For us, the weekend is a time to get out and about and visit some interesting places. It’s also a time when chores such as shopping and laundry have to be done, so time has to be managed carefully. We were hoping to travel out of town today but as the weather looked rather gloomy, we decided it would be a good idea to get the shopping done and put off the major expedition until tomorrow, hoping the weather will be better.
We did our shopping in the morning and in the afternoon went to the Docklands. This is where much of London’s waterborne trade goods arrived or started their journey across the globe. Sailing ships came here and then the steamships. Dockers loaded and unloaded the ships and skiffs and lighters crisscrossed the docks carrying goods to and from the warehouses.
All that activity ceased when the docks could no longer survive and trade took other routes. Fortunately, the area was not left to rot and then to be built up piecemeal by greedy developers. It has been redeveloped in a reasonably sensitive way, I think. It is now a place of offices, of banks, insurance companies, designers and media…
Nonetheless, it is a place of contrasts, some buildings are the old wharfs and warehouses, modernized, of course, and others are newly built. People who work there probably become used to it but I always feel there is something science-fiction about it, as though it a carefully made film set rather than a real place. That is not to say that I do not like it. On the contrary, I am grateful that the dreadful excrescences that disfigure other parts of London have been stopped from invading.
The tallest building in the above photo, with its characteristic pyramidal top and flashing light, is referred to by most people as Canary Wharf, though in fact Canary Wharf is the name of the area in which it stands, the old West India Dock on the Isle of Dogs, once the busiest port in the world.
Our destination was was building in West India Quay that is conveniently picked out in the above photo by the sun acting as a spotlight.
We crossed from Wren Landing by the pontoon bridge. As you go across you have fine views but if you want to photograph them, you have to wait until no one is crossing because footfalls make the bridge bounce!
The bridge brings you to a broad esplanade, lined one one side by what were once warehouses and on the other by the dock. The old buildings, modernized, now serve other purposes. Some are cafes and restaurants and one is…
… the Museum of London Docklands, our destination. As the name suggests, it covers the history and development of London’s docks from the earliest times until now.
In front of the museum is a statue of Robert Milligan (1746-1809), a prominent merchant and moving spirit in the founding of the West India Docks. The bronze plaque shows Britannia, with a rather masculine face, being greeted by three putti and what I take to be a figure symbolic of foreign nations anxious to trade with Britain or perhaps to seek her aid. (Sculpted by Richard Westmacott, 1813.)
Admission to the museum is free and photography is allowed without use of flash, a restriction I am happy to accept. The museum is very large, consisting of a ground floor cafe and shop, two upper floors of exhibitions and a basement containing the Sainsbury Study Centre. The recommended route is to walk up the stairs – or take the lift – to the top floor and work your way down.
The museum is big, very big, but very well laid out. If you follow the direction indicators, you follow the Docklands from ancient times to the modern day. Information is conveyed by videos, wall displays, models (such as the large one depicting old London Bridge at various stages in its history), mock-ups and genuine articles from the past.
As examples of objects from the past, the above photos are of a figure of Pocahontas from about 1750, probably a display from a tobacco shop in Jamestown, Virginia, and of a water flask from Benin in the shape of a leopard, dating from the 1500s.
The most elaborate mock-up and the most atmospheric is Sailor Town. As this is a passageway between two parts of the museum, you can’t avoid it but why would you want to? It represents a narrow dockside street in a past age, probably in the days of sail, a place that sailors would frequent between voyages. There is a pub, a lodging house, a ship’s chandler (see above) and even a shop selling exotic animals – peering through the gloom you can see the heads of two camels confined to a small enclosure.
Because of their crucial strategic importance, it was only to be expected that the docks would come under heavy enemy attack during the Second World War. Bombing caused huge damage and terrible loss of life. There is an extensive section of the museum devoted to the Docklands during wartime. My favourite exhibit here was this “Zig-Zag Clock”. Ships supplying Britain with essential food and materials during the war gained some protection from German U-boats by travelling in groups called convoys. To make themselves less of a target, the ships would change direction at intervals in a manoeuvre called “zig-zagging”. Each ship would be issued with a “zig-zag clock”, set to ring a bell at certain times. When the bell rang the ship would alter its course.
The Docklands Museum needs more than an afternoon to explore it thoroughly, though there is pleasure and interest to be had from dipping into it here and there as we did. The best approach would be to take a topic – such as wartime Docklands or overseas trade – and explore it thoroughly. Either way, there is scope for many visits. Just as well it’s free!
We left the West India Dock by the Hibbert Gate. This is a modern replica of the original gate to the dock. It was opened by Mayor of London Ken Livingstone in 2000. It is topped by a scale model by Leo Stevenson of the 405 ton West Indiaman, the Hibbert, which sailed from this dock between 1785 and 1813. It was named after George Hibbert, a slave trader, who played a principal part in the development of the docks, though the ship carried rum, sugar, coffee and hardwoods. (The pigeon below the gate is hoping for some more of the biscuit I had just shared with him!)
Along the way we encountered a pair of coots sailing about in the dock. (Some more biscuit went to them. I need more biscuits.)
We left the dock by walking through Willoughby Passage. At the end there is a pair of closed gates. We were not sure we could go out this way but just as we reached them, the gates opened automatically. Outside, there was a button marked “Press me” for people wishing to enter.
While waiting for the bus home, we took photos of this by now well known Docklands figure, the Man with Arms Open, by Giles Penny (1995). Whether he is in despair, or seeking aid from heaven, or even, as some suggest, in ecstasy, no one knows. I tried to photograph his face but he is very tall and even by holding my camera above my head, I could do no better than the picture on the right.