Sunday, 5 June 2011

The Isle of Dogs.

Off on an early morning bike ride along the South Bank over Tower Bridge, though Wapping to The Isle of Dogs for a rekkie in preparation for a public engagement project that Eleanor has some funding for and hopes to carry out over the summer.

It's a thrilling ride through the troubled, and occasionally seedy, history of the river downstream of St Katherine's dock, hidden, in the main from the eyes of the tourists, but everywhere hints of a former world populated by opportunistic pirates, sophisticated smugglers, shrewd brothel keepers and hard nosed dockers. It's a little known part of London, ripe for stories and adventures. It's here the sadistic Judge Jeffreys took lunch whilst watching the men he'd condemned earlier in the day hang in Execution Dock.

We headed for the launch site of the Great Eastern, quiet and modestly hidden away in a small green park, traversed by modern flats on either side. Hard to imagine the leviathan of the deep slowly being assembled here over a period of three and a half years. Its here that the icon picture of the ship's designer Brunel was taken in front of chain links. Some of these links lie undisturbable on the waterfront footpath. Harder still at this distance to hear the army of workers, who migrated from all over the British Isles at the thought of contracted employment, riveting, welding and tarring the hull. Still at low tide more of the launch site because visible through the watery shallows of the foreshore and the scale of the project starts to be understood.

There's something very attractive and increasingly reputable about counter factual history - the art of imagining how the world would be if alternative decisions had been made, or events unfolded. The Gothic steamship dreams that centred on this knuckle of land in the mid-nineteenth century seems ripe for such exploration. The ambition behind the Great Eastern was huge but sadly, beyond being launched in the first place, the ship's achievements are disappointing and the history of trans Atlantic travel took a slightly different route.

We headed round to Island Gardens and the site of the old ferry to Greenwich, made defunct by the foot tunnel which opened in 1902 to enable workers South of the river to populate the ever expanding docklands, before continuing up passed Mudchute to the Docklands Museum to pick up some further reading and then back to The Grapes on Narrow Street to piece together some of our findings. It has the potential to be really exciting work.


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