We're on a road to nowhere: WAPPING HIGH STREET, EAST LONDON

Times change and few things mark the passing of people, fashions and ways of life so eloquently as once thriving city thoroughfares
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If your idea of a typical high street includes busy shops, prowling traffic wardens and pedestrians edging along crowded pavements, then don't come to Wapping High Street.

This is, however, one of Britain's most remarkable highways. Back in the 17th century, Wapping was a small riverside hamlet where Charles I came stag hunting. Two taverns clung to the edge of the Thames and both remain there. The Prospect of Whitby was once called the Devil's Tavern, and the Town of Ramsgate was formerly the Red Cow, in honour of a popular barmaid's flame-coloured hair.

It was the opening of the London Docks in 1805 that transformed the village of Wapping. Bordering the river, the high street was taken over by warehouses and wharfs. Many of the new dockers were Irish, and St Patrick's Roman Catholic church still stands near by.

Here, too, came hordes of off-duty sailors eager to let rip. Wapping High Street once had no fewer than 140 ale houses, as well as numerous houses of ill-repute, offering a good time for sixpence. The area thrived.

Then came the Second World War. Realising the strategic importance of the area to the war effort, German bombs rained fire on Wapping. But it survived - which was just one reason why Queen Elizabeth (now the Queen Mother) saw fit to pay tribute to the spirit of the East End.

What the Nazis failed to do, however - shut down London Docks - was accomplished in 1969. The closure dealt a death blow to a once vibrant area. The sailors had to go elsewhere for their entertainment.

In the Seventies, Wapping High Street was a ghost road. Today, after the redevelopment of Docklands, fitful attempts are being made to bring it back to the land of the living.

A stroll down Wapping High Street now offers a variety of odd contrasts. Some of the warehouses have been turned into smart apartments (locals also boast that Wapping now has more artists than Chelsea). The Thames River Police still have their headquarters here and the underground station remains. On either side of the high street, however, derelict land awaits redevelopment, while several council blocks tell of a Wapping that is immune, or indifferent, to "gentrification".

Wapping High Street lacks its former vigour and bustle, but at least it does not have a Safeway or WH Smith.

Andrew John Davies

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