In Victorian times, the streets south of Tower Bridge were a bustling warehouse district. Ships delivered goods that traveled here from all over the world. The Thames was at the center of the British Empire’s vast trading network and a major thoroughfare and lifeline to the entire city.
The river was so busy that ships couldn’t manoeuver. Cargoes remained on vessels for weeks at a time. Ultimately, shipping lagged because the river became too congested and there was tremendous competition from railway transport. This area became abandoned and derelict.
During the 1980s and 1990s, redevelopment began. Warehouses were transformed into shops and apartments. Local residents fought to have public access to the riverfront and today there is an expansive walkway along the river, with entry points from Shad Thames. Look out for the alleyway called Maggie Blake’s Cause, named for a local activist who took on developers wanting to restrict admittance to residents of the luxury apartments. Large ships still navigate here, as this is one of the deepest portions of the river, part of the Pool of London.
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Exploring this area illustrates how important the river once was to London’s economy. Start with Tower Bridge, one of the great engineering feats of the Victorian Age. Moreover, the bridge still regularly opens and it’s exciting to time a visit with a bridge raising.
Head east after exiting Tower Bridge and walk along Shad Thames all the way to St Saviours Dock. It looks a lot different than when Charles Dickens described it as one of ‘the filthiest and strangest localities hidden in London’ and when his Oliver Twist character, Bill Sykes, fell to his death in the mud.
Afterwards, walk along the riverfront past Tower Bridge, towards the elliptical structure that is City Hall. In the basement, discover the digitized map of London which little kids and big kids love to stand on and identify places they know.
The area surrounding City Hall has been developed by More London with an eye to providing usable public space. In summer the pop-up café here or even just the low walls surrounding the Scoop, an outdoor amphitheater, is a fun place to stop and rest in the shadow of Tower Bridge.
Away from the river, towards Tooley St., the Unicorn Theatre is one of London’s best drama venues for children and teens. Productions resonate well with targeted age groups; there are some provocative shows for teens and thought-provoking ones for little ones. If you’re traveling with children, it’s well worth making the effort to visit.
Take a break in Hay’s Galleria, which at first glance looks like nothing more than a modern shopping arcade but is actually built over the space where tea clippers once docked in the 19th century. Food options are nothing special; it’s probably more fun to wait for the rooftop café at the HMS Belfast. This warship, permanently docked by Hay’s Galleria is an absolute must if you are with young energetic children. They can climb around freely and imagine life in these narrow quarters.