Wapping Old Stairs E

On a radiantly bright day I walked East from the City in search of horizons. Wapping, east of Tower Bridge, is where the buildings at last are of human size, and you can see the sky.

Next to the pub called “Town of Ramsgate” on Wapping High Street, there is a small passage, a slot between buildings. I darted down there, and found a long view over the Thames, and the stone steps leading down to the river. This is Wapping Old Stairs E. Turning round, to go back, I saw this mix of buildings.

On the right, with the blue window, is the “Town of Ramsgate”. High above it are the walls of the former warehouse “Oliver’s Wharf”, built in 18691 The warehouse was turned into flats in 1970-1972, making it one of the very early warehouse conversions. Warehouse conversions later extended all the way down the river on both sides.

Sketch map showing the buildings around Wapping Old Stairs E.

On the left are the backs of the houses on “Pier Head”, which is a wide elegant road joining Wapping High Street to the river. There is a chain across the road to deter those of us who would like to look at the river from there.

One of the things I notice doing these sketches is the amazing number of television aerials that persist on rooftops, in defiance of the proliferation of broadband services. In this view there are two, both seriously complex and business-like examples of the genre. I think it is time for a exhibition of Television Aerials, as Art. If you are the V&A reading this, consider it now, before they all disappear, or become very valuable.

Wapping Old stairs is not a lonely place. It must feature in books. During the hour and a quarter I was there four couples and individuals walked along the passageway, looked out to the river, took photos and walked back. A man came with his tiny dog. The dog showed an unwise interest in my water pot, which by that time contained an unhealthy mix of Perinone Orange, Phthalo Turquoise and Mars Yellow. I tried to deter the dog from drinking it, and then had to explain to the dog’s owner that I didn’t mind the dog atall, but I didn’t think he should drink that particular water. They were going to go for a walk on the foreshore, but the tide was still high and sloshing over the steps, which put paid to that idea.

Here is work in progress.

(1) F. & H. Francis. 1869-70. Wapping, London E1. Built for George Oliver “in the Tudor gothic style, this wharf handled general cargo but had special facilities for tea” [Craig, Charles, et al.  London’s Changing Riverscape: Panoramas from London Bridge to Greenwich. London: Francis Lincoln, 2009. Quoted in “victorianweb.org”]

View from the South side of the river, photo from “LoveWapping.org”. This photo shows the smoke from a fire which broke out in one of the flats, Sept 2019.

Turks Head Café Wapping

Here is the marvellous Turks Head Café, Wapping, rescued from demolition by local residents in the 1980s.

The Turks Head Cafe, in front of St John’s Tower

Inside, I found warmth, quiet tables, and the gentle murmur of conversations: people actually talking to each other. I felt welcome here. The food was marvellous. Next time I’m going to have the Blueberry Tart. I only noticed it after I’d already had the substantial Chicken and Avocado Sandwich.

Inside the Turks Head Café

I went to pay my bill. When I returned to my table, there was a little group of people admiring the sketch (above). I chatted to a man called Mark, who, it turns out, runs the website “lovewapping.org“. We exchanged anecdotes about the representation or otherwise of residents’ views on local councils. His group grapples with Tower Hamlets Council.

Then I went outside to draw the café.

The tower in the background is St Johns Tower. The tower is “all that remains of the parish church of St Johns circa 1756 … the surrounding ground was rebuilt as flats in the 1990s to an attractive design reflecting the previous building on the site” says the Knight Frank website (an estate agent).

This drawing took 1hour 15 mins, done from the pavement by a huge brick wall. The colours are Perinone Orange, Phthalo Turquoise, Mars Yellow and Hansa Yellow Mid. As you see, the front of the cafe faces West, and caught the setting sun.

Here is the wall next to where I was standing.

London Bricks in Wapping.

A walk to Wapping

Today was a beautiful day. It was a day to go for a walk.

I went to the river. Near Old Billingsgate I looked under London Bridge and saw Tower Bridge and HMS Belfast. This is a 15 minute sketch, watercolour-only, no pen.

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Onwards towards the East, I stood on Sugar Quay, which has only just re-opened after years of being closed while the nearby hotel is built.

Here is the Shard, in context,  from a wooden bench on Sugar Quay.

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This map shows my walk:

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Tourists congregate around Tower Bridge. East of Tower Bridge, after St Katherines Dock, there are no tourists at all. It was suddenly very quiet. I went down “Alderman Steps”. There was this great view. The wind was fierce, and my eyes were streaming. I had a go anyway. Two mallards bobbed around amongst the floating quays, chatting away, looking around as if searching for something lost.

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Then I went on East. I had lunch in a hipster café called “Urban Baristas” on Wapping High Street.

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Lunch at the hipster café “Urban Baristas”

A man at the next table discussed flats on his mobile phone. He said Shoreditch was too expensive, so he was looking in Wapping. He’d found a good place, a view of the river, open plan, lots of space. Maybe it was offices he was describing, not flats.

Then I went on East. The river opens out here, it starts to feel more like an estuary. There are 1980s flats, brick-built, but in the river shores are the remains of the old trade: the old chains, the stanchions, huge shafts of timber, rotting piers.

Then the river bends again, and there’s a magnificent view of Canary Wharf.

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I drew this in about an hour, sitting in sunlight spiked with the smell of someone else’s fish and chips.

Here is work in progress:

Here is me drawing:

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