Contained within one of the largest meanders of the Thames, the Isle of Dogs is a distinct and diverse area of East London awash with a mixture of gardens, docks and pubs.
Mudchute is frankly one of the more ridiculous names on the Tube Map: a perfect place to kick-start my weekly series on London’s hidden treasures. Situated on the Bank-Lewisham stretch of the DLR in the heart of the Isle of Dogs (the spit of land below Canary Wharf that resembles that dangly thing at the back of your throat), it has always conjured an image of a large pipeline in my mind; a friend thought it was a theme park. So, what does actually go on there?
Almost straight off the platform, I was greeted by the entrance to not one, but two parks: Mudchute Park and Millwall Park. The latter, which used to be the site of the Globe Rope Works until the 1970s, appeared to be no more than football fields. The sign to Mudchute Park on the other hand featured the word ‘farm’; an easy choice.
I don’t know many inner-city farms and I was expecting a petting zoo with goats and chickens. I didn’t envisage an equestrian centre with sheep, llamas, pigs, pygmy cows and a heavy artillery anti-aircraft gun – one of four on the Mudchute, which “provided a vital part of the anti-aircraft defence of the docks” during the Second World War.
A sign to a little courtyard café and farm shop caught my eye and I decided it would be a good place for my first stop. £2 for a perfectly nice Americano, I asked the lady at the till about her favourite part of Mudchute. Unsurprisingly, she said the park; rich nature and wildlife in the heart of London. Looking around, she certainly had a point: this bucolic enclave – a stone’s throw from Canary Wharf – was quite surreal.
I also took the chance to ask the other patrons about their favourite places on the island: the very café I was in, again unsurprisingly (due to a mixture of location and Londoners’ aversion to talk to strangers for any longer than is necessary), got the most nods. Followed by: Mudchute Park, The Gun (“best pub on the Island”), The Lotus (a floating Chinese restaurant) and Island Gardens. Considering the time (11am), I decided that lunch at The Gun – with its riverside location and views of the Millennium Dome (it will always be called that to me) – would be a great way to finish off my walking tour of the Island.
After leaving the park on its eastern edge, I set off clockwise and soon found myself on a section of the Riverside Walkway, which intermittently circumvents the isle. On the walk, I discover that the Isle of Dogs was originally called Stebunheath Marsh – a haven for wild fowl until the 1840s when the arrival of manufacturing and ship-building industries drastically altered the area.
This nugget of information reminds me that I still don’t know the reasoning behind the name Mudchute (or the Isle of Dogs for that matter) and so I ask one of the few other users of the walkway. For Mudchute, he was quite certain: the Millwall Dock Company used the area as a dumping ground for the mud dredged at the dock; appropriate. However, he was less certain about the etymology of the ‘Isle of Dogs’: ‘supposedly because the King kept his hunting dogs here when staying at [the Royal Palace of] Greenwich, but I dunno if that’s actually true’. As it turns out, there are several theories about the name, but very little evidence.
Even on this classically overcast London morning, the walkway is visually impressive: the London Transport Power Station, Trinity Hospital, the Trafalgar Inn, the Queen’s House, the Royal Observatory, the Royal Naval Hospital and the Cutty Sark all come into view, with the latter four particularly clear from Island Gardens.
On the Southern tip of the Isle, the Gardens not only provides panoramic views of Greenwich’s Royal Museums, but is also home to the northern end of the Greenwich Foot Tunnel – a 15 metres deep, 370 metres long, 114 years old cast-iron tunnel underneath the Thames. I go down to have a look (but not venture across, as I’ll save Greenwich for another time). The circular tunnel looks like the entrance to a stereotypical movie bank vault; a bank vault that you cannot see the exit too. Probably not one for the claustrophobes, but undeniably striking.
It is also close to a host of good-looking pubs, restaurants and cafés, such as the Eastern, the Ferry House (self-proclaimed “oldest pub on the island” dated circa 1722), the old fire station and the Hubbub Café, an arts centre café in a converted chapel. The inventively named The Island offers a classic combination of dingy sailing courses, a Sunday Roast and 4 Jager Bombs for a tenner.
Following the curve of the river, I eventually come to Sir John McDougal Gardens. Unfortunately for Sir John, the views are not really comparable to that of Island Gardens, although Sir John does have a big slide so it’s not all bad.
Heading into the centre, I come across the Glengall bridge – a bascule bridge that goes over Millwall Inner Dock – and here I see the Lotus. Supposedly London’s largest floating Chinese restaurant, the Lotus proudly states it has more than 90 dishes on offer, with the average meat dish coming in at £8; Dim sum a reasonable £2.90 per portion. However, I’m set on going to the Gun.
The skyline of the Isle of Dogs used to be dominated by the central granary adjacent to Millwall Inner Dock, but it’s 13 floors are now dwarfed by the surrounding buildings; not least the towers of Canary Wharf. I understand that their primary purpose is office space, but they could have been a little more creative like the Gherkin or Cheese-Grater further upstream. The most distinctive building in Canary Wharf is a rectangle with a triangle on it, while the rest of the area resembles an upmarket, high-spec termite colony; full of tireless workers and imposing towers.
I meandered through this purpose-built hub to the Blackwall Basin: a barge community and, from what I could see, fishing hotspot. Being not much of a fisherman, maybe I don’t get it, but surely there are better spots in London than a barge marina? There was no such fisherman at the neighbouring Poplar Dock, which is probably a good thing, seeing it used to handle the coal imports from the North of England.
By now I had been walking for three hours – 16,500 steps; 12.5 km – and I couldn’t wait for some good food and a pint on the river. Turns out I was wrong; I could wait. The Gun was closed for a wedding. I thought I should probably go back to the Lotus, but I now craved something a bit more pub-esque. The uniquely named The George at Crossharbour would suffice. Pint of Timothy Taylor’s (£4). Sausages and mash (£10.50). Day out exploring the Isle of Dogs (pricele… no, £16.50).
Like many places in London, Mudchute and the Isle of Dogs is a wealthy trove of the modern and the historical, but also the industrial and the agricultural. Farms, parks, docks, wharfs and towers all contained within the bounds of the Thames; well worth a visit in my opinion.
Total cost: £16.50
Time needed: 3-4 hours (including lunch)