One of the benefits of living and studying internationally is that you develop friends from around the globe. The bigger a city, the more likely that you have friends and acquaintances living there and London is no different than any other. So it was that I found myself reconnecting with an old friend who lives in East London. As I had never been to the East End or Canary Wharf, my friend agreed to take us on a walking tour along the Thames from Canary Wharf to Tower Bridge.
Historically, East London has been a working class district of the city, a melting pot of immigrants and migrant workers. The area has been transforme in the last couple of decades with the conversion of former warehouses into upscale condos, the development of the Canary Wharf business district and the transformation of East London (good or bad) into host for the 2012 Summer Olympics.
Canary Wharf is one of two primary business districts in London (the other being The City) and the start of our walking tour. Although the district is currently booming, its history is not so illustrious. Formerly docklands in an area known as the Isle of Dogs, the district was developed by Canadian property developer Olympia and York in the 1980s. For various reasons, businesses failed to flock to the area as quickly as expected and O&Y was forced to file for bankruptcy. One Canada Square, the flagship highrise in the district (and tallest in London until the construction of “The Shard“) serves as a testament to the rise (and fall) of O&Y.
Today, Canary Wharf is home to major commercial and investment banks, accounting firms and international media corporations and together with The City rivals Wall Street as the most influential business hub globally. Despite its importance, the area has a desolate, almost sterile feel and feels somewhat isolated from the rest of London.
While our walking tour was about exploring East London, it was also about soaking up British pub culture. Our first stop was the elegant The Narrow, a cosy, upscale gastropub. Our next stop was the Prospect of Whitby, London’s oldest riverside inn dating from 1520. The building oozes history and is built out over the Thames. One can almost imagine back to Sherlock Holmes and Victorian London when bodies were dropped through trap doors to be washed away by the next tide. This feeling was only accentuated by a brief but heavy rain which added to the darkness of inn, although the sun began shining soon after we came out.
Across from the Prospect of Whitby is the Wapping Project, an old power station converted into an upscale restaurant. A quick check with the waiters confirmed that it was completely booked for the evening but we were able to tour the plant and visit an exhibit in the basement before continuing our walk.
The further west you progress in Wapping, the more upscale the neighbourhoods become until you reach Tower Bridge. I must admit I was shocked how beautiful and peaceful the area despite being in the shadow of Tower Bridge and so close to the hustle and bustle of The City. This is one of those times when you realize that often the best things to do as a tourist is to ditch your guidebook and explore on your own (or better yet, have a local friend show you the hood!). I must admit that I would never have discovered this part of London in a hundred years.
The end of our tour was punctuated by a relaxing meal in an Italian restaurant in the Butlers Wharf area on the South Bank, under the lights of Tower Bridge.