TO THE LIGHTHOUSE!
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For those literary types, who are hoping that this about Virginia Woolf, please forgive me because it is not. I thought that her 1927 novel’s title would make a great heading for this essay, which is, in case you are becoming worried about its relevance, about a lighthouse - the only such structure on the River Thames. First, let me set the scene!
The River Lea is a tributary of the River Thames. Rising in the Chiltern Hills northwest of London, it winds its way southeast into Hertfordshire, and then southwards through east London. It joins the Thames in Poplar. At the point where the Lea enters the Thames, stands the only lighthouse on the River Thames.
The River Lea makes two sharp turns just before it joins the Thames. Here, the Lea is called ‘Bow Creek’. Each of the curves flow around finger-like peninsulas of land, each of them almost an island. It is the last of these two peninsulas, which is the subject of this essay.
The reason I visited this area was to visit Trinity Buoy Wharf, which had been recommended to me by our friend Sue D. Following instructions on the Wharf’s website, I disembarked from a DLR train at Canning Town Station, and headed for the new, bright red pedestrian footbridge that crosses Bow Creek onto a part of the peninsula that is being re-developed to become London City Island – a mini-Manhattan that will eventually consist of high-rise apartment blocks.
I was curious to know what existed before the developers of London City Island moved on to this peninsula almost completely surrounded by Bow Creek. An essay in The Survey of London (Vols. 43 & 44, published by London County Council in 1994) provides a good detailed history, which I will attempt to summarise.
The peninsula was one of the least accessible parts of Poplar by road. With the construction of the East India Dock Basin in 1803-6 at the base of the peninsula, it became even more isolated.
The former Good Luck Hope estate is that part of the peninsula onto which I stepped after crossing the slender new red footbridge. Its name goes back to at least the 14thcentury, when it was called ‘Godelockehope’ or ‘Godluckhope’. This ancient name persists in the existence of Hope Street that runs through what will be the new London City Island. At its southern end, Hope Street becomes Orchard Place, a street whose name recalls the Orchard House estate. In the 15th century, the land on the Hope was used for farming and fishery.
The Orchard House Estate, whose southern limit was the bank of the Thames, was located to the south of the Hope.
During the 19thcentury, the Orchard House Estate, like the Hope to its north, became used for industrial purposes including coopering. To its west, stands the former East India Dock Basin (see later). The eastern most part of the former Orchard House Estate is now the Trinity Buoy Wharf area.
The scientist Michael Faraday (1791-1867) conducted experiments at Trinity Buoy Wharf. He had a great interest in the construction and operation of lighthouses, and conducted experiments at Trinity Buoy Wharf.
The reason for the wharf’s name is that in 1803 Trinity House set up a workshop for making and repairing wooden buoys. Later, iron buoys were both developed and repaired here. By 1910, the workshop employed 150 workers. Today, in 2017, many of the original buildings remain at Trinity Buoy Wharf, but alongside some exciting new additions, which I will describe later. No longer is this place a centre for maritime safety. Now it has been given a new lease of life. It has become an active creative arts zone.
I crossed Bow Creek by means of the new red bridge. The Lea at this point was mainly mudflats because the tide was out. Then, I walked along a path that threaded its way between the building construction sites on what was once Good Luck Hope.
At the southern end of the future London City Island development, where Hope Street changes direction and becomes Orchard Place, I noticed two things of interest. One of them is an entrance to what remains of the East India Dock Basin, which I will describe later. The other is a curious sculpture. This consists of a traditional London taxi (‘Black Cab’) which appears to have a tree growing up through its roof. The tree is an artificial sculptural construction made of metal. It was made by the artist Andrew Baldwin.
Beyond the sculpture, Orchard Place heads towards the wharf area, passing between industrial buildings some of which are still in use. Baldwin’s taxi piece is the first of many artistic visual delights lining the rest of Orchard Place. One of the first is a giant metal buoy painted with the words ‘Trinty Buoy Wharf’. Behind it there is a large mural showing a woman’s face. On the same side of the road, there is a large mural depicting maritime creatures on a blue background. This was painted by the artist Bruce Mahalski. A tree was growing through part of it. Further along the road, there are more entertaining art works to be seen. These include a huge model of a white fish suspended between two neighbouring buildings.
Finally, I reached the entrance to Trinity Buoy Wharf. To one side of it, there is another large buoy like that next to the wall painting of the woman’s face at the far end of Orchard Place. Let me tell you my first impressions of the place.
The whole place is dominated by the brick-built lighthouse that is attached to a warehouse like brick building. It is right next to an American-style metal and glass ‘diner’ called ‘Fatboy’s Diner’.
The lighthouse overlooks an open space containing a car park and an artwork that emits sounds according to the state of the tide. Parallel to the lightship but on terra firma, there is a café, the ‘Bow Creek Café’, which faces the diner across the open space. A modern building housing the Royal School of Drawing also fronts the open space. Behind it, stands the Faraday School, a small independent primary school (for children aged 4 to 11 years) that was founded in 2009.
Trinity Buoy Wharf, a square-ish plot of land, is surrounded on three sides by water: to the north and east by Bow Creek, and to the south by the Thames.
Close to the warehouse, to which the lighthouse is attached, there is what looks like a garden shed. There is a sign above its door that reads ‘The Faraday Effect’. This has little to do with the scientific phenomenon that bears this name, but rather more with what Faraday did to enlarge scientific knowledge. The inside of the shed is furnished with various objects and papers that are supposed to document the life and times of the great scientist who worked a few feet from this shed.
The shed is next to a large warehouse, in which several artists (sculptors, I think) were working and chatting. This building used to be the Chain Store. It is attached to another building that contains spaces for performance art and training. These buildings characterise the present purpose of Trinity Buoy Wharf: an area dedicated to artistic pursuits.
Amongst the amazing things to be seen at the Wharf is what is known as ‘container city’. Enormous shipping containers have been put together and piled on top of one another to create buildings. Windows and doors have been cut into the containers to create offices and workshops. There are at least three of these container constructions. Many of the ends of the containers have been modified to create balconies.
Trinity Buoy Wharf is well supplied with sculptures. Many of these are by Andrew Baldwin. A couple of lifelike human figure sculptures made in metal are suspended from the walls of a building, Trinity Art Studios, that faces the Bow Creek Café. These figures, a woman and a man, appear to be holding up an outdoors staircase with their outstretched arms. I am not sure whether these figures are permanent or on temporary display, but they looked most impressive.
My first visit to Trinity Buoy Wharf was made on a weekday. A security man at the gatehouse told me that the best time to visit is in the weekends, when the place really lives up, and also it is possible to climb up the staircase in the lighthouse.
See more maps here: http://londonadam.travellerspoint.com/14/