At first glance at today’s Poplar, an emjoyable walk around the places featured in Call the Midwife looks impossible. The real life convent for midwifery that Jennifer Worth called Nonnatus House, is still there but is tucked away amidst unprepossessing urban decay, rather too close for comfort to the Blackwall Tunnel approach road. Head south towards the Isle of Dogs and all that appears to be on view is a sea of ultra modernity that is the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf et al.
But if you know the area as well as we do, there is a route between the two extremes, through old Poplar that brings Call the Midwife to life. It’s a remarkable route, with the Call The Midwife area of the 50’s still very much in evidence to your right, with the wealth of the City on your left, and the two virtually touching each other, with just the DLR railway dividing the two.
Starting a Call the Midwife walk at the convent for midwifery is a must, and from the outside it looks just as it’s described in the book. We then walk the streets where Chummy learnt to ride a bike, smashed in to her policeman and made friends with the protective boy. Heading south you see housing dating from as early as the 1930’s which is unchanged since the woman with the violent husband lived there in the book. There’s also the area where the Anglo-Spanish family of 27 lived; where London’s first Caribbean immigrants settled (remember the mixed race babies story); a surviving section of the workhouse which had treated the strange old woman in the book so badly. And there are buildings just as they were in Jenny Worth’s time such as fine old Victorian public buildings and lovely old churches. The surprisingly grand All Saints church is set within an impressively large plot of land that more famous churches in central London can only dream about enjoying. And there’s other history too – the spot where America’s first settlers set sail from; charming renovated old warehouses where the great London Docks were started; the area known as Chinatown and infamous for its opium dens in Dickensian times. And you get a fantastic view of the Thames and nearby you cross picturesque river inlets and basins. You walk over these on nice little bridges these days, but you can readily imagine the scene in the book where the old nun clambers with her bike from boat to boat to cross this water rather than ride for miles around it.
You can finish the walk here by heading through pretty Limehouse Basin to the station. Or if you’re keen to continue, you can stop to recharge your batteries at The Grapes, one of London’s oldest, most interesting and charming pubs. It overlooks the river and hasn’t changed much since Dickens (who knew the area well) described it as “dropsical” in Our Mutual Friend.
Revived, you can head into the old East End. You’ll be relieved to hear that the appalling cafe cum brothels in Call The Midwife are long gone, but there’s still plenty of interest in the area. This is the rough old docks area where Capt Bligh used to live; where Turner used to live a dodgy double life; where the Cable Street Riot took place; where pirates used to be executed and where the UK’s most famous murders before Jack the Ripper, took place.
It was still a tough old area in the 1950’s and you can appreciate how committed Jenny Worth, Chummy, the nuns and the other midwives were.