Walk 2: Limehouse walk to Island Gardens

Walk 2


2 hours

The Docklands Light Railway (DLR) opened in 1987 in order to connect the office and housing developments in the reconverted Docklands with the City. The docks were served originally by a railway running between terminals at Minories and North Greenwich on a viaduct. Passenger services on this railway stopped in 1926 but the DLR uses the 1840 viaduct between Limehouse and Westferry.

There had been plans to build a London Underground extension instead of the DLR, but the government was short of funds in the 1980s and preferred a cheaper solution. Because the old train line ran on a re-usable viaduct, a tram concept (the solution used in Croydon) was considered inappropriate. The original line was a very cheap system: standardised, short platforms, automatic driving with just a service agent to control door closure. The system was operated by a private company for 25 years and is now operated by a 70% subsidiary of the French government-owned railway SNCF.

You need to be aware that Oyster pay-as-you-go cards are accepted as if you were on a bus but that they malfunction frequently depending on where you change to the DLR. You might be charged unexpected amounts.

Routing note:

This route connects in Limehouse with DLR walk 1 and with Fenchurch Street network walk 1. It connects in Westferry with DLR walk 5, in West India Quay with DLR walk 4 and in Island Gardens with DLR walk 3. It will also connect in Canary Wharf with Underground Jubilee line walks 7 and 8.

This route does not visit all of Canary Wharf because I decided to do part of this on the Jubilee line walks.



Limehouse DLR station


The old train station opened in 1840 under the name Stepney and was renamed Stepney East in 1923. It was then replaced by the neighbouring train station located on the Fenchurch Street line in 1926. When the DLR opened in 1987, both the suburban train station and the new DLR stop were renamed Limehouse.

The picture shows the DLR part of the complex with the two lift shafts and the access staircases in drab grey. There is no DLR building or ticket office. There is a station for the suburban trains but it is integrated in the viaduct arch and of no architectural interest.

Exit the station and walk East along the DLR viaduct towards the Basin


DLR viaduct over Regent’s Canal


The viaduct is a particularly old railway viaduct as it was completed in 1840 for the new dock railway to North Greenwich. You can see that railways were still a technological novelty because Parliament chose a specific width for the rails that was not used anywhere else in Britain. The importance of a standard gauge was only understood about 30 years later when competing companies realised that it made sense to offer services combining two networks. An other exotic peculiarity of the dock railway is that it was hauled by a rope, considered as efficient at the time as coupling carriages to a steam engine.


Limehouse Basin


The viaduct arches have a very long radius, but this was not difficult to build as long as you did not need to carry very heavy loads. The arches are lined for safety reasons by iron fencing and this was interestingly an important selling proposition because it made the train ride more confortable than brick wall fencing as it was less prone to causing wind funnelling and reverberating noise.

Walk around Limehouse Basin crossing two canals


Footbridge over Regent’s Canal


Limehouse Basin was a dock used primarily to transfer goods from seagoing vessels to canal barges. One of the canals was Regent’s Canal, opened in 1810 in order to bypass the river Thames and the congested inner London harbour for goods carried from the Midlands to the export docks. The canal is bridged for pedestrians and cyclists by an interesting suspension bridge, one of several in the area. You will note that the shape is not a straight line, possibly for fun and aesthetics, possibly in order to avoid resonance effects.


Limehouse Basin developments


The walkway then passes at the foot of a large development from 2003. This was one of the first luxury flat developments to opt for a shape reminiscent of ships’s prows. This proved to sell well due to the spacious balconies and inspired a series of later developments, for example in Wandsworth. With seven levels, the buildings are a little lower than those built later on in the Canary Wharf area.


Footbridge over Limehouse Cut


The second canal is the Limehouse Cut, first opened in 1770. It was a very useful shortcut for canal barges bringing cargo from East Anglia into London as it made it possible to avoid the winding, tidal lower Lea river and the long detour past Greenwich. The canal carried primarily grain from Essex and Suffolk. Like most infrastructure in the 18th and 19th century, it was a private venture, quite profitable in this case.

After crossing the second canal L along the canal

R into the park, cross the length of the park


Kiosque in Ropemakers’ Fields


The small park is called Ropemakers Fields as this was an open space near the dock where ropes were repaired. There are references to this location both in Samuel Pepys in 1664 and in accounts of a visit by the tsar of Russia in 1871. The park has a small sculpture referring to ropes. It is a nice green space because it is unusually hilly, making good use of ground excavated for the construction of a road tunnel under Limehouse.



Ropemakers Field

Cross Narrow Street and take the path under Duke Shore Wharf towards the Thames (it is marked as the Thames Path).

When you reach the river, you can pause for a view because this is a very good location at the apex of a river bend, offering good views both towards Wapping and towards Deptford.


View upstream towards Wapping


View downstream towards Deptford



Limekiln Dock seen from the footbridge

The path leads to an inlet of the Thames called Limekiln Dock. It was actually the mouth of a small creek and served a number of warehouses now converted to the ubiquitous luxury flats. Because some people own mooring rights in the dock, urban planners had to plan a footbridge that would lift when necessary. I don’t think this happens at all, but tracing and compensating the owners would probably have cost more than the bridge features.


Footbridge over Limekiln Dock


There is an interesting technical comment on this suspension bridge on Internet http://happypontist.blogspot.lu/2011/08/london-bridges-11-limekiln-dock.html. I am less shocked than this gentleman and find the bridge quite convenient and not that ugly.


Limekiln Dock at low tide

If you have the time, you can walk a short distance on the walkway along the inlet to enjoy a different view. I was surprised that you lose very quickly the feeling of wide open spaces you might get along the river. At the back of the dock, you actually feel much more like in a courtyard.

Cross the basin on the footbridge, continue along the Thames around a development


Development in Westferry


The development is one of the most striking designs along the Thames Path. The spindly steel tower set off the building can apparently be used as a set of balconies, but I suppose they are way too windy to be enjoyable most of the time. In addition, the tower has pointy spikes at the top that remind me much of either a crown of thorns or Sauron’s stronghold in the “Lord of the Rings”. I suppose it is not meant as an allegory of the behaviour of rapacious investment bankers, rogue traders and self-serving consultants, but who knows ?


Crown of Thorns development

L into the cycle path merging into Three Colt Street

R Milligan Street

R Limehouse Causeway for



Westferry DLR station

The station opened in 1987. The name comes from Westferry Road, a road running west of the docks to the ferry for Greenwich.

The station is a plain glass awning with a covered staircase up to the platforms. The lift shaft has a decorative panel but it is not really an artistic achievement.

R Westferry Road (the main highway into Canary Wharf)

Shortly before the tunnel portal L into Ontario Way


Luxury hotel on Westferry Road


Just before turning left, you can have a short look at the bulky building opposite. It is actually a large hotel between apartment blocks. The hotel is the most luxurious in the area and has a rather weird roof. The curve may remind you of Egyptian temples and was apparently inspired by celebrity designer Philippe Starck. This kind of reference was popular in Art Déco buildings in the 1930s, usually on a somewhat smaller scale. When it stands at the top of an otherwise boring huge building, it feels a little like an artificial gimmick. The temple effect is more convincing when you see the building from the other bank of the Thames, hence my second picture.



Ahead to the walkway along the basin


Former dock entrance gate


The basin is a small section of the original West India Dock as most of the basins were filled in in order to enable construction of the Canary Wharf towers. The neo-classical gate with a ship at the top, called the Hibbert Gate, was the main entrance to the dock and was built in 1803; what you see is a copy as the original was damaged by bombs and later by vandalism. The ship at the top is an interesting wrought iron decoration and is a typical cross-Atlantic ship from the 1800s, when the London Society of West India Planters and Merchants built the dock for its trade in sugar, tobacco, slaves and spices with the colonies in the Caribbean.


West India ship in the 1800s

L around the basin, soon turning R and passing in front of the former warehouses


Former West India Dock offices


The first building, now a restaurant called The Ledger Building, was not a warehouse as you can guess looking at the neo-classical portico. As the name says, the building from about 1803 was the accounting office of the West India company. Most of the former warehouses have been converted into restaurants as well, a sensible use considering the huge potential of hungry office workers. In Europe, this would be more limited as it would be just lunch trade, but the London cultural incline to go out with your office colleagues after work as well is very helpful for pubs and restaurants in business districts.


Converted warehouses around West India Dock

A few of the warehouses have been converted into a small shopping centre and I took advantage of this opportunity to take pictures of the structure inside with a grid of wooden posts.


Inside a warehouse conversion



North Basin of West India Docks


The docks were allowed by an Act of Parliament in 1799, which was unusual as it was normally cities that planned harbours. This was both an attempt by the West India company to show strength against anti-slavery campaigners and a necessity because Parliament gave the new dock a monopoly for goods from West India over 20 years. The expected profit from this monopoly was necessary to convince investors at a time when wars against France made people wary of investing in maritime trade. The dock was sold to the Port of London Authority in 1909, became unused in the 1960s and derelict by 1980.





West India Quay DLR station


The station opened in 1987 as the junction between the two DLR lines from Tower Gateway and from Stratford but is now often bypassed by the trains from Westferry. It had to be rebuilt in 2009 because the designers had not accounted for the strong wind funnel effects caused by the tall towers in Canary Wharf. The station is located at the top of a steel viaduct cantilevered above an ornamental basin.

The awnings and staircase are the standardised DLR design.

Turn around on the quay along the basin towards the footbridge

L across the footbridge over the basin


Footbridge across the North Basin


The footbridge is not really necessary as the detour around the basin would not be considerable, but it shortens the way between offices and pubs. The bridge is 94 meters long and can be opened in the middle. It looks like a floating bridge because the original planning was to tow it away in case of developments in the area, but it is now fixed to the ground. I find that the shape and colour do not fit well with the warehouses although other people like it. For a very good technical discussion of the bridge, see http://happypontist.blogspot.lu/2010/12/london-bridges-6-west-india-quay.html.


Footbridge for office workers


L Fisherman’s Walk (the walkway along the waterside)

R underneath the DLR viaduct


Station and shopping centre entrance


The entrance to the shopping centre in which the DLR station is integrated is somewhat strange. On the one hand, the low ceiling caused by the DLR tracks gives you the feeling of an undignified entrance into a subterranean parking lot. On the other hand, the flight of stairs and the symmetrical aluminium lift shafts point to an important activity inside, a convention centre possibly.



Canary Wharf DLR station


The station opened in 1991 and has an interesting design as trains stop between two platforms, enabling you to alight on either side, and do open doors on both sides. I know very few places where this is the case, probably because it makes checking on the doors before departure more complex. The station is often used as a terminal.

The station is squeezed between two office buildings and is accessed through a shopping centre but it has a striking elliptical canopy. It is best seen from a train, standing at the front. This is usually possible as most trains don’t have drivers.


Canary Wharf station canopy

Continue underneath the DLR tracks to the waterside

L on the walkway along the Basin, continue along the water turning R twice


Canary Wharf station seen from the Middle Basin


From the other side of the basin, you see the station a little better. This basin was the middle dock (originally the Export Dock) and is much smaller than its original size. It is little more than a water-filled courtyard for the tall towers around it. My picture shows the stock exchange ticker on one of the façades. I am not sure why you would wish to do that as a decoration. It is not exactly relaxing.

L underneath the DLR tracks



Heron Quays DLR station


The station opened in 1987 but was relocated in 2002 in order to fit below an office building. It is extremely close to the neighbouring stations, showing the concept of a light railway. Were it not for the viaducts and basins, it would actually work equally well as a tram line.

The station is distinctive, the tracks being embedded into a large cylindrical tube. The tube does not stand on normal pillars, it is suspended from oblique steel pylons. I have no idea why this was deemed necessary or appropriate.


DLR tracks suspended on oblique pylons

Continue underneath the DLR tracks to the next basin

L on the walkway along the basin to the footbridge



South Basin of West India Docks


The South Dock was built much later than the two other ones, namely in 1860. It is wider and longer in order to accommodate the larger ships that had become usual. For this reason, it is also the only dock that is still connected with the Thames and it is used very occasionally by visiting ships, in particular for official visits by foreign navies, the dock being wide enough to enable turning.

R across the footbridge over the basin


Footbridge over South Basin


The South Quay footbridge is very useful considering the size of the basin. It is again a suspension bridge, held by an oblique steel pillar. This is considered more elegant and original than plain vertical pillars but I was not too impressed. You may wonder why one end of the bridge is unnecessarily higher than the other one, making inconvenient stairs necessary. This is because the bridge was longer and symmetrical until part of the basin was filled in to provide more room for office towers and shopping centres. Again, here is a link to a technical discussion of the bridge: http://happypontist.blogspot.lu/2010/11/london-bridges-5-south-quay-footbridge.html.


Detail of the footbridge


L South Quay Walk (the walkway along the basin), turns R and ends at the DLR station

While walking here, I noticed unusual walkway lighting. The elaborate light metal shining silvery reminds of Art Déco and the shape is somehow reminiscent of a lighthouse. I wonder who managed to convince the local developer to pay for such lamps and why lighting at other Canary Wharf location is so different.


South Basin walkway lighting



At the back of office buildings




The view from the walkway towards the towers is not uninteresting. It is so to speak the back side of the business district, where tower owners did not need to invest in any decoration or beautification of their massive, utilitarian, profit-maximising schemes. The view north contrasts with the view east towards the Thames. In this direction, open spaces and the large water expanse give a very different feeling.



South Quay DLR station


The original station opened in 1987 between sharp curves and had to be relocated in 2009 because platforms could not be lengthened at the original location.

The new station is a glass rectangle enclosing the line where it crosses a basin. This led engineers to cantilever the access staircases over the side of the basin and is an elegant, one-off solution.

Cross under the DLR tracks to the following basin

R on the walkway along the water, soon turning L towards the South


Fountain near South Quay station


In the corner of the basin, I found an enjoyable fountain, one of several water features in the Canary Wharf area. This is striking as water features are not much in favour with boroughs normally, being more expensive to maintain and to keep clean. What strikes me clearly is how popular this fountain would be in a suburban park and how forlorn and ignored it is in a business district.


Plantation architecture on Millwall Inner Dock


The area behind the fountain on the west side of the basin is being developed and will include two smaller urban parks, but you will have to explore on your own once this is all finished. Following the basin walkway, you will be more attracted currently to the view over the water. The low building along the water is a set of restaurants but it does not try to imitate warehouse architecture. The many balconies look more like shopping centres in tropical countries and the central pavilion might remind you of plantation houses. I don’t know if the planners tried to think of West India.


Sleek and blocky office building in Millwall


There is a huge block of offices in the background. The façades are fully covered in reflective glass, which has been trendy in the 2000s. You can compare with the towers from the 1990s you passed before, where steel girding was more conspicuous. Also, the block does not have a single tenant, so that it is not branded and remains a huge mineral element. Not ugly, just a little cold and foreign. Looking at the picture, I am reminded a little of a power station. The power of money and greed ?


Many windows on Millwall Inner Dock


The next building along the yonder side of the basin is a strong contrast to the previous one. It might be an interesting idea on paper to have all these white window surroundings poking through the brick background, but it is tiresome on such a scale and the upper level looks like a cheap factory hall, not like a posh penthouse. In addition, the slick blue front of the previous building does not harmonise at all with the overloaded window game.


Pepper Street drawbridge and fortress


Further along, when you approach the drawbridge that you will be using, you cannot help but notice the playful architecture halfway between a warehouse and a medieval castle. Very artificial but fun to look at. The path across the small development is a bit sad, I think it would have been nicer to spread more neighbourhood shops at ground level rather than to concentrate them into a small shopping centre at one end.

L Pepper Street, a pedestrianised road crossing the basin


Pepper Street


The road crosses the basin on a drawbridge called Glengall Bridge. It is inspired by Dutch drawbridges and might remind you of a well-known painting by Van Gogh of a similar bridge located in the Provence. Some opening bridge was necessary because there is a marina in one corner of the basin that can be accessed from the Thames only through this opening. The design is as artificially playful as the rest of the development.


Data centre overlooking Millwall Dock


The view south from the drawbridge shows much lower buildings except for one. The large glass building with a somewhat strange triangular feature facing the water is not a hotel or an office building. The modern shapes hide the largest data centre serving Canary Wharf. There is a long tradition in London of hiding technical facilities behind reasonably impressive façades and you pass very imposing telephone exchanges from the 1930s in several London suburbs.


Millwall Dock looking towards Canary Wharf

Detour ahead if you want to go to the next station


t33-crossharbour-station_bThe station opened in 1987 and was renamed “Crossharbour & London Arena” in 1994 in order to advertise for a nearby sports and exhibition centre. The centre was a commercial failure and the station name was shortened again in 2006. The station is occasionally used as a terminal, using sidings.

The awnings and staircase are the standardised DLR design.

Go back to the basin and continue walking south as before, but now on the other (eastern) side of the basin

Continue all the way to a small footbridge. Do not cross the footbridge, continue south along a narrow basin called Clippers Quay


Clippers Quay marina


This is officially a marina, but I saw no boats moored and pictures taken more recently don’t show boats either. It might be a private marina linked to the local development, the lack of demand for moorings being then linked to the demography of the residents. On pictures taken in sunny weather, you get a feeling of Auckland or San Francisco Bay, but pictures taken in the usual cloudy weather help understand why the sailing lifestyle does not catch in Canary Wharf.

At the end of the basin L on Spindrift Avenue

Soon L on a footpath for



Mudchute DLR station


The station opened in 1987 on an old train viaduct and was relocated at the entrance of the tunnel when the DLR was rerouted in 1999 in order to cross the Thames towards Greenwich. The station was to be called Millwall Park after the nearby green space, but there was a notorious Millwall Football Club at the time with serious hooliganism problems so that local residents feared to be associated with the club. The name Mudchute comes from the mud dredged from the basins and deposited on wasteland in this area.

The platforms awnings are standard DLR issue and are not very visible as the station is in a cutting.

Cross the DLR tracks above the tunnel portal

Ahead along Millwall Park on a partly paved path called The Globe Rope Walk


Mudchute Farm


The name of the path comes from a rope factory located here until 1971. Ropes were made by twisting the strands with a machine that was moved along the needed length, so that a long straight path was needed.

The path marks the limit between two parks, Mudchute Park and Millwall Park. Mudchute Park to your left was wasteland where dredging rubbish accumulated for about 150 years.


Mudchute Park


Local authorities were tempted to use the ground for a council estate in the 1970s as this location within the derelict docklands was of no interest to private developers. Local residents feared the disruption and successfully pointed to the lack of public means of transportation. In the end, the open space was converted by a local association into an urban farm. You can walk around for free and girls will like it as there are many horse paddocks. Judicious planting also led to the park becoming a protected natural area, thwarting development.


Millwall Park


Millwall Park to your right was supposed to be used for developments in the 1860s, but the plan fell through due to a financial crisis and the ground became the neighbourhood park, including typical amenities like a bathing pool. The park was damaged by bombs in 1940 and was kept afterwards as the somewhat plain open space it is now. The borough also agreed to the park being used to dump the construction debris from the DLR tunnel as raising the ground made sense in order to help limit flooding risk from the Thames. The result was that the soil is bad quality and cannot be used for much more than informal sports grounds or open air fairs.


Woman and Fish in Millwall Park


You might be surprised to find a sculpture in the park. The “woman and fish” is a recent replica of a vandalised drinking water fountain that was originally in Stepney. The original was by Frank Dobson, one of the leading 20th century British sculptors, and compares easily with works by other artists of that period like Maillol. I thought the present sculpture is marble but it is actually bronze.

At the end of the paved path R in order to keep within the park

You can now see the conspicuous shapes of the DLR station



Island Gardens DLR station


The station was originally a simple platform for the DLR terminal on the old train viaduct when it opened in 1987. This changed to an underground station when the tunnel under the Thames was built for the DLR extension towards Greenwich in 1999. Original plans called for a simple platform in a cutting like in Mudchute, but local residents managed to get a proper station built. I actually often used this station as an introduction when bringing foreign visitors to Greenwich so that the residents were right in pointing to the special location justifying an effort.


Elegant shapes of Island Gardens station


The new station has an interesting design as there was room to make an architectural statement. Seen from the park, it has a double set of rounded roofs on steel pillars, the interesting point being that the two sets are inverted in opposing directions. It is just a geometrical game but quite harmonious. Seen from the road, the entrance is an airy hall between strange towers with rounded ends, those being the aeration shafts for the tunnel under the Thames.

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