48 hours in the life of London's Docklands

You need a break - and a short cut to the soul of a city. Each week, `The Independent' provides a prescription for the perfect weekend break. This week's subject is London's Docklands, where

Harriet O'Brien and Simon Calder slip out of Canary Wharf to spend 48 hours exploring.

Why go now?

Because the transformation from historic hub of the world's greatest trading empire to futuristic metropolis is not yet complete. Because the Independent Travellers' World exhibition takes place in the middle of Docklands this weekend. And because we could do with a few real people hereabouts.

Beam down

Citizens of Manchester and Edinburgh can fly direct to the area's own airport, London City, on Air UK (0990 074074). Others will need to make their way to Bank or Tower Gateway Underground stations, where the Docklands Light Railway begins. A pounds 4 ticket gives you the freedom of the network all day. But to cover the ground south of the river, you'll need a four- zone Travelcard covering both the railway and tube and bus services - it is cheaper, too, at pounds 3.80 for the day.

Get your bearings

East of Tower Bridge, the Thames starts swerving wildly. The biggest loop is around the Isle of Dogs (not an isle at all, more like a sloppy Labrador's tongue), which is the heart of the area. As officially defined, most of Docklands is north of the Thames, stretching nine miles east from Tower Bridge. But a chunk of Bermondsey, Rotherhithe and Surrey Docks on the south side is also included within the borders of the London Docklands Development Corporation, which has presided over the rebuilding of the area - and, some say, damaged old communities for the sake of new office blocks. Two months from today, the LDDC ceases to be.

Check in

Best value is the Rotherhithe youth hostel, south of the river on Salter Road (0171-232 2114). You can get there on a P11 bus that runs to and from Waterloo station; Rotherhithe tube station, a 10-minute walk away, is still closed. A bed in a dormitory of six costs pounds 20.50 a night, a twin room pounds 23.50.

For four-star comfort, a swimming pool and a night-club, head north of the Thames to the Britannia, at 163 Marsh Wall (0171-712 0100), where weekend specials are pounds 90 single and pounds 100 double, including breakfast.

Take a ride

Toytown trains running on old railways and new elevated lines, a system so poorly designed when it opened that twice as much cash again had to be spent making it even vaguely serviceable - but say what you like about the Docklands Light Railway, it makes a great tourist attraction as it threads, driverless, through the surreal cityscape. Try to board the DLR on the hour, between 10am and 2pm, from either Bank or Tower Gateway - a guide uses the on-board public address system to give information about the network and its history.

The network also offers some of London's best views of the emerging Millennium Dome at North Greenwich, now a spidery tangle of wires encircling some rather chilly air. The best spots for dome-watching are around West India Quay and Heron Quays.

Take a hike

Get off at Crossharbour, the nearest station to the Docklands visitor centre (which closes down at the end of February) - and the London Arena, venue for this weekend's travel exhibition. The helpful staff will kit you out with maps, which will enable you to explore Mudchute City Farm - the closest you'll get to a walk in the country. This hovers on a hill, accessible, rather bizarrely, from the car park at the Asda supermarket. Entrance is free to see some rather disconsolate-looking sheep, a vast and friendly black pig and a much-loved pets' corner.

The path through the farm leads to Pier Street: walk to the end of the road, turn right and follow signs to the left which lead to a riverside walkway. The 15-minute walk from here to the DLR station at Island Gardens offers spectacular views of the Royal Naval College and the Cutty Sark on the far side of the Thames at Greenwich.

Lunch on the run

The Pier Tavern on Pier Street is a quiet, unpretentious pub with a menu to warm the souls of those in search of hot food: a steak-and-ale pie costs pounds 4.75, plaice and chips pounds 4.25. There's an extensive choice of sandwiches at about pounds 2.90. If you're looking for more atmosphere, head for Ferry House on the corner of Ferry Street, beyond Island Gardens station. Built in 1822, this claims to be the oldest pub on the Isle of Dogs - and it looks suitably dog-eared. The mood makes up for a limited menu: sandwiches are pounds 1.50, a ploughman's lunch pounds 2.25.

Cultural afternoon

Tower Bridge, that neo-Gothic wonder of Victorian hydraulic engineering, not only offers some of the best views of the area but also provides a lively historical perspective. The towers of the bridgehouse are billed as an "Experience" - and it's a good one, too - where you meet animated models, admire the panoramas from high walkways, and learn the basics of hydraulic engineering. Open daily 9.30am-6pm, adults pounds 5.70, children pounds 3.90

Window shopping

Docklands is no place for shopaholics: at one end of the spectrum, Canary Wharf is full of office chic with the likes of Austin Reed, Moss Bros and Jaeger; the shopping mall at Surrey Quays across the river has a host of down-to-earth high-street chains. If you're in search of atmosphere and a possible bargain, make for Greenwich just beyond Docklands, where the antiques market runs on Saturdays and Sundays.

An aperitif

Cross south to the Mayflower, at 117 Rotherhithe Street, where you get the best view of the setting sun along the Thames.

Demure dinner

Keep south of the river to reach The Blueprint Cafe (0171-378 7031) on the edge of Docklands at 28 Shad Thames, Butler's Wharf. Try to book a window seat at Terence Conran's least pretentious and most dramatic restaurant. Expect to pay pounds 5.50 for starters such as saffron risotto, and pounds 13.75 for main courses such as poached cod with lentils and salsa verde.

For a cheaper option north of the river, try Baradero (0171-537 1666), a friendly tapas bar on Turnberry Quay, opposite the London Arena at Crossharbour.

Sunday morning: go to church

And what a choice there is. Nicholas Hawksmoor built some beauties here, and their graceful spires hold their own against Docklands' shiny skyscrapers. The finest is St Anne's near Limehouse, and thanks to Andrew Lloyd Webber's Open Church Scheme it is unlocked for visitors between 2pm and 4pm on weekdays and Saturdays, and between 3pm and 5pm on Sundays. You'll see St Anne's best in its full crumbling splendour at Sunday services, which take place at 10.30am and 6pm.

Sunday lunch

A short walk from St Anne's, The Grapes pub at 76 Narrow Street (0171- 987 4396) serves a good, old-fashioned Sunday roast (pounds 6.25) from noon. It's well worth coming here for views of the river, the creaking timber - and the literary associations. The Grapes features as the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters in Dickens's Our Mutual Friend.

A walk in the park

Amid the frenetic building work, a small patch of green has been stoically preserved. To get a warm sense of community care, visit Stave Hill Ecological Park, off Timber Pond Road, which has been lovingly developed as a haven for wildlife - particularly butterflies (more than 21 species have been found here). At this time of year, of course, there's not a great deal to see, but from the top of the hillock itself the sweeping views of the Isle of Dogs are magical.

The icing on the cake

Visit Butler's Wharf, just south east of Tower Bridge, before it is completely transformed into designerland. Here a few old warehouses remain quietly decaying alongside swish developments of loft-style apartments. And here you'll find the Design Museum - at Shad Thames (2pm-6pm weekends, 11.30am-6pm weekdays, adults pounds 5, concessions pounds 3.75).

From fridges to cameras and TV sets, you'll sharpen your awareness of the form and function of consumer goods, and wonder at the changing shape of the future.

Until the end of March the museum has an exhibition on bicycle design, ranging from 1860s velocipedes to space-age folding bikes complete with integrated lights. Forget buses and toytown trains, you may think; this is just the vehicle you need for a weekend exploring London's Docklands.

Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
voicesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping the First Minister up at night?
Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

Voices
voicesApple continually kill off smaller app developers, and that's no good for anyone
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style
life

News
ScienceGallery: Otherwise known as 'the best damn photos of space you'll see till 2015'
Travel
travelWhy Japan's love hotels are thriving through an economic downturn
Life and Style
fashion

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

Life and Style
Alexander McQueen A/W 2014
fashionPolitics aside, tartan is on-trend again this season
Arts and Entertainment
Rapper Jay Z performs on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury in 2008
musicSinger sued over use of the single-syllable sample in 'Run This Town'
Sport
Joel jumps over the board...and into a giant hole
footballFrom joy to despair in a matter of seconds
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC
tv

Much-loved cartoon character returns - without Sir David Jason

Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me
tv

Actress to appear in second series of the hugely popular crime drama

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Psychology Teacher

£110 - £130 per hour: Randstad Education Reading: Psychology Teacher needed fo...

Food Technology Teacher

£85 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Randstad Education are curren...

Physics Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: Physics Teacher required for ...

year 4/5/6

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you looking for a full...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week