So to celebrate Greg’s birthday, we were having a couple of days in London. I found a Premier Inn in Docklands which was fairly reasonable and gave us a new area to explore! When I realised it was right next to the Excel centre, I checked what was on there, and got us cheapish tickets to the Grand Designs show too.
It was an unhurried train journey up on Friday morning. Alighting at Victoria we headed upstairs for our favourite Hema shop and costa coffee for Greg then topped up an Oyster card and headed east.
In the distant past when I used to work in the Canary Wharf tower, and live in Bow, the docklands light railway was the only way to travel to work. Also working in that tower were a load of CAD (computer aided design) designers and engineers working day and night shifts to complete the design of electrical works for the Jubilee Line underground extension. The contract ballooned from £52m to £250m in the time I worked there. These days of course it’s all built. You no longer have to get the driverless trains (that stopped running early evening) but can get the Jubilee line right across London and pop up in the new deep Canary Wharf station where there are doors sealing the platforms until the trains stop. We got on a train that passed Canary Wharf and North Greenwich, effortless slipping back and forwards under the Thames and arriving at Canning Town.
I used to get a Canning Town bus on my way to college, a desperately poor and deprived area of Tower Hamlets, one of London’s poorest boroughs. Today it still is, but the dockland area is radically transformed, and Canning Town has an underground station and is a major interchange. This is where we change back onto a DLR route towards Beckton, getting off at Prince Regent, the east bound stop for the Excel Centre and a short walk from the Premier Inn that sits between the elevated DLR tracks and the crossrail building works below.
The Excel Exhibition Centre built in 2000 is a vast exhibition space that has been used for Olympic Events and numerous exhibition and shows. It sits on the waterside of the Royal Victoria Dock. At 4km long, the royal docks were once the largest enclosed docks in the world. Now they are the setting of a 21st century transformation. The dubious bank holiday weather brings some ominous clouds but we decide to set off anyway, walking along the dockside and seeking lunch. We find a waterside restaurant and settle down for lunch, while watching the Emirates skyway transport people across the docks by cablecar.
As we watch the clouds get blacker and blacker, and suddenly there is thunder, lighting and some spectacular hailstones falling. By the time we are ready to leave it is just torrential rain, so we reverse our visiting plans, and duck back to The Royal Victoria DLR station and head towards Poplar to change for West India Quay.
When I worked here, this DLR stop was a mystifying waste of space. Nothing but derelict buildings and rusting cranes, and only yards from the next station Canary Wharf, where the only office buildings were situated.
Now it’s transformed with dockside eateries and a pedestrian bridge linking to the other side. This is also the location of the Docklands Museum. In March 2016 a new exhibition opened, celebrating the history of the Grade 1 listed building itself – Number 1 Warehouse. This warehouse built in 1802 was part of the West India Docks, London’s first enclosed dock system. A walled and gated compound, the docks provided a secure area where cargoes could be loaded, unloaded and stores.
The West India Docks would have been a hive of activity in which dockers, merchants, clerks, warehousemen and coopers combined to operate the busiest docks in the world, accommodating over 600 vessels. At its height, No.1 Warehouse was piled high with valuable cargoes from around the world including sugar, rum, tobacco, spices, coffee, timber and wine. Cargoes were constantly on the move as they were winched from the holds of ships, to the quayside and straight into the warehouses via loophole doors. This process went on daily for nearly 200 years, helping to establish London as a major world city, until the advent of shipping containers forced the dock’s closure in 1980.
We got back on the Jubilee line, just as the local office workers were starting to pile out for the Friday night journey home (or Friday night drinking in the local bars, which I remember well!) This time we got out at North Greenwich, home of the Millenium Dome or O2 as it’s now known. Left for the O2, and right for the Emirate airline across the docks.
This time the storms had passed and we got fantastic views with blue skies. It’s pretty impressive and cost only £3.50 with my oyster card! By the time we walked back to the hotel, we were too worn out to wander around looking for dinner so settled for the in-house restaurant meal deal with breakfast.