set on spidery brick pillars. There is a very tall and wide concourse serving both the train station and the Underground lines. It has no decoration to speak of and this gives it a rather imposing appearance reminding a little of Art Déco. Unfortunately, I could not take pictures inside for obvious security reasons.