Discovering Limehouse – London’s Old Chinatown

limehouse-basin

When the temperatures in London soar I love to take my walkers down to the river. It’s cooler than the rest of London and you can  discover parts of the Thames which are ignored by the crowds.

Today, I met my group  at Limehouse DLR station. Taking the Branch Road exit, we headed down to attractive Limehouse Marina.  The marina is full of narrow boats and yachts used for living and leisure. Walkways around the marina are surrounded by late 20th century residential buildings but in the 1820s when the marina was known as the Regents Canal Dock it was a very different scene. East Coast Colliers would dock here , transferring their loads to narrow boats and barges to transport coal to London’s gasworks via the newly opened Regents Canal and the 18th century Limehouse Cut, London’s oldest canal.

Looking eastwards I pointed out the the tower of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s St Anne’s Limehouse, flying the White Ensign normally reserved for Royal Navy ships. A former Rector of St Anne’s described his churchyard as ” a sleeping world in miniature” referring to sailors from all over the world who were buried here.

Limehouse was once London’s “Chinatown”.  Chinese sailors and cooks from East India Company ships set up shops, laundries and restaurants in the area. When Journalist  Arthur Ward from Birmingham, better known by his pen name of Sax Rohmer, wrote his first “Fu Manchu” story in 1912 Limehouse was full of Chinese lodging houses, clubs and restaurants. Most of the Chinese residents were respectable people but writers such as Rohmer,  Dickens , Wilde and Conan Doyle painted a picture of a dangerous area filled with opium dens. Today’s journalists would describe late 19th and early 20th century Limehouse as “edgy” and this reputation attracted intrepid Londoners seeking adventure in the narrow, foggy streets leading down to the Thames.

The physical structure of Limehouse was destroyed in the Blitz and the Chinese community moved on to Soho but today’s explorer can find traces of old Limehouse down by the river.  I took my group through Ropemaker’s Fields, a new park created on the site of a Ropeyard visited by diarist Samuel Pepys in the 1660s. In Narrow Street we came upon a delightful terrace of early 18th century houses. An information board shows an artists impression of the 16th century Limekilns which gave the area its name. At the end of the terrace is one of London’s best riverside pubs, The Grapes. It is believed that Charles Dickens whose godfather lived nearby took his inspiration from The Grapes when he wrote about  The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters in “Our Mutual Friend”. Dickens describes the “crazy wooden verandah impending over the water”. If you  stop for a drink here you can sit by the crazy verandah and view the sweep of the river with the City skyline to the west, Canary Wharf to the east and Rotherhithe to the south. In the river stands one of Anthony Gormley’s self portrait statues, put there by one of the co owners of the pub. The identity of that co owner is no secret – one of our most distinguished actors, Sir Ian McKellen. You won’t find Sir Ian pulling the pints but you might spot him in the doorway of his house nearby.

Finally, our group headed eastward towards the Canary Wharf estate, pausing to sit on a bench that doubles up as an art work called “Speaking of the River” by Constance De Jong. As your bottom hits the bench you’ll start to hear voices. You’re not imagining it! Speakers at the side of the bench transmit the reminiscences of former residents, recalling the effects of the Blitz and a day in the life of the West India Docks that occupied the site where the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf stand today.

If you’d like to discover more of Limehouse’ s past with me I have a tour scheduled for the afternoon of Thursday 15 September. You can enjoy a guided walk combined with a visit to the Bronze Age Foundry where sculptures are made for leading artists such as Philip Jackson, Sean Henry, Paul Day and Bruce Denny.  For  further details of pricing, timings and how to book email me diane@secretlondonwalkingtours.co.uk