Londonist's Back Passage: #54 Wapping Old Stairs

M@
By M@ Last edited 99 months ago
Londonist's Back Passage: #54 Wapping Old Stairs
The narrow passage beside the Town of Ramsgate pub.
The narrow passage beside the Town of Ramsgate pub.
View of the steps from the pub terrace.
View of the steps from the pub terrace.
The narrow alley leading to the Old Stairs.
The narrow alley leading to the Old Stairs.
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The Town of Ramsgate pub.
The Town of Ramsgate pub.
One of the first riverside warehouses to be converted into modern apartments overlooks the site.
One of the first riverside warehouses to be converted into modern apartments overlooks the site.

Time to resurrect our long-absent column on the city's alleys, ginnels and snickleways.

All the passageways we've covered in this series so far have led somewhere. Wapping Old Stairs is a little different. The modern explorer will find that this tight passage and time-warn steps debouch only onto the Thames foreshore, and then only at low tide. In days of yore, however, this ancient alley would serve as the start of a much longer journey to distant lands, and even to the very gates of hell.

You'll find Wapping Old Stairs on the western side of the Town of Ramsgate pub, named after the Kentish fisherfolk who once sold their wares here. This friendly boozer traces its beery origins back to the 16th century, but the current pub is probably Victorian. Out back is a diminutive beer terrace with a limited view of the river. The terrace looks down onto one of the countless inlets formerly servicing pre-war trading vessels. At low tide, it's possible to get down onto the foreshore at this point via a flight of dilapidated steps. You'll be surprised how readily you'll come across clay pipes, potsherds and other remnants of previous centuries.


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There are no relics, however, from the foreshore's former use as a site of execution for pirates, smugglers and other nautical ne'er-do-wells. Until as late as 1830, malefactors were hanged or gibbeted in the Wapping waters until, famously, three tides had passed over their swollen bodies. The exact site of 'Execution Dock', as it was known, is uncertain, but the waters around Wapping Old Stairs are a good contender. Certainly, the neighbouring pub's cellars were used to house prisoners before transportation to the colonies.

Regardless, the timeless atmosphere around this maritime staircase has led to it featuring in a number of TV series and films. Dr Who fans may remember the Stairs from Tom Baker classic The Talons of Weng-Chan. Further back, and this same flight of steps inspired a folk song and a Victorian drama.

Our visit coincided with high tide, so we couldn't get down to the shore. However, the BBC have this panoramic tour of the area.

Last Updated 20 July 2010