Carolynn Look, BA Chinese & Development Studies
An increasingly predictable conversation takes place each time I tell people where I live. Oh wow, Kennington? No no, it’s Canning Town. You know, just beyond Canary Wharf? At this point I receive either a judgemental look because ‘I’m one of those evil capitalists/kid with rich parents/not living in a more hipster area,’ or a look of utter confusion, mostly because no one has so much as seen it on a map.
Canning Town may be within spitting distance of devilish capitalist emblems such as Canary Wharf, and its glittering tube station wouldn’t look out of place at a Tiffany’s, yet this grand entrance could not be more misleading.
Although the area does have its hidden gems, Canning Town is officially among the 5% most deprived areas in the UK. Many residents are afflicted by poor health, low education and poverty; 49.7% of 16-74 year olds have no formal qualifications. Life expectancy is six years lower in Canning Town than it is in Westminster, only 20 minutes away on the tube. In fact, a study by the London Health Observatory found that when travelling east from Westminster, each tube stop represented nearly one year of life expectancy lost.
What used to be uninhabited marshland prior to the 19th century, accessible only by boat or toll bridge, gradually developed into a slum housing workers from the nearby Royal Victoria Docks. These opened in 1855 and were a huge commercial success with their ability to accommodate large steam ships. The settlements surrounding it, however, lacked water and basic sanitation. The resultant unhygienic living conditions led to outbreaks of cholera and smallpox. Charles Dickens described the housing conditions in his 1857 book Londoners over the Border:
‘Rows of small houses, which may have cost for their construction eighty pounds apiece, are built designedly and systematically with their backs to the marsh ditches; …two or three yards of clay pipe “drain” each house into the open cess pool under its back windows, when it does not happen that the house is built as to overhang it… In winter time every block becomes now and then an island, and you may hear a sick man, in an upper room, complain of water trickling down over his bed. Then the flood cleans the ditches, lifting all their filth into itself, and spreading it over the land. No wonder that the stench of the marsh in Hallsville and Canning Town of nights, is horrible.’
The docks and the surrounding area were severely damaged by bombing during World War II but stayed in operation until 1980, when Tilbury replaced the docklands as Britain’s principal port. Nowadays the dock still exists and is accessible to ships, yet most of the original warehouses on the waterfront have been demolished. The area has gone through huge transformations with its connection to the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) network in 1994, the construction of the ExCel Exhibition Centre in 2000, and a £3.7 billion regeneration project aimed to transform the area physically, socially and economically.
It is at these docks that I begin my ideal day in Canning Town. After crossing the ugly highway bridge that leads away from the station, I stumble out into the perfect, almost Legoland-ish construction of the Royal Victoria Docks. None of the breakfast cafes near the waterfront are particularly worth mentioning, but if the weather is nice, choose one with outdoor tables from which you can (during spring/summer) watch people doing water sports; you could even join the relatively cheap activities including wakeboarding, kneeboarding, sailing, kayaking, bell boat racing, raft building and water skiing! In winter, you better sit inside and bring a good book, as there will barely even be a passerby for you to observe.
From here it is also possible to get a good look of the area from above by taking the Emirates Air Line, which at £3.40 for a single journey is a bit hefty, especially since you really need to take it both ways since there is NOTHING on the other side in North Greenwich. Nonetheless, it makes really a rather nice experience.
Walking along the docks, I pass by the historic 19th century K-S and W Warehouses, which have been preserved and now house several trendy restaurants that are not really my style. The nearby ExCel Exhibition Centre has nothing to offer unless you are actually going to one of their exhibitions, so I choose instead to head up the stairs of the Royal Victoria Docks Bridge – a pedestrian bridge that offers stunning views of Canary Wharf on one side, and the derelict Millenium Mills and London City Airport on the other. Given that I jog along this bridge every morning, it has become one of my favourite places in London, and my dream date (just so you know, lucky readers) would be for someone to take me up here with a picnic and a guitar while airplanes nearly brush the tops of our heads.
After a morning at the windy docks, I decide to head to the Canning Town Caravanserai, a grassroots public space which attempts to bring together trade, enterprise, entertainment, eating, and gardening. They sometimes have Saturday markets, when crafty people from around the area sell their cool DIY inventions, and they used to (and hopefully will soon again) teach steel drum classes. The space is cool and the people are lovely, but a lack of funding and volunteers means that it is closed most of the days I walk by.
Across the street from the Caravanserai, there is a great Lithuanian supermarket which sells the best beer my lips have ever tasted (I say that being German and therefore an alleged connoisseuse). They even sell draft beer in up to 3 litre bottles for you to take home at a very reasonable price! Since there are no Tesco’s or Sainsbury’s within what I deem an acceptable walking distance of my house, my diet this year has been based rather disproportionately on their delicious rye bread, kurd and pelmeni (Russian dumplings), not that I’m complaining!
I continue on to spend a few hours soaking at the New Docklands Steam Baths, which they claim is a fusion of traditional Turkish hamams and Russian banyas. Let me say that I really enjoy spa experiences, but cannot stand these high-end relaxation temples with gentle music and sounds of waves that you find in much of central London. This place is no-frills and the personalities visiting it a lot less pretentious, very much to my liking (and cheap at £10 for students). Apparently there is a rather cliquey group of men who come here on a weekly basis and engage in the Jewish bathing ritual of “Schmeissing”, where the men take turns in scrubbing each other down from top-to-bottom, cool kids only.
Walking up Barking Road, I pass by the the former Royal Oak pub (later a betting shop and now vacant), whose boxing ring on the first floor was a regular haunt of heavyweight boxer Frank Bruno. Also up the road is the former site of the demolished Bridge House, which was the first pub to start its own record label. It was here that heavy metal fans would rub shoulders with punks, mods, skinheads and goths to watch, amongst others, Iron Maiden, Dire Straits, Secret Affair, Cockney Rejects, Wasted Youth, U2 and Mick Jagger. Bridge House 2 was later established on a street nearby, but closed in late 2013. Another legendary live music venue bites the dust.
For dinner I head to Albina, a Ukrainian restaurant that doesn’t skimp on kitsch and vodka, and serves delicious, hearty meals which are completely unsuitable to vegetarians. I order rabbit with sour cream and potatoes, and my half-Ukrainian friend goes for authentic chicken kiev. Her verdict: fantastic food, slow service.
The places I have mentioned are evidence that there have certainly been a lot of improvements in Canning Town, which up until recent years was not the case. In 2005, The Guardian published an article after DHL announced that it was happy to deliver to Baghdad but not to this district of east London. The article stated that it was not the first time Canning Town had been blacklisted, and that two years earlier NatWest had labelled it ‘a particularly risky place to lend money’. Nowadays, however, there seems to be an increasing sense of community, and once shady nooks are being transformed with modern buildings, plants, murals and posters on Canning Town’s history. Redevelopment has sadly also had less beneficial aspects: the massive property boom and consequent rise in house prices has led to friction between the new arrivals and the older residents. It has also made for some of the most striking contrasts to be seen in Britain: luxury private-owned flats built next to run-down public housing estates.
While Canning Town might be more interesting for its historical virtue and niche activities, it offers very little in terms of the hip entertainment we are used to here at SOAS. Still, there is something quite special about this area. It’s called cheap rent. The two-hour night bus journeys after an evening out and your inability to ever convince your friends to visit you might at times be frustrating, but some of the little gems I have found have made living here entirely worth it.