In Pictures: London's Docks Are Thriving Once More

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 13 months ago
In Pictures: London's Docks Are Thriving Once More
A huge boat in the docks surrounded by smaller ones
London's Docklands are enjoying a renaissance. © Niki Gorick Photography

Thriving for centuries as an integral cog in Britain's booming — yet nefarious — trade industry, London's docks plunged into disuse post-war. Even when they started back into life during the 1980s, it was more about rebuilding around the docks, a la The Long Good Friday, rather than bringing life back to the water itself.

A woman grinning with a dog in the foreground
For many years, Eva has welcomed dogs from the Cinnamon Trust on to her cosy boat, looking after up to five animals while their owners are in hospital or unable to care for them. A spry 83-year-old, she is frequently out and about walking her charges along Surrey Dock Marina’s pontoons and quaysides. © Niki Gorick Photography

Fast-forward to 2023, and the boating scene prospers once more — at least according to a photo book documenting life among the engineers, house boat owners, lifeboat personnel and others, at three of London's docks.

A cluster of festooned boats
For one weekend every September, St Katharine Docks’ central basin is filled with 40 or so beautifully preserved vintage vessels for the increasingly popular Classic Boat Festival. A highlight is seeing the line- up of Dunkirk Little Ships, an inspiring reminder of their vital role in crossing the Channel to rescue trapped Allied soldiers in 1940. © Niki Gorick Photography

Dock Life Renewed by Niki Gorick takes us to St Katharine Docks, the Isle of Dogs and South Dock Marina in Surrey Quays — once used for the likes of rum, sugar and tobacco, and indelibly stained with connections to the slave trade — to discover how they are now being utilised by fresh generations of sea/river-faring folk — some even living on the water.

A tallship in front of skyscrapers
Owned by the Jubilee Sailing Trust, SVTenacious is not only the UK’s largest working tall ship but is unique in being cleverly designed to be sailed by mixed-ability crews, including wheelchair users. Since its launch in 2000, the ship has sailed over 270,000 kilometres, including six voyages across the Atlantic. Having picked up some crew in London, it is heading for the sea again out of West India Docks. © Niki Gorick Photography

Gorick, who lives in a flat at Surrey Quays, explains in her book: "I started chatting to my water-based neighbours, gaining their trust and permission to photograph. I soon discovered many different personalities and a tight-knit, welcoming community of all types, from pensioners to families, business executives to artists."

Paddleboarders standing on their heads
After a final relaxing meditation using the gentle rocking motion of the water, the session ends with an unexpected headstand competition. With everyone feeling very relaxed by now, this was remarkably successful. © Niki Gorick Photography

From visits by tall ships like the Götheborg of Sweden, to the annual Classic Boat Festival, history in the docks is often palpable. Gorick has snapped some wonderful images of the engineers who keep the 'Portwey' tugboat chugging along — it is one of the last steam-powered, twin-engined working tugs in the UK.

Two men in boiler suits in an engine room
A band of enthusiastic volunteers keeps Portwey going as one of the last steam-powered, twin-engined working tugs in the UK. Built in 1927 and now moored in the Isle of Dogs West India Docks, she
had a busy working life on the Dorset and Devon coasts before being usurped by diesel-engined tugs in the 1960s. Saved from the scrapyard by Dartmouth’s assistant harbour master, the Steam Tug Portwey Trust took
over her running in 2000 and now does Steam Experience Days in dock as well as Thames excursions. She’s much loved but new recruits for her upkeep are always needed. © Niki Gorick Photography

Gorick's photos also demonstrate the sheer amount of elbow grease (and maritime) knowhow that goes into maintaining vessels; hulls especially must be checked and maintained regularly, and hard graft comes as part and parcel of owning a boat.

A woman working on the underside of a boat
Octavia painstakingly prepares the ravaged hull of 'Maserati''s for resealing, in South Dock Marina boatyard. Rot is everywhere in this neglected wooden boat but it’s obviously a priority to identify and remove any in the boat's main body to make her watertight once more. © Niki Gorick Photography

Husband-and-wife team Rebecca and Simon Shillito have gone one step further, by crafting a floating family home at South Dock Marina (where you'll also find their studio selling hand-finished plywood creations).

'Liveaboards' as they're known, enjoy reasonable mooring fees, and an area safely cordoned off inside a gated network of pontoons, and is such a popular way to live now, that Gorick tells us "the waiting list for residential moorings is long".

Blue and green canoes lined up on the docks
This older group of Scouts has just mastered enough kayaking skills to follow its instructor up West India Docks and back, carefully avoiding the unusual obstacle of a superyacht. Now it’s on to the next challenge in this carefully structured day of learning activity. © Niki Gorick Photography

And while you'll find centuries-old institutions like the sea scouts and the RNLI manoeuvring out on the waters, the docks are successfully adapting to lure contemporary audiences, from paddle-boarders to hen parties on BBQ tub boats.

A round BBQ boat on the docks
Popular al fresco dining is on
the move below Canary Wharf’s DLR line and the suspended shipping cranes preserved on the quayside. A hen party meanders peacefully around the waters of West India Quay, with the bride- to-be and friends sipping wine and enjoying a BBQ lunch. © Niki Gorick Photography-24

In the book's foreword, Michael Heseltine describes "Six thousand acres of forgotten wasteland — this was my horrified appraisal of London’s old docks whilst flying over them in a plane 42 years ago."

It shows how far these areas have come since the bad of days of the 1980s.

A small boat on the Thames lit in the moonlight
Nathanael exits Surrey Quays’ South Dock Marina, catching the high tide on to the Thames. She’s heading down-river for Gillingham, which has a crane large enough to lift her out
for her five-yearly insurance survey. This beautiful schooner with a steel hull and wooden decks was built in a French tank factory and is one of only three constructed to this design. A true seagoing vessel, her owner sailed her all the way back from Hong Kong to her current berth in Greenland Dock. © Niki Gorick Photography
A young family in the cluttered room of a hosueboat
Knowing that they had the right design and computer woodworking skills, Simon and Rebecca bought a new wide- beam houseboat shell and then set about creating a family home to their own specifications. Using their CNC machine and boatyard workshop, they have produced and fitted everything in bespoke engineered timber, from the insulation panels and ceiling shutters to the cupboards, tables and chairs. Not quite finished, the next stage will be to move the temporary kitchen into a new extension space on the rear deck. © Niki Gorick Photography
A lifeboat heading out onto the Thames
An E class lifeboat manned by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) exits on to the Thames through South Dock Marina lock, heading back to its base at Westminster’s Tower Lifeboat Station, where a crew is on duty around the clock. It has also just had one of its regular pressure washes to maintain a clean hull.
Fast, tough and manoeuvrable, this inshore lifeboat is specially designed to cope with the Thames tidal currents, submerged debris and heavy traffic. © Niki Gorick Photography

Dock Life Renewed - How London's Docks Are Thriving Again by Nicki Gorick, published by King & McGaw

Last Updated 09 March 2023

Continued below.