It’s 9 pm and I am listening to Kate Bush while staring at the entrance of the Cabot Place mall at the heart of Canary Wharf. Covid, right?
This has actually become a regular occurrence for me these past months: leaving the house after a long day of lectures and seminars, breathing in the crisp evening air, and walking along the Thames to Canary Wharf, which is always deserted by the time I arrive.
Despite the high concentration of CCTV cameras in the area, this doesn’t feel like a safe thing to recommend, so going during the day or bringing a friend would probably be a good idea…
Nightly view of Cabot Place
Named after the quay where fruits and vegetables from the Canary Islands were once unloaded, the area re-emerged as a business district through a development strategy of the London Docklands that was initiated in the 80s.
The Docklands used to be a flourishing area of maritime trade and played an important role in Britain’s colonial ventures. In the 60s, the port activities were moved elsewhere because the ships became too big to land on the docks. Over the following decades, companies relocated, contributing to the decay of the space (“Canary Wharf,” 2018). To remedy this, the Thatcher government set up a development scheme for the area, which included the creation of the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) to connect the Docklands to the city (Kollewe, 2015).
After a few bumpy decades involving building projects, bankruptcies and foreign investment, Canary Wharf is now a thriving area of business. It’s the second international financial centre in the UK rivalling the City of London, which is only 11 minutes away by DLR.
Faster, Higher, Stronger
Canary Wharf is home to everything from Barclays, HSBC, consultancies and big media companies to about eight different Prets all within walking distance from each other. Former residents of the area had to move over the years because they couldn’t afford the rising rents anymore, and the newly built towers were inhabited by consultants and investment bankers and other people glamourising the idea of working and living on a concrete peninsula with no cultural offers. Canary Wharf has become the epitome of high finance, capitalism and gentrification.
The root of all evil? It sure looks the part…
At the same time, it feels like a place of dreams and wonder. Dreams of being rich and living in an apartment overlooking the Thames, dreams of escaping the rush of the city, finding your own space that’s as detached from London as it can be while actually being located just outside of zone 1. Finding comfort in the dreary, bleak environment with its own rules and its own rhythm. Dreams of a world where money is the solution to all problems and loneliness is remedied by 24-hour entertainment. Private swimming pools and gyms, hidden rooftop bars, existing in a world of your own without ever having to leave your enclave, it all seems possible here.
Glitz and glamour? Or just me romanticising an ordinary restaurant?
But most of all, I think Canary Wharf is a great place to amble. Walking among the tall buildings makes me feel alone and small in the best sense of the word. Despite the area actually being quite small, it took me a while to find my way around because Google Maps magically stopped working whenever I set foot in the business district – it’s also confusing because everything looks the same: rows upon rows of glass buildings, punctuated only by the occasional café or food cart. At first, it felt like Canary Wharf was rejecting me, by either spitting me out on random corners or making me walk in circles for hours without realising. I often got frustrated on my visits until I figured out how to navigate the main roads (the South and North Colonnade), which is not to say that I don’t get lost anymore…
A secret tropical paradise in the heart of London
Canary Wharf feels like that place that never sleeps, that you can visit at any time of the day and know that you’re probably not completely alone. Finding solace in the idea that someone is probably sitting in an office building, trying to stay awake, knee-deep in work, or maybe just dreaming like you. However, it also has a calmness to it, and especially when it’s dark, it can be a really good place to think.
Roused by the fireworks, I ventured to Canary Wharf on Guy Fawkes Day and spent the whole evening there, just walking around aimlessly. The air was thick with smoke and the smells of fireworks, and I loved it. Despite the haziness, my mind was very clear, and I was able to actually think, which has become rare after spending the better part of the year inside. It was an almost cathartic experience, turning things over in my mind while staring at illuminated office buildings.
Finding clarity among skyscrapers
Fun and disillusionment
In some ways, walking through Canary Wharf feels like you’re on a club holiday. All the elements are there: huge and flashy shopping centres, lobster restaurants with LED signs, and massive bodies of water with floating hot tubs in them.
Crustaceans can be found everywhere here…
Then it also feels cold and inaccessible in the sense that it’s a business centre with an absurd concentration of suits and wealth. It’s a place where people walk around with tiny earpieces and headsets that have seen more of them over the years than their significant other. It reminds me of Her, that AI movie with Joaquin Phoenix, only with a darker colour palette.
Light and darkness
Upon closer examination, there’s a sense of disillusionment and sadness here, even when people are partying only a few metres away. Except for illuminated trees and perfectly shaped boxwoods, there’s no nature in sight, and the bricks and warm colours of other parts of London seem far away. Where London is loud and dirty and vibrant, Canary Wharf is sterile and gloomy.
Is this the place where dreams go to die? Where people are living in penthouse suites overlooking all of London while being at their lowest? When I imagine the reality of not only wandering through Canary Wharf but actually living here, all I can think about is cold glass and marble, emitting an aloofness that’s amplified by the wind blowing among the structures. It must feel lonely: living and working in buildings with hundreds or thousands of other people but not knowing any of them. Not even really living, just existing: pure aesthetic, no substance.
Sleep-deprived people buying things they don’t want to satisfy emotional needs, going to bars to drink overpriced alcohol, staring at fountains for hours in hopes of finding meaning there. Illuminated by neon signs, late capitalism rears its ugly head.
Lights switching on and off to the thumping bass of an imaginary techno song
The gentrification continues
In the 2000s, a new building project was initiated on the Isle of Dogs, right next to the “original” Canary Wharf: Wood Wharf, which is still under construction, is projected to become the cooler version of Canary Wharf with its high street character and big shopping centres. The goal is to set up a tech district that will bring start-ups and independent shops to the area, as well as offer communal and cultural spaces (BBC, 2018). While the plans for the new buildings contain a small proportion of affordable housing (“Canary Wharf Construction,” n. d.), it still feels like a drop in the ocean considering that Tower Hamlets (encompassing Canary Wharf, but also areas like Whitechapel) is London’s poorest borough (Trust for London, 2020).
The Canary Wharf skyline (late October 2020)
A Canary Wharf playlist
Where to go
Right next to the Canary Wharf Tube station, there’s a tiny park that offers an opportunity to hide away and relax in the otherwise open space.
If you’re getting hungry from all the walking, there are some good food stands between that very park and the South Colonnade.
It’s also worth exploring the surrounding areas (mainly Shadwell and Limehouse) to get some good views of the Canary Wharf skyline. The easiest way to get to Canary Wharf is probably by DLR (West India Quay, Canary Wharf, South Quay or Heron Quays) or bus. But it can also be a nice experience to get off at Westferry or Limehouse station and take a walk along the Thames to the entrance of the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf, especially on an early weekend morning or during sunset.
An autumnal view of Canary Wharf from a small park in Limehouse.
Canary Wharf in pop culture
One Canada Square, the second-highest building in London, is where the villain’s headquarters in the first Johnny English movie is located. Once I recognised the building, I kept looking for the second identical one that caused a funny misunderstanding in the film, which, as it turns out, is just a CGI replica…
It’s not just the parodies but also the real Bond movies that show views of Canary Wharf. This is true for the boat chase scene in The World is not enough, as well as Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale and Skyfall.
Apart from that, Canary Wharf was used as a filming location for Batman Begins and Star Wars: Rogue One.
BBC London. (2018, October 14). A new digital district in Docklands [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PdAOJMz5Q1M
Canary Wharf. (2018). In Helicon (Ed.), The Hutchinson unabridged encyclopedia with atlas and weather guide. https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/heliconhe/canary_wharf/0?institutionId=1872
Canary Wharf Construction. (n. d.). https://group.canarywharf.com/construction/current-projects/wood-wharf/
Kollewe, J. (2015, January 18). Canary Wharf timeline: from the Thatcher years to Qatari control. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/uk
Trust for London. (2020). Borough ratings across key indicators.https://www.trustforlondon.org.uk/data/boroughs/overview-of-london-boroughs/