Livesaving In Limehouse
Novelist & Historian of London Gillian Tindall takes over as guest author this week in celebration of the publication of her new book, A Tunnel Through Time, A New Route for an Old London Journey by Chatto & Windus.
In its unbroken run underground from the edge of the City of London at Whitechapel to the alternative City that has risen on the former docks, now called ‘Canary Wharf,’ Crossrail passes beneath two canals which were there well before the railways came. These canals were the first pieces of substantial engineering to be carved laboriously by huge teams of labourers with just picks and shovels out of the open pastures and market gardens between Stepney and the River Lea.
Regents Canal is well-known and loved, for in its old age it seems almost like a natural river bringing a breath of country air into the heart of the town. Built around the edge of London in the first two decades of the nineteenth century, it was designed to create a goods route between the new Grand Junction Canal at Paddington and the equally new docks to the east.
Yet when it arrived there in 1820, it met the already established Limehouse Basin, a harbour that had been constructed to receive barges from the Limehouse Cut. The Cut was the first canal for shipping to the capital and one of the oldest in England. It had opened fifty years before to link the River Lea, and hence the eastern counties, with the Thames. It bypassed the twisting loops of Bow Creek and the horseshoe bends of the Thames en route the Pool of London, turning a difficult journey of many miles into a short, straight one of less than two.
For most of its life, the Limehouse Cut has been heavily industrial. A few isolated lime-kilns operated in the area since the Middle Ages, converting chalk into building material and bestowing the name ‘Limehouse’ on the place. After the canal arrived, there were added manufacturies fuelled by the coal that the barges brought – soap boilers, potash works, cable making, presently a gas works and further chemical works making tar, varnish, ammonia and other reeking commodities of civilisation. Bones were ground down and fish heads were converted at what became the largest dog-biscuit factory in the world. It was all jobs for local people. A far cry from the Limehouse of nineteenth century tradition and myth, populated by sinister Chinese seamen off ships reputedly visiting opium dens.
Yet smelly local trades and opium dens are both now in the past. Even if the buildings fronting the canal had not suffered so much in the blitz, heavy industry is no longer to be found in the capital. The surviving warehouses and workshops are today much sought after by small companies, particularly in the media, though more and more workspaces have to compete with large development companies seeking to build ‘Luxury Waterside Homes.’
It was to reconnoitre one of these old buildings that I and my husband went walking along the towpath, one day at the end of June five years ago. A Conservation Society signalled to me that a good Victorian warehouse was being eyed-up by a developer and what did I think? I cannot retrieve exactly which building it was or the outcome – but what I recall vividly was the little deer in the stream.
We had checked the building, taken some photos, and were walking slowly on from Burdett Rd, under Commercial Rd bridge, in the direction of Limehouse Basin. The East End traffic roared over the bridges, but along the canal it was peaceful – stumpy traces of one-time barge apparatus slept in the sun, water dripped from the remnants of quay shoring, and from self-sown willows and buddleias that trailed from old walls, while ducks and moorhens went about their rural business. This summer, revisiting the place, I found barges moored along this stretch but five years ago it seemed more or less deserted.
As we neared the ancient railway bridge that carries the Docklands Light Railway, we met a young man standing on the towpath, gazing across to the other side, looking anxious and trying to call someone on his mobile. What was up, we wondered? He pointed to some quay shoring opposite which had collapsed into the water – there was no towpath that side. Willow saplings were sprouting out of leafy débris that had collected there forming a small island. Just discernible through the branches was what we discerned – when it shifted slightly – was a tiny deer, apparently a fawn.
The young man explained that he had been alerted to its presence by ‘a foreign lady’ who lived in the flats opposite, right on the canal but high above. She had spotted the fawn there the evening before, was worried about it and had eventually accosted this passerby to ask him if he could do something? – her own English was extremely limited. He had taken up the challenge and was trying to raise some responsible service, but was being passed from one number to another.
However, as we hung about – helpful if useless – and other interested passersby gradually joined us, the system did gradually begin to swing into action. Eventually, seven or eight fireman with special water-rescue equipment turned up Their clumping feet, as they moved and down the towpath discussing the best move, alarmed the fawn who had been shifting around in its eyrie from time to time. It jumped out and took to the water, swimming swiftly in the direction of the Basin. The fireman pounded heavily after it on the opposite side. It took fright again, swam back to its hiding place and, in a quick flurry of delicate legs, concealed itself still further behind the greenery.
Soon after this, a vanload of policemen turned up on the Commercial Rd bridge, where by now there was also an audience of walkers and locals. Then, at last, a posse of River Police who specialised in animal rescues appeared – it was said they had been summoned from down-river in Kent. Including them, there must now have been a good fifteen official persons in high-viz jackets trying to achieve the rescue of one small creature.
The River Police set off gently in a rubber dinghy for the fawn’s eyrie, reached it and almost managed to grab it. That is to say, one man, parting the willows, actually got his hands on its sleek sides – when, with a scream like a terrified child, it slithered out of his grasp, and regained the water. Once more, it swam frantically back and forth, pursued now by the dinghy which, with its load of two would-be helpful men, was much slower than this fleet animal. Up and down it went – we expected that at any moment it might have a heart attack. Do deer die of fright? Finally, leaving its pursuers paddling frantically behind, it swam out into Limehouse Basin.
There was a collective intake of breath from the by-now-quite-large crowd – because the Basin has an outlet to the Thames, and once the tiny animal got involved in the locks and out into the swift, rolling water it might not stand a chance. But, by great good fortune, the fawn veered not left towards the Thames but right, to an inlet where there was a lock that is now blocked off. The dinghy followed it and the fawn was finally cornered. Hands were laid on it again – more heart-rending screams – before it was quickly enveloped it a thick, dark bag brought for the purpose. Screams and struggles ceased as the deer lay quiet, evidently believing now that it had found a safe hiding place.
It was brought back into the Cut, to general applause, delivered to the towpath side and carried carefully in its bag up some steps to where the police van was parked. Where would they take it, we asked? ‘An animal sanctuary in Kent’ was the answer - ‘Pending enquiries.’
Two hours had passed since we first encountered the man on his phone. We and the rest of the audience dispersed, with views exchanged on where the young deer could possibly have come from? The favoured theory was that it, no doubt with its mother, had strayed out from Epping Forest, across the open country still to be found north of Chingford, and there had encountered the River Lea at the beginning of its long and winding route down to the East End. Had they meant to go swimming? Where had it lost its mother? Had they been swept apart? Had something frightened the creature to make it swim so far downstream before turning into the relatively safety of Limehouse Cut?
An alternative view was that it might not be a fawn at all but a muntjac, one of those miniature decorative deer from South Asia, and that it could have escaped from the Zoo and swum all the way down the Regents Canal. But this seems to me even less likely – all through the long tunnel from the Caledonian Rd to the Angel, Islington? I never did find out. But what we carried away with us from that day’s entertainment was a sense that we are still, with all our stupidities, a fundamentally decent country, to expend resources unquestioningly on such an enterprise rather than abandoning one small animal to slow starvation in a derelict corner of a canal.
The fawn swims for its life (Photograph by Richard Lansdown)
The fawn is captured in a cloth bag and rescued at Limehouse Basin (Photograph by Richard Lansdown)
On Thursday 15th September at 8pm, Gillian Tindall discusses her work and reads from ‘The Tunnel Through Time’ at Libreria, 65 Hanbury St, E1 5JP, which is positioned – appropriately enough – directly over a Crossrail tunnel. In her new book, Gillian explores the history of the new Crossrail route which turns out to be only the latest scheme to traverse an ancient path across London’s buried secrets and former fields. Click here to book your free ticket
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