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Into the East End

Into the East End

Today I took a trip into the heart of London’s East End.  I walked over to Nelson Dock, which is a few blocks from my house, and took the ferry across the Thames.  We landed at Canary Wharf in the heart of the London Docklands.  I passed a pub called the Blacksmith’s Arms on my way to the ferry.  It’s the closest pub I’ve found, so I think it’s my “local.”

Canary Wharf is in the East End of London.  The East End is the traditional home of London’s Cockneys, famous for their rhyming slang.  The Docklands were once the largest port in the world, encompassing vast stretches of land on both the north and south side of the river.  By the 1970s, deep water docks and more sophisticated cargo handling systems were needed to accommodate the growth of container shipping, and the Docklands were all but abandoned.  The whole area was left to decay until a major redevelopment project was launched in the 1980s.

Today a revitalized Canary Wharf is the center of London’s financial services sector.  It’s dominated by modern skyscrapers built for Citigroup and other financial institutions.  Underneath the skyscrapers there are three subterranean shopping malls full of fashionable shops and restaurants.  Beyond the skyscrapers, new residential development spreads out for miles.  I had lunch at Paul, a popular chain of French-style cafés.  Actually, I didn’t have lunch AT Paul.  There’s a 20% tax on food eaten in restaurants.  I decided to be economical, so I ordered take-away and ate on a bench outside.

Poverty was widespread in the East End until well into the 20th century.  Most dock workers were day laborers, and the low-paying work could be both sporadic and dangerous.  There were few safety nets for the families of men who were killed or injured.  Public transport links in the East End were limited until the creation of the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) in the late 1980’s, so even though it’s geographically close to the center of London, it was difficult for East Enders to get to better-paying jobs in other parts of the city.  As the redevelopment of the Docklands progressed, the DLR was expanded, and the Tube and overground rail lines were extended.  As a result, this is now a popular residential area.

Despite gentrification, the Docklands has not entirely forgotten its roots.  In the late 1990’s, the Museum of London rescued an abandoned warehouse on West India Quay to create the Museum of London Docklands.  It traces the history of the area from its earliest days as a port, to its heyday as the crown jewel in England’s vast trading empire, to its decline and eventual rebirth.

The most interesting part of the museum for me was the section on World War II.  Beginning in September 1940, German pilots dropped hundreds of incendiary bombs on the East End during two months of nightly bombing raids known as the Blitz.  Both the north and south sides of the Thames suffered.  Fires raged out of control, great swaths of docks, shipyards, and warehouses were decimated, and thousands of homes were destroyed.

The area where I live was a big timber port at the time.  More than 350,000 tons of timber went up in flames during the first days of the Blitz, creating one of the most intense fires ever seen in England.  Holy Trinity Church, which is two blocks from my house, was destroyed on the first night of bombing.  The land where Teak Close now sits almost certainly suffered damage as well.  Even after London’s anti-aircraft defenses were improved, air raids were an ever-present danger for the remainder of the war.

It’s hard for me to imagine living through such a terrible ordeal.  Thousands of children were evacuated to the countryside.  The majority of adults stayed put and just carried on with their daily lives.  In fact, the Docklands played a crucial role in the war effort.  More than 20,000 ships and smaller vessels were built and repaired here throughout the war, and many of the floating harbors used in the Normandy landings were built here.

For those living in the East End, the hardships caused by the Blitz didn’t end when the war did.  “Call the Midwife,” one of my favorite television programs, is set in Poplar, an area of the Docklands just upriver from Canary Wharf.  It shows how the East End was still struggling with severe housing shortages, unexploded bombs, rationing, poverty, and the rebuilding of decimated infrastructure almost 15 years after the war ended.

After an interesting day of exploration, I caught the Tube at Canary Wharf station.  Crossing under the Thames, I returned to Canada Water station and my home away from home.

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