To The Lighthouse: A Day at Trinity Buoy Wharf

As I’m sure you already know, (what with all the pictures of kids dressed up at their favourite fictional characters being posted all around the world) yesterday was National Book Day and, in honour of one of my best-loved books, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, I decided to go to London’s only lighthouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf.

“She felt… how life, from being made up of little separate incidents which one lived one by one, became curled and whole like a wave which bore one up with it and threw one down with it, there, with a dash on the beach.”

So I ventured far out east, through the scrabbling phalanx of suited office workers scuttling like ants around Bank station and out on the DLR to East India Docks.

Walking past the mud-churned waters of The Thames, along the edge where tiny moorhens and hulking seagulls were nosing through the debris that surfaced as the water peeled away from the mud at low tide, I discovered that it’s actually quite hard to miss Trinity Buoy Wharf.

Trinity Buoy Wharf

Even more so now considering that the whole area here near London City Island is undergoing a major facelift and the under contraction areas are currently fenced off with iron gates and patrolled by high-vis wearing sentries.

The site has been a workshop for crafting beacons, marks and signs for the sea since Trinity House’s corporation of mariners and shipmen moved in in Tudor times. TBW was closed more than 450 years later in  1988 when it was purchased by the London Docklands Development Corporation.

In 1996, Urban Space Management took the site on a long lease and today, this industrial enclave has taken on a decidedly cultural edge with everyone from design students at the University of East London to opera companies making their home in the cavernous warehouse studios, old stone houses and Crate City – lego stacked and primary colour painted metal crates. It’s even home to the London Parcour Academy.

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As I wandered around, the brackish breeze with its edge of burning rubbish rising up from the water and swirling around me, I realised that TBW has managed to achieve something rare in London.

They’ve made a place that’s interesting without being heaving with tourists; historic without being pretentious; gentrified without feeling privileged and cool without feeling remotely hipster.

I could have spent all day here, but only had a morning, which was just enough time to squeeze in the following.

10 things to do at Trinity Buoy Wharf

1. See London’s last remaining lighthouse

Designed and built by James Douglass in 1864, this elegantly-wrought lighthouse is the last one standing in modern day London.  The caramel-coloured stone edifice with its honeycomb hat of metal and glass was dubbed the Experimental Light house after the work done in its eaves by the scientist Michael Faraday.

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2. Experience The Faraday Effect

Designed by Fourth Wall Creations, The Faraday Effect is a tiny, multi-sensory and interactive museum and one of the smallest collections of curiosities in London. Despite its diminutive size, you’ll be surprised at how long you can spend in this tardis of a museum learning about the life and work of Michael Faraday, the famous Scientific Advisor to Trinity House.

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3. Seek out the sculptures

Alongside the wood that’s been painted cobalt and burgundy and around the scarlet and banana yellow metal crates, there are softly rusted and worn metal sculptures to be found.

Many of these are moving machines made by Andrew Baldwin and are scattered around the wharf, but below piece was created by Yoshie Jujioka using items found lying around LBW and now sits on the side of the Boiler House.

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4. Check out the big red boat

This colossal crimson ship moored behind the Big Boys Diner isn’t quite what it seems. It’s owned by Ben Phillips, an engineer who bought the 500 tonne lightship at an auction and converted it into an audio recording studio, renaming it Lightship95 along the way.

You can’t exactly just hop aboard if you feel like it, but you can book a recording session on the boat by emailing ben@lightship95.com.

Besides, even if you aren’t a budding musician, this brute of a boat makes for spectacular viewing from the safety of the dock.

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5. Liston to tides of The Thames with the Floodtide Listening Post

As I was standing and admiring the view in front of the Aluna clock, I was jolted out of my reverie by the metallic whispering that grew in volume until it sounded like the chirping of a steam engine. Turning around I realised that the noise was coming from a rust-covered post that dripped gleaming steal pipes like a trident.

The ingenious Floodtide Listening Post is a mechanical music machine that plays notes determined by the rise and fall and the sweep and wash of the river Thames’ tides.

The sweet, reedy lament of the pipes wasn’t exactly how I imagined the oily, clouded depths of The Thames would sound if it spoke, but this siren song shouldn’t be missed.

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6. Take in the view

From the docks, across the chocolate-coloured water, the sky opens up and you can see the spindly, latticed bridges stretching out and clutching on to cobalt blue cargo boats; the hive of activity smashing around the adjacent industrial sites and the spikes of the O2 building stretching upwards, where the cable cars of the Emirates Air Line dip and sway between fat, fluffy shreds of cloud.

It may not be the prettiest view of London, but it’s definitely one of the most interesting.

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7. Spot the details

My favourite thing about TBW was its smattering of curious objects and adornments, from the abandoned carcasses of super-sized letters and sumo wrestlers locked in battle on barrel lids to easy-to-miss carvings and decorations.

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8. Go on a graffiti hunt

As well as Electric Soup – the zany under the sea mural painted by New Zealand Artist Bruce Mahalski over a former shop front on Orchard Place – there are lots of ever changing and vividly-coloured tags and paintings all along the walkway from East India Docks DLR station to the water’s edge at TBW, just keep your eyes peeled to spot them.

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9. Learn to tell Alunatime

Sticking up from its stone foundation like a rusty lollipop, the Alunatime is the city’s first (and probably only) moon and tide clock.

Powered by the tides, the intricacies of the lunar phases and tide cycles are etched into its circular base and chart the natural rhythms of the Earth. It’s rumoured that this Alunatime is acting as an early version of the huge one that’s planned for Greenwich Peninsula, so you’d better get to grips with your lunar cycles now.

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10. Satisfy your hunger pangs at Fat Boys Diner

Nestled amid the box crates and beached boats is Fat Boys Diner, an American incongruity that seems curiously at home at TBW.

Designed and decked out like a real diner with cream and maroon leather booths, table-sized jukeboxes and a long stretch of formica bar, this natty little place serves up Americana classics like cheeseburgers, malted milkshakes, grilled cheese sandwiches and, of course, gigantic slabs of apple pie.

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Fatboy Diner

As the weather was so gloriously lovely, I couldn’t resist filling my camera’s memory card with a whole reel of colourful images from the docks.

Here are just a few more of my favourites.

 

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