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Watermen’s Stairs

August 11, 2022
by the gentle author

Tickets are available for my tour from next Saturday



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

The Gentle Author’s Wapping Pub Crawl

Wapping Tavern Tokens

11 Responses leave one →
  1. Hetty M Startup permalink
    August 11, 2022

    thank you for taking us into these hidden realms — hard to reach and photograph as well. Hetty

  2. Pauline permalink
    August 11, 2022

    Such atmospheric photos. Thank you.

  3. August 11, 2022

    Fascinating story!

    Love & Peace

  4. August 11, 2022

    You are right, it is like visiting another time. Unknown and not even imagined parts of London…
    Thank you.

  5. Milo permalink
    August 11, 2022

    Great piece. You hit the nail on its head by describing the feeling as being like you’re backstage at a theatre.
    And then you walk, heart in mouth, down one of the alleys towards the river and…

  6. Lynda Bailey permalink
    August 11, 2022

    These are wonderfully atmospheric photos of watermen’s stairs. I had only seen the more open ones on the south bank before walking from Tower Bridge to Greenwich a few days ago. The narrow alleyways between blackened brick buildings looked forbidding – but also enticing! An instant transfer to (an imagined) Victorian times. Thank you.

  7. Adele Lester permalink
    August 11, 2022

    How many of our ancestors must have arrived by boat and were dropped off at various points along the Thames and used those stairs! Wonderful post.

  8. gkbowood permalink
    August 11, 2022

    I especially like the picture of the view into the pub- it looks like you caught a moment in time from long ago!

  9. Saba permalink
    August 11, 2022

    Fabulous! Thank you.

  10. Cherub permalink
    August 12, 2022

    I really enjoyed this piece and the photos (the passageway to the stairs at Wapping looks very frightening in the dark.

    I’m lucky to live on the knee of the Rhein in Basel. We have small manually steered passenger Rheinfahren here to transport people from one side of the Rhein to the other for a small fare. I often take the St Alban Wild Maa ferry from Grossbasel to Kleinbasel (it translates from Basel Deutsch as Wild Man). There is something very magical about the short trip across the water, I never tire of it despite having lived here for 6 years.

  11. John Cunningham permalink
    August 14, 2022

    Growing up, what London meant to me was all about pop culture. Carnaby Street and bands like the Kinks. Waterloo Sunset is still one of my favourite songs. But now being an older Boomer, with time on my hands I’m exploring other deeper aspects of this great city. I no longer live in the UK but on my visits to London the Gentle Author is a guiding light. I visited the Prospect of Whitby in May for an excellent few beers but never noticed the Waterman’s stairs that GA writes about. Much still to learn about “The Smoke”

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