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A tour of London without peer

My plans for seeing London with a member of the peerage as my guide fell through when she had to attend to a hospitalized family member. With no fallback, I decided to check out the chic new areas created at what were deteriorating docks along the Thames. Of course I had no idea that I would soon be meeting Charles Wyatt, a friendly Londoner who took me under his wing, and his umbrellas, and gave me a unique view of the city's Docklands.

I now consider it Charles Wyatt's London.

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When Great Britain was an unparalleled world power and shipping was king, the Docklands were jammed with ships and sailors delivering cloves from Zanzibar, tea from China, sugar from the West Indies, cinnamon from Ceylon, oranges from Seville.

For decades, as both shipping and the empire declined, the south banks of the Thames lost their purpose. In recent years, however, London authorities, investors and developers have been swarming to reclaim the area.

Much of a neighborhood called Canary Wharf either fell down or was bulldozed to make way for gleaming high-rises, office towers, fancy apartment buildings and broad promenades. I stroll a few blocks from Canary Wharf to another newly renovated section of the Docklands, where warehouses were so completely rehabbed that they barely hint of their original incarnation. The neighborhood includes a new museum, fine restaurants, bars and chichi apartments. It's attracting an upscale clientele.

About all that remains of the old neighborhood is in a new museum that attempts to recreate a time when sailors just home from sea landed here with tales of adventures in exotic lands. And a time when poorly paid dockworkers, with their bare hands, lifted the wealth of the world from ships.

I'm a bit disoriented and ask an older man walking past if he can point me in the direction of the Museum in Docklands.

"I'm going there myself," he replies, and offers a bit of space beneath his umbrella. The museum had opened only 10 weeks earlier, but he says that this is his eighth visit. He explains: "I'm pretty much retired now, but I was a Thames waterman from the time I was a boy."

Finding myself here with the seventysomething waterman Charles Wyatt is like arriving at the National Air and Space Museum with John Glenn. I ask Wyatt if he minds my tagging along, and he graciously agrees.

It's clear from the exhibits that museum curators intend to bring alive a largely lost and forgotten world. Wyatt, with the help of the museum, recreates that world for me.

Every fact and date related to every exhibit trips off his tongue. At first, I can't believe he's not either making stuff up or approximating. I sneak looks at the written explanations and soon accept that Wyatt not only knows everything the curators have presented, but even more, sometimes from personal experience.

"The poor buggers," he repeatedly says as we pass displays showing workers rolling heavy barrels or sailing off ships we now know were fated for disaster.

When the warehouse in which the museum is housed opened for trade in 1803, it was thought to be the longest brick building in the world. Its old timber columns and floors have been preserved, along with the brick walls. Wyatt says that this particular warehouse specialized in rum, tobacco, sugar, spices and tea.

A section of the museum called Sailortown depicts scenes, sounds and even smells from 19th century streets and alleyways that catered to sailors and dockworkers. "They had a hard lot," says Wyatt, noting that when he started his life on the Thames, men still unloaded cargo without machines. Handling raw sugar, he said, caused workers without proper clothing to break out in boils.

"There were funerals all the time," he said. "Ship and quayside workers were at risk of swinging and falling cargos; tug men and lightermen were lost overboard."

Lightermen, he explains, unloaded cargo from big ships onto small boats until the big ships were light enough, and thus riding high enough, to come into port.

Wyatt became an apprentice lighterman in 1951. At that time, he says, there were more than 4,600 lightermen on the Thames. "Nowadays there wouldn't be 200," he says.

Wyatt points at a desk from the late 1800s with a sign offering to write letters for seamen. "If they wanted to write to folks back home, they had to hire someone; the poor old chaps were all illiterate," he says. "And look at that; they didn't even get their own bunk, they had to share."

Wyatt was a boy during the London blitz in 1940, when an estimated 25,000 German bombs fell on the docks of East London on 57 consecutive nights.

"London was blacked out, but moonlight glimmered off the Thames, and the pilots followed the moonlight to bomb the docks," Wyatt tells me in a section of the museum dedicated to more modern history.

"There were constant air raids, bombings and rocket attacks, but the docks stayed open. Brave, brave men."

Finishing with the museum, I invite my new friend to lunch. Just outside, we pass a row of upscale and enticing restaurants. I suggest a tapas place with outdoor tables overlooking the river.

"Those places are for the suits," Wyatt says. "I've got a place the suits don't go."

We jump on a train, get off a few stations later in Greenwich and head to Goddard's Pie House. For the price of one appetizer in the places where "the suits" eat, we both have hearty meals of meat pies, mounds of mashed potatoes and great pyramids of overcooked, but delicious, peas.

If you go

GETTING AROUND: From central London, you can reach the Docklands area via Tube (Canary Wharf stop) or the Docklands Light Railway. Greenwich is about 8 miles from the heart of London, taking less than 20 minutes by train. Boats operated by various companies take leisurely, narrated cruises, for about $12.50 round trip. Day and evening trips offer equally wonderful views of London. For maximum scenery, depart from the docks at Westminster, about a one-hour cruise. From the Tower of London, the cruise takes less than half an hour.

STAYING THERE: In central London, for simple chic in upscale Kensington, consider Number Sixteen (16 Sumner Place, call 011-44-20-7589-5232, www.firmdalehotels.com). Doubles begin at $288 a night, winter specials from $215. A tad worn, but still a good buy by London standards, is the Rushmore Hotel (11 Trebovir Road, 011-44-207-370-3839, www.rushmorehotel.co.uk) in Earl's Court. Doubles start at $125.

Greenwich has limited inventory. The Mitre Hotel (291 Greenwich High Road, 011-44-20-8355-6760) offers a convenient location if you don't mind a narrow stairway and rooms above a pub. For quieter rooms a few minutes' walk from the heart of town, Mrs. M.M. Wade rents doubles for $95 a night at 81 Greenwich S St.; call 011-44-20-8293-3121. The most appealing property by far is the Hamilton House Hotel (14 W Grove St., 011-44-20-8694-9899, www.hamiltonhousehotel.co.uk), in a restored 18th century Georgian mansion. Doubles begin at $211 per night, including breakfast and taxes. The hotel's hilltop location is great for the view, but not so for the 10-minute uphill walk.

EATING THERE: In Greenwich, Goddard's Pie House (45 Greenwich Church St.) is a traditional meal-in-pastry shop owned by the same family since 1890. A hearty beef pie with mashed potatoes and peas costs $3 at lunchtime. Bar du Musee (17 Nelson Rd.), in the heart of Greenwich, has a pleasant decor and a gourmet-style menu. Entrees start at $20 for such items as fillet of black bream and smoked salmon, fennel and potato cake, caper berries and sorrel sauce. Also in the heart of Greenwich, with similar prices but simpler fare, is the Trafalgar Inn (Park Row, overlooking the Thames), once frequented by Charles Dickens. Both meals and pub food are available.

WHAT TO DO: Museum in Docklands (No. 1 Warehouse, West India Quay, 011-44-870-444-3857, www.museumindocklands.org.uk), for an in-depth look (from Roman times to present) at the Docklands. Admission is about $8.70.

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