Tales of the riverbank

In the 1980s the hype raised by the London Docklands Development Corporation was matched only by the scepticism of those living and working in the area. Now, 17 years after plans were started for the regeneration of the docks, it seems neither side was completely right and Docklands has become something other than either its creators or detractors envisaged.

In many ways it has reinvented itself. Once despised or neglected dockmasters' houses are worth small fortunes and warehouse conversions shelter the rich and famous as well as those who saw a good investment.

The area, stretching from London Bridge to Beckton, provides a unique resource for both primary and secondary schools. Far from being a sterile environment, Docklands fires imaginations with its futuristic and high-tech landscape.

Cecilia Thurley, headteacher of The Firs Junior School in Bishop's Stortford, Hertfordshire, says visits to Docklands in Year 6, when pupils go to study geography and history, also inspire artwork. "The style of buildings hits them; made of glass and very modern, immensely high, and standing cheek by jowl with ordinary housing," she says.

Anyone wishing to understand some of the nuances of social class and domestic architecture would do well to come to the Docklands. As for business architecture, there are probably more architectural award winners per square metre here than anywhere else in the country.

There are also many marvellous sculptures. A riverside walkstarting at London Bridge on the south side could take in Hay's Galleria, home to "The Navigators", a huge moving water sculpture by David Kemp which looks like something out of a Terry Gilliam film, and "Waterfall" by Anthony Donaldson in Horsleydown Square. Both are passed on the way to the Design Museum at Butler's Wharf. It has changing displays of everyday objects and explores the role of design.

On the north side of the river, a trip to Island Gardens at the tip of the Isle of Dogs will reward you with the same view of Greenwich as the one painted by Canaletto.

Docklands has rich pickings for history students. London began as an important trading port in Roman times after the conquest of AD43. The docks were built over some 400 years and any study of the area produces a roll-call of events and people from history.

Woolwich and Greenwich were the sites of the Royal dockyards where ships were built from the reign of Henry VIII. The king kept his navy at Deptford, where his daughter, Elizabeth I, knighted Francis Drake and where Peter the Great came incognito in 1698 to study shipbuilding.

In the 19th century Marc Brunel built the world's first underwater tunnel under the Thames at Wapping, and his son Isambard built the Great Eastern, the largest ship of its day, which was launched sideways so the stern did not end up wedged in the opposite bank of the Thames. Wapping, which became famous in the 1980s for the disputes with print workers, was where pirates were hanged at Execution Dock and where the hated Judge Jeffreys was arrested.

It is still possible to see where the docks were, to learn from the names of neighbouring streets what goods they traded in and to see the different types of accommodation for dockmasters and ordinary workers. Each dock dealt with specific goods, often holding monopolies. The ships also carried people.

Many of the old dock walls are now listed. The walls were high to keep goods in rather than people out because theft was rife. Many workers considered pilfering a justifiable perk of the job, as the work was insecure, arduous and ill paid.

One of the capital's millennium projects is the opening of the Museum of Docklands in the old sugar warehouses at West India Dock. These were built by French prisoners of war. You can still see spikes set around the buildings to discourage prostitutes. Carrying sacks of raw sugar was hard work. The heavy bags, known as tombstones, rubbed the men's backs raw and the row between the warehouses became known as Blood Alley.

Docklands has hosted many field trips for both primary and secondary schools. For some years one Gloucester school has brought A-level students,who also study how Cardiff docks have been developed. Now it is bringing GCSE travel and tourism students too.

Schools study the regeneration of the area. From key stage 1, land and building uses can be looked at. Docklands provides examples of both man-made and natural features. The recent changes can be studied at key stage 2, and for key stage 3 there are the study themes of settlement, economic activities, development and environment.

Docklands has three urban farms. Mudchute Farm, near Millwall Dock on the Isle of Dogs, has a 34-acre site and is one of the largest urban farms in the country. Apart from the animals you would expect - hens, ducks, pigs, cows, sheep, horses, rabbits and goats - there is a llama called Gazza, and an education centre with two classrooms. The farm offers a variety of educational activities for key stage 1, key stage 2 and nursery groups, including nature trails, recycling, paper-making, pond-dipping and art outdoors.

At Bow Creek, Blackwall, the four-acre water-based ecology park promotes urban nature conservation and gives students hands-on experience. It was the first interactive ecology park in London.

There are four marinas between Tower Bridge and Albert Basin and a host of clubs and centres. The Shadwell Basin Project offers everything from dragon boating to sub-aqua training. Similar facilities are available at the Surrey Docks Watersports Centre. The London Sea School at Victoria Dock offers training in boat handling and offshore sailing before setting out to sea in one of its five cruisers. All have disabled access. The Ellen Elizabeth Marine Venture is a 115ft Dutch barge that takes school groups on residential trips between the Thames barrier and Windsor.

The best way to get about is by the Docklands Light Railway, which connects with the underground at Tower Gateway, Bank, Bow Church and Stratford. The DLRpublishes free maps which show sites of interest to be seen from the train.

Victoria and Albert Docks: contact Sophie Linton, tel: 0171 512 3000Other areas previously covered by the London Docklands Development Corp: Judy Sanders, Commission for New Towns, tel: 0171 512 3000Tour East London has LDDC leaflets, tel: 0171 531 1996

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