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Watermen’s Stairs

March 14, 2019
by the gentle author

Wapping Old Stairs

I need to keep reminding myself of the river. Rarely a week goes by without some purpose to go down there but, if no such reason occurs, I often take a walk simply to pay my respects to the Thames. Even as you descend from the Highway into Wapping, you sense a change of atmosphere when you enter the former marshlands that remain susceptible to fog and mist on winter mornings. Yet the river does not declare itself at first, on account of the long wall of old warehouses that line the shore, blocking the view of the water from Wapping High St.

The feeling here is like being offstage in a great theatre and walking in the shadowy wing space while the bright lights and main events take place nearby. Fortunately, there are alleys leading between the tall warehouses which deliver you to the waterfront staircases where you may gaze upon the vast spectacle of the Thames, like an interloper in the backstage peeping round the scenery at the action. There is a compelling magnetism drawing you down these dark passages, without ever knowing precisely what you will find, since the water level rises and falls by seven metres every day – you may equally discover waves lapping at the foot of the stairs or you may descend onto an expansive beach.

These were once Watermen’s Stairs, where passengers might get picked up or dropped off, seeking transport across or along the Thames. Just as taxi drivers of contemporary London learn the Knowledge, Watermen once knew the all the names and order of the hundreds of stairs that lined the banks of the Thames, of which only a handful survive today.

Arriving in Wapping by crossing the bridge in Old Gravel Lane, I come first to the Prospect of Whitby where a narrow passage to the right leads to Pelican Stairs. Centuries ago, the Prospect was known as the Pelican, giving its name to the stairs which have retained their name irrespective of the changing identity of the pub. These worn stone steps connect to a slippery wooden stair leading to wide beach at low tide where you may enjoy impressive views towards the Isle of Dogs.

West of here is New Crane Stairs and then, at the side of Wapping Station, another passage leads you to Wapping Dock Stairs. Further down the High St, opposite the entrance to Brewhouse Lane, is a passageway leading to a fiercely-guarded pier, known as King Henry’s Stairs – though John Roque’s map of 1746 labels this as the notorious Execution Dock Stairs. Continue west and round the side of the river police station, you discover Wapping Police Stairs in a strategic state of disrepair and beyond, in the park, is Wapping New Stairs.

It is a curious pilgrimage, but when you visit each of these stairs you are visiting another time – when these were the main entry and exit points into Wapping. The highlight is undoubtedly Wapping Old Stairs with its magnificently weathered stone staircase abutting the Town of Ramsgate and offering magnificent views to Tower Bridge from the beach. If you are walking further towards the Tower, Aldermans’ Stairs is worth venturing at low tide when a fragment of ancient stone causeway is revealed, permitting passengers to embark and disembark from vessels without wading through Thames mud.

Pelican Stairs

Pelican Stairs at night

View into the Prospect of Whitby from Pelican Stairs

New Crane Stairs

Wapping Dock Stairs

Execution Dock Stairs, now known as King Henry’s Stairs

Entrance to Wapping Police Stairs

Wapping Police Stairs

Metropolitan Police Service Warning: These stairs are unsafe!

Wapping New Stairs with Rotherithe Church in the distance

Light in Wapping High St

Wapping Pier Head

Entrance to Wapping Old Stairs

Wapping Old Stairs

Passageway to Wapping Old Stairs at night

Aldermans’ Stairs, St Katharine’s Way

You may also like to read about

Madge Darby, Historian of Wapping

Whistler in Wapping & Limehouse

The Gentle Author’s Wapping Pub Crawl

Wapping Tavern Tokens

14 Responses leave one →
  1. Celt permalink
    March 14, 2019

    Wonderful, atmospheric photos. Thank you

  2. Amanda, Norfolk permalink
    March 14, 2019

    As always, a beautiful and informative piece of writing Thank you Gentle Author.

  3. Susan Martin permalink
    March 14, 2019

    Wow! Brilliant as usual. You have inspired me to visit those places at Easter i think. The photos are amazing. I always look forward to your blogs. Thsnk you.

  4. March 14, 2019

    Thank you, I have always loved these steps, wherever they are.

  5. March 14, 2019

    Wonderful photos which bring back great memories of playing as a child on those stairs, and the fact that it was forbidden made it all the better. Today I live by the Rhine, and go every day to ‘pay my respects’ to the river and the old buildings and ruins there. Valerie

  6. Paul Phillips permalink
    March 14, 2019

    Your beautiful pictures are very dramatic even atmospheric today and brought back memories of my time in London’s East End – thank you.

  7. March 14, 2019

    Magical, beautiful, thank you.

  8. Helen Breen permalink
    March 14, 2019

    GReetings from Boston,

    GA, great pics – really illuminates yesterday’ s piece on the Water Poet.

  9. March 14, 2019

    If any of these staircases were here in the States there would be ugly signage, orange
    caution cones, yellow Police tape, and ugly barriers all around. I felt some minor vertigo even looking at these photos — like I was going to pitch forward, right into the computer screen.
    Atmospheric as heck — thank YOU for allowing us to help out, as you pay tribute to your
    waterways. Always grateful to be along with you on your excursions.

    Keep your bloomers dry, GA.

  10. Kristian permalink
    March 14, 2019

    One of my favourite posts in a while. So evocative.

  11. Jill Wilson permalink
    March 15, 2019

    Having recently visited The Grapes at Limehouse when there was an exceptionally high tide (it was lapping over the balcony and the flood shutters were in place) made me really appreciate what a mighty beast Old Father Thames is.

    And also how incredibly strong and skilled the old Watermen must have been to navigate the river in all it’s moods. I’m looking forward to finding out more on a visit to Watermen’s Hall on Monday…

  12. Chris Connor permalink
    March 15, 2019

    Thank you for putting some light on one of the lesser known, but still very interesting parts of London. The number of alleys and stairs leading to the Thames between Tower Bridge and Shadwell Basin is fascinating.

  13. Pauline Taylor permalink
    March 15, 2019

    I love all the views of the Thames and particularly the stairs as it, and they, make me stop and think how familiar the river must have been to all my ancestors from the one who operated the ferry at Hampton to the several generations who were the Archbishop’s watermen at the horse ferry at Lambeth. So much history is connected with all their lives and I find it totally fascinating so thank you again GA.

  14. EJ Wilkinson permalink
    March 16, 2019

    Well this goes to the bravery of the GA for visiting these spots at all hours. I’d be worried about being swept away if I dared to walk on any of the ‘beaches’ at low tide!

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