Our starting point is Hackney Downs and our route is by way of water. We pass through a park plated with gold leaf and join the canal via a set of phantom gates, made by the lattice shadow of a wrought iron gasholder. In the sun our route is warm, in the shade it bites. At Limehouse Basin we turn left and follow a blue lane east. The roads become wider and people less common. The smell is of fuel and salt.
The tributary Lea meets its master the Thames at Bow Creek, and this is where Trinity Buoy Wharf lies. The mud here is thick, glossed by water and patterned by river creatures. The landscape is brick, low level, sprawling and bleak. Beyond the curl of the Thames bad weather is moving in, a white fog of fast moving fine rain. We cycle through the wharf, in slow pursuit of a man on a penny farthing. He disappears, we lock up.
Hunger and weather decide our first move – to a marooned diner on the creek edge, to eat fried food and apple pie with cream from a can. Sitting in this metal shell with rain spotting on the glass reminds me of childhood holidays, when we’d be forced to lunch in the car while the great outdoors was temporarily lost to low cloud. Soft sandwiches behind steamed-up windows.
And then, at last, to the lighthouse. The ‘experimental lighthouse’ in fact, and London’s only one. It’s not the candy stick you imagine. There’s no red and white striped tower ringed with rocks and water. It’s not circled by sea gulls and there’s no wooden rowing boat listing at its feet. It’s a squat Victorian brick warehouse with a metal and glass turret, surrounded by a wash of tarmac and parked cars.
Built in 1864, with the lantern installed two years later, this was where bulbs were tested and developed before being put to use out at sea. It was here that electromagnetic adventurer Michael Faraday carried out his experiments with light, including pioneering the use of electric lighting in the South Foreland Lighthouse in Kent. During the first half of the twentieth century, the experimental lighthouse was where keepers came to learn their craft.
The wharf feels isolated and empty, but also busy with curiosities and the aura of eccentrics. There’s the bright red lightship docked along one side, with an indulgent, rusty roll-top bath on deck. There’s Faraday’s precarious shed, with its pebble floor, secret drawers and stuffed black cat. There are mechanical sculptures, cogs and horns, all rusted into frozen poses. And there’s a silent waterside moon clock that will tell you the time of the tides.
The wharf sits atop high sea walls that are licked with weed. It’s low tide and a dark beach has surfaced. The clouds clear to the west and the view is of Canary Wharf and its cohorts. A thrusting mob that seems out of place and is happily shrunken by distance. A narrow metal ladder drops vertically down to the shore, with footprints set deeply in the sand at the bottom. They lead to a sputtering boat where someone unseen tinkers with the engine.
As we cycled into the wharf we saw the wreck of a lighter barge – half metal, half mud, and slowly melting into the river. Here, barges have been re-fashioned into a collection of pots and planted with dwarf apples. The trees are dotted among old shipping containers, which have been stacked on top of each other and turned into studios. They provide low impact space to small businesses and artists, who inject this area with new life. There are pretty driftwood gardens, woven with nasturtiums, pepper plants and tomatoes, and there’s a sign warning you to beware the cat and the dog.
From 1803 to 1988, this was a place where navigation buoys, lightships and other equipment was made, stored and repaired. The wharf was populated by platers, riveters, blacksmiths, tinsmiths, carpenters, pattern makers and painters. Imagine the noise, the dust, the filth and the sparks. The blackened cheeks and the hardened hands. The dockside smog and smell. Do we mistakenly romanticise all this? Life became grim for the residents and fishermen of the polluted Bow Creek. And before 1803 this place was a riverside orchard. Today it is both relic and renewed.
© Helen Babbs | this feature first appeared in the winter issue of Lost in London