Greenwich to London Bridge via Limehouse & Wapping
Following the north bank’s Thames Path from the Isle of Dogs to the City. An edgy alternative – or partner- to the ‘sister walk’ London Bridge to Greenwich. For keen walkers, the two walks can be joined together to make a c11 mile circular route, giving memorable views of the Thames in each direction.
Definitely not a “tra la la, hey nonny, nonny” pastoral country ramble, but an eccentric, random procession beginning with a painterly view of Greenwich, then modern ‘lifestyle’ apartments with a faintly Blade Runner feel, gritty remnants of Victorian, industrial architecture and an occasional scruffy road diversion, before the cobbled atmospheric neo-chic of Limehouse and Wapping. The finale: a homecoming sailor’s perspective as the river takes a slow, sinuous approach to St Katherine’s Dock, Tower Bridge and the old City beyond.
As with all the walks on this website, you will get far more out of the experience if you access the Highlights links embedded in the Step By Step directions. This particular walk has some hidden gems of history, including Brunel’s ‘ Great Babe’, Gandalf’s staff and piratical intrigue. Just before you reach the Tower of London there is a choice of three creaky old pubs all of whom do a great job of hamming up their impressive histories.
Easy / 4 out of 10
5.5 miles / 8.8 kilometres
OS Urban Map Walk London
Flat, paved. Minimal navigation is needed as your route follows the signposted Thames Path.
In a few places the Thames Path signage is a bit sketchy, but the cues offered by other walkers/runners should keep you on track without navigation.
As with the ‘sister walk’ (London Bridge to Greenwich) continuing development and rebuilding can cause the Thames path to be diverted. The diversion signs are usually pretty good but if in doubt just use common sense and follow the roads closest to the Thames which will bring you back to the marked path.
DLR to Island Gardens (Lewisham branch) – liaison with Jubilee line at Canary Wharf and with London Overground at Shadwell.
Alternative start for views of Cutty Sark: DLR to Cutty Sark on the south side of the Thames, then Greenwich Foot tunnel to cross under the Thames (check that the tunnel is open – if closed return one stop on the DLR to Island Gardens).
End: Notionally London Bridge station but you can end this trip anywhere convenient in the city. There is an opportunity to shorten the walk at Wapping Overground.
Duke of Edinburgh’s advice to the young Prince Charles on royal duty:
“If you see a toilet, use it”
(Though which toilets are open and when is one of life’s mysteries).
LOOS ON THIS WALK:
Public loos are incredibly rare in London, but there are some adjacent to the Cutty Sark, if beginning there, and at London Bridge, if ending there.
However, assuming pubs and cafes are open and you are prepared to be a paying customer, there are plenty of these along the way.
The North Bank doesn’t have the cafe buzz of the South Bank, but there are plenty of opportunities for food and drink along the way, and the walk is richly served by historic old pubs. (See Highlights features along the walk).
The foreshore on both sides of the river is home to an activity which occurs along almost the entirety of the Thames Path: Mudlarking.
In its current form ‘Mudmooching’ is now a popular hobby but was once a grim and sometimes desperate source of income for the river’s poor, as they waded in the filth and mud searching for anything: old ropes, scrap metal, fragments of wood, lost coins, bricks and tiles, while occasionally pilfering what they could from the merchants’ boats.
Now the hobbyists can be seen at low tide, hunched over, scouring and scanning the shore for a wide and sometimes bizarre range of relics, trinkets and scrap. Recently made famous by Lara Maiklin’s book, the activity is now more popular than ever, though still licenced and, in some places, strictly controlled, notably around the Tower of London’s foreshore.
You’ll probably have already noticed the extreme tidal nature of the river; it’s this daily shifting, sifting and sorting of the river’s edge which turns and roils the mud, producing a continuous bounty of odds, sods, knickknacks and curiosities dating from prehistory to last Wednesday.
The Great Eastern under construction
Limehouse and the Grapes Pub
Limehouse’s reputation as a fog filled maze of cobbled streets inhabited by strangers from strange lands, the dispossessed and the dangerous has been built on myth, literary imagination and reality.
Literary references abound: Pepys visited, Conan-Doyle used the Chinese opium dens that once populated the area as an atmospheric setting for a Sherlock Holmes investigation. More recently Philip Pullman wrote, ‘Sherlock Holmes and the Limehouse Horror’ further embedding the area’s dodgy reputation in the public imagination.
However it is the description of The Grapes pub (hardly disguised) in Dickens’ novel ‘Our Mutual Friend’ which stays in the mind:
“A tavern of dropsical appearance… long settled down into a state of hale infirmity. It had outlasted many a sprucer public house, indeed the whole house impended over the water but seemed to have got into the condition of a faint-hearted diver, who has paused so long on the brink that he will never go in at all.”
At low tide just off shore you may be lucky to catch a glimpse of the Anthony Gormley life-size statue, Another Time, standing in the water (pictured above); this can be viewed from Dunbar Wharf apparently, however the best views are from the terrace bar at the back of the pub, naturally.
The pub’s co-owners are the actor Sir Ian McKellen and Russian tycoon Evegeny Lebedev… make of that what you will. Lord of the Rings fans should call in for a glimpse of Gandalf’s staff which is kept behind the bar.
The Prospect of Whitby
Originally dating from 1520, this pub is a contender for the title of Britain’s oldest riverside tavern. Once named the Devil’s Tavern, like the other pubs on this route, The Prospect continues and no doubt gently fosters the area’s reputational theme of crime and assorted murky misdeeds. It was recorded that this was, “the usual place for hanging of pirates and sea-rovers, at the low-water mark, and there to remain till three tides had overflowed them”.
In the 1600s this was the local for ‘Hanging’ Judge Jeffreys who was known for his rude and rowdy exchanges with hapless defendants and their counsel, coupled with a fondness for capital punishment. He achieved a personal best at the ‘Bloody Assizes’ following the Monmouth Rebellion, a.k.a. the Pitchfork Rebellion of 1685, executing several hundred rebels who had aimed to overthrow James II.
Revisionist accounts now seem to propose that Jeffries was in fact quite a reasonable bloke, evidencing that in the same year while sitting in Bristol he turned to the fully robed mayor of Bristol, sitting next to him on the legal bench, had him arrested and fined £1000 for being a ‘kidnapping knave’; the mayor had a lucrative side hustle of kidnapping his own countrymen and selling them into slavery.
Just who occupies the moral high ground in this account remains a mystery; I remain unconvinced about JJ’s current rehabilitation, as just a bit of a character…
The Learned Judge liked his beer and had his reasons to do so as his revisionist sympathisers say; we shall hear more of him at our next pub…
The various quays along this walk tended to have their own signature trades and connections. Surrey Quays was, for a large part of its working life, busy with trade from the Baltic and Scandinavia, with an emphasis on ice, timber and whaling. Thankfully the huge, vile, blubber boiling houses which stank out the area have gone, now replaced with cafes selling sushi.
The Town of Ramsgate Pub
Another contender for the oldest Riverside pub, The Town claims heritage dating back to the War of the Roses in the1460s. Its current name derives from its association with the fishermen of Ramsgate who unloaded their catch here to dodge the higher taxes further up the river at Billingsgate. Captain Bligh’s ship The Bounty was purchased while moored behind the pub before his voyage to Tahiti and the infamous mutiny.
Here we encounter Judge Jeffreys again but this time at a turning point in his life and that of his boss James II. With The Glorious Revolution of 1688 the King fled the country while William III’s troops approach London. The story that has been passed down is that Jeffrey shaved off his prominent and distinguishing eyebrows, disguised himself as a sailor and, hiding in the Town pub, waited to board a ship to Hamburg. A former victim of his highly individual justice recognised him; an angry and vengeance-seeking crowd gathered, the terrified Jefferies was dragged away to the Tower for his own safety.
Typically misunderstanding the public mood he begged his captors “to show him that same Mercy he had shown to others”.
It was rightly assumed that he was facing execution but for those looking for revenge – even if only symbolic – they would have to wait a couple more centuries. Jefferies died in the Tower of liver disease before he could be tried.
Then, in the 1940s during the Blitz, the tomb in the City church in which he was buried had a direct hit; Jeffries mortal remains were blown into history.
More recent historians have contended that his pain from liver disease accounts for his fondness for his beer and the fact that he married a forceful wife for his behaviour: An explanation admirable for its combination of patriarchal claptrap and poundland pop psychology.
It was said by some that “St George slew the Dragon and secured the maiden while Judge Jeffries missed the maiden and married the Dragon by mistake.”
So, he may have been a merciless, blood thirsty executioner but that’s because he wasn’t very well and lived with someone who spoke her mind.
That explains everything.
Wapping Old Stairs
Wapping Old Stairs, next door to the The Town of ramsgate pub, once a destination for homecoming sailors was also a site for executions by hanging, and the three-tides rinse cycle treatment as once practiced at The Prospect of Whitby (see above Features link).
However, it is perhaps what they represent which is worth some thought. These are just one of 11 remaining Riverside Stairs – legal rights of way – from the original scores of stairs which were a vital loading and embarkation point for the trade and traffic on the river. A combination of Luftwaffe skill and equally ruinous postwar developer ‘vision’ saw the vast majority bulldozed out of existence.
However local resistance, particularly from those families who could remember the centrality of the stairs to Thames life, led to the City of London recommending preservation in 2002.
Countless people – prisoners, adventurers, traders, political fugitives, emigrants and immigrants – have used these and the ten remaining Stairs: their first, or last , glimpse of home, or a new life. We can be grateful that these little gems of history have survived the extraordinary pressure of commercial development… so far.
The Thames Path
Follow the north bank’s Thames Path all the way from the Isle of Dogs to the City through a random procession of history and eccentricity…
If the tide is out and you have waterproof footwear you can indulge in a bit of mud larking and perhaps discover an historic oddment among the mediaeval crisp packets and Roman Red Bull cans>>
Encounter the remnants of the dock from which Brunel launched the Great Eastern in 1858 and the extraordinary story of his feat in creating and launching the biggest and most extravagant ship of its time>>
Wander through Limehouse where a reputation of a fog filled maze of cobbled streets inhabited by strangers from strange lands, the dispossessed and the dangerous has been built on myth, literary imagination and reality>>
Start: Island Gardens DLR Station
From the Island Gardens DLR station follow the sign straight across the road to the Greenwich Foot Tunnel.
Here you can take a moment to enter the adjacent Island Gardens Park for a splendid view of Greenwich Naval College and the park and observatory.
Or, for something a little more ‘unplugged’…
Facing the river, start your route by turning right at the domed entrance to the foot tunnel. About 30m along is the Blackwall Rowing Club where the slipway will give you an open view of the splendours of Greenwich on the opposite bank to kick off your Thames-side visuals. If the tide is out and you have waterproof footwear (you do have waterproof footwear, don’t you…?) you can indulge in a bit of mudlarking and perhaps discover an historic oddment among the mediaeval crisp packets and Roman Red Bull cans.
See feaure link below for an account of this growing activity…
From the Rowing Club turn left (east) to continue along the residential street running parallel to the river. In a short distance continue straight on to pass the (200 year old) Ferry pub to enter into residential developments, swinging left to pick up the signposted Thames Path.
Keep the river on your left and head towards Tower Bridge.
Soon you’ll get a view of Deptford Creek on the opposite bank with its grey/green modern apartments contrasting with the rickety decaying and now derelict wooden piers along the far shore.
Within a few minutes further, a signboard shows you that you are at a residential development which was formerly Burrell’s Wharf and paint works. The rather dry information is cheerfully leavened by a punky mental image of pink pigeons on the factory roof.
Shortly after, you will encounter the remnants of the dock from which Brunel launched the Great Eastern in 1858. See the Features link below for the extraordinary story of Brunel’s feat in creating and launching his ‘Great Babe’ – the biggest and most extravagant ship of its time.
The path soon swings hard right through the residential buildings of Ferguson’s Wharf. After 100m, at the T-junction continue on to the main road where you turn left to continue, parallel to the river, through Millwall’s rare ungentrified stretch of Thame-side London.
As you follow the road, look out for the nondescript Vanguard storage warehouse on your left. If the gates are open you may see just inside a tribute to Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The giant chains which were needed to secure the Great Eastern, and which were manufactured here, gave us the renowned image of the stove pipe hatted, waistcoat wearing IKB, leaning nonchalantly against his handiwork.
After 500m you will cross over Millwall Outer Dock.
Pass more self-storage facilities, and Arnhem Wharf Primary School, then in about 200m take a left at Arnhem Place and return to the Thames Path another 200m ahead of you.
From here you can begin to trust the Thames Path all the way to Tower Bridge – any minor diversions or uncertainties you might encounter are easily remedied by heading towards the River, asking a local, or swearing.
Once the path is re-located, you can pride yourself on your intrepid navigational skills and adventurous spirit.
Throughout the walk take a moment to note the position of the Shard ahead of you – it takes a special delight in switching between the North and South banks of the Thames as you walk, but slyly and reassuringly will always be in its place by the time you get to the City.
Continue on until you reach the looming office blocks and dockside development at Westferry. A ramshackle collection of walkways will either take you further on along the Thames path or you may be diverted up to the busy main road and left. Follow the signs and usual common sense to stay close to the river and you will soon be returned to the Thames path at Canary Wharf.
Continue on past Canary Wharf until you reach another narrow residential redevelopment of a Thames inlet. Follow the signs to cross the inlet, passing through an archway and out onto Narrow Street. Turn left to soak up the particular atmosphere of Limehouse. Ropemaker’s Field will be on your right but you will carry straight on along Narrow Street.
The Grapes pub crops up in a couple of hundred metres. This creaky old hostelry has good views of the Thames with a wealth of history, quirky features and stories.
See Feature link below for connections with Gandalf, the Gormley statue and other literary and artistic references. Definitely worth a visit if you haven’t been.
Reports back on the food on offer would be very welcome – drop me a line here.
Continue along Narrow Street to eventually reach a set of red and white barriers which marks the site of Limehouse Waterside & Marina. There is a Gordon Ramsey restaurant and pub here (as yet untried, feedback welcome).
On the other side of the road from the Marina, on some Saturdays there is a food market.
Straight ahead, however, should you be searching for another atmospheric old pub, you have a choice of two: Directly ahead is the Prospect of Whitby while further down is the Town of Ramsgate.
See Features link below for stories about both pubs and the tale of the extraordinary life, death and beyond of ‘Hanging Judge’ Jeffreys.
Next to the Town of Ramsgate pub are Wapping Old Stairs – definitely worth a look at the Features link below to discover why these have such historical significance for old London.
Wend your way through St Katherines Dock with views of, and around, Tower Bridge and, depending on your preferred route home, you could opt for the grand finale of crossing Tower Bridge for a view of the Tower of London.
If you cross the river here you can follow the Thames Path, for another ten minutes or so to London Bridge – the tube and main station are easily located 200m from the bridge, on your left.
Other main line stations, buses and tubes are available…
Browse more walks…
Lucky you. I’ve walked several thousand miles of footpaths and city streets to distil out a choice selection of rambles for everyone to enjoy. There is no way of knowing whether a walk is worth doing except by walking the route every step of the way; a lot of terrible walks, dull vistas, and frankly boring trudges have been endured and discarded. Lucky me, I love walking and being outside so it’s all been worth it. I hope you can find the time to explore a route or two.
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No 10 : Greenwich to London Bridge via Limehouse & Wapping
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Follow the north bank’s Thames Path all the way from the Isle of Dogs to the City through a random procession of history and eccentricity…