Wapping, a small former parish town in East London, is a place that truly embodies a ‘tale of two cities’. The district begins at the riverbank, where muddied but gleaming Thames water crashes upon small broken-pottery-laden shores. The Met Police Marine Unit is situated there, along with some other small quirks and gems. And Wapping ends where village-like serenity does: the Highway, where trucks, Lamborghinis, and Mercedes-drivers (the latter of which are presumably on their way to their jobs in Canary Wharf and the City) all coalesce.
What I like about Wapping is that it is truly a liminal place. Always moving, yet timeless, caught between times. A village trapped in the midst of a city. Quaint is the best word for it, I think.
Take a walk through Wapping, and you take a walk through a living history book or a museum. This is, I think, as preserved as eighteenth- and nineteenth-century London gets, really. The gorgeous and majestic Tower of London on one side, looming over the road to Tower Bridge.
Walk too far one way, and you get to Peckham. A bustling place, full of energy, in its own right, but simply not comparable to this place. Walk too far the other way, and you get to that rather unfortunate little place that is known as Shadwell… and then, Whitechapel. These places have their good parts, too, don’t get me wrong. But (you guessed it.) they are just not Wapping.
How unique this place is, and how grateful I am to have grown up here. The other day, a friend of mine told me that she had come here for a visit – specifically, she went to the marina part, where chic little cafes overlook a substantial collection of yachts. The ‘Dickens’ Inn’ is here too, a former brewery dating back to the 18th Century.
The teeming waterside life of Wapping’s former days actually inspired some of Charles Dickens’ writing: he used to come here sometimes, as a child. The workhouses, the docks, the warehouses (which have now all been redeveloped, turned into ridiculously expensive living spaces). The way the lazy summer sun hits these still-cobbled streets. The quaint little pubs, the riverside parks. There is no place I have ever been to that is quite like Wapping.
Wapping Lane: a post office, a pharmacy, a bakery, a greengrocer’s, a butcher’s. A fish and chip shop. A gambling shop, too (rather unfavourably, in my own opinion). A few churches, and my former neighbour – the priest – who laments at the noisiness of the little boys who play upstairs, and at the growing presence of these “thugs” who he says will be borne from the nascent council flats nearby. Then, another pub, and a small café (one of those deliberately vintage-looking ones that charge extortionate prices for almond-based coffee, frequented by all those yoga mums, ‘babyccino’ buyers and and whatnot. But still, I love it).
It is nice that one can set foot into Shadwell, and into Central London, from nucleus Wapping. But, thankfully, there is always this place – peace without boredom, city without too much of it – to return to.
On one side dwell and play the truly wealthy. The yacht-owners, the ones who frequent all these dainty riverside restaurants. Their homes have concierge offices; they are tall and made of glass. The fountains and private rose gardens probably exist primarily to be enjoyed by them, but it’s nice that anyone who passes by can enjoy the view, too.
On the other side, the somewhat less wealthy. The Cockney accents. “‘Ello love!” “You aw’ight babe?” The drunk man who is always fixing something in his flat. The council homes, rows of little ones, and all their washing lines. The lovely old lady who is forever outside, tending to her plants, and feeding the birds. Occasionally, a conversation betwixt two – maybe about the weather, or an angrier one about how certain dog owners do not clean up after their dogs, or about the price of bread at our local bakery.
Dame Helen Mirren lives here. So does Rio Ferdinand. Graham Norton, too: I see him fairly often, actually, at Waitrose.
There are the white working-class people (the ones who chose to remain here, during those periods of ‘White Flight’), and there are all these Bengali ones. There are the sort of ‘hipster’-y people who are increasingly moving in: all these young-ish professionals who live alone; the under-bridge warehouses that have been converted into food places. There used to be a thriving Jewish community here in the East End, too. Here was where the Battle of Cable Street had taken place, years and years ago.
Someday everything that is taking place here right now will be a thing of ‘years and years ago’, too.
And I think I like taking my place, here in the middle of things. It allows one to walk this way, and then that. And you belong to all of it, but you belong to none of it at the same time. There are no obligations; you find yourself untied to anything at all. And, yet, there you are, firmly rooted in the actual midst of things. Everything unfolds right before you. The little wooden bridge that takes you from one side of the canal to the other [the one that used to always be impossibly slippery during the colder months!]
Good things come from balances, from middles. And here Wapping is, you see: caught right in the middle of things.
Sadia Ahmed J., 2020