Standing on the stainless steel bridge (WhitbyBird) at the mouth of St Saviour’s Dock, I enjoy a spectacular view of Tower Bridge (Wolfe-Barry and Brunel). I am just upstream from the Museum and close to Bermondsey tube station, from where our river walks begin. These are permanent moorings, homes for the affluent, but behind me, when the tide is out and the mud is oozing, it is easy to imagine a different demographic. This is where Dickens placed Fagin and Oliver Twist, where Bill Sykes swung from a crane’s gib, like the pirates and murderers before him from their gallows. Henry Mayhew – philanthropist, social reformer, one time midshipman with the East India Company – described this muddy inlet lined with latrines and emptying into a tidal ditch where children played and women went for water. Across the river is Execution Dock where pirates did the dance of death. Amongst them Captain Kidd, though he was not a pirate: he was a pirate catcher who did not catch enough to satisfy the East India Company. Here at St Saviour’s they nailed up his body parts, and all the time, the water lapping at Saffron Wharf, Cinnamon Wharf, Java Wharf. In Shad Thames: Jacob’s Island, the Clove Building and Nutmeg House. Sometimes when buildings are bruised and converted, you can still smell the spices. And imagine the screams. Death. Spice. Life.

This is the story on our riverside walks and heritage boat tours. For the Honourable East India Company it was always about the spices. In 1600 the merchant traders first received their Royal Charter from Queen Elizabeth I and established routes to the east and rose to account for half the world’s trade. Their attempt on the route over the top of Russia was an eccentric failure, but given the chance they would have backed madman Columbus…

The Company is at least partly responsible for the Greenwich panorama, sometimes called ‘the English Versailles’. Our walk along the north bank, following the sweep of the river, offers splendid views of Christopher Wren’s buildings framing the Queen’s House. The river was busier when Canaletto painted it, but Wren’s buildings are still there and on our walks we enjoy the view before boarding the train. The Royal Observatory stands at the top of the hill, which visitors climb to stand in the courtyard with one foot each side of the brass line marking 0* prime meridian. A fanciful notion, east and west meeting on a hilltop in Greenwich, but it’s true, except they don’t meet, they collide. In Greenwich the gallery about the East India Company has a moving vox populi: Londoners explain how they come to be here. One Londoner describes how mention of the English Company’s name made her grandfather rage at the people who stole the jewel of his country. But, she candidly admits, she has not her grandfather’s luxury of condemning, out of hand, what is half her heritage. Like many Londoners, she must do more than acknowledge a diverse cultural background, she must resolve and make sense of a violent and conflicted heritage…

BBC1’s TABOO may take some historical liberties – I’m not sure the Company thought of trade across America – but the obsession with routes to the east is real enough. Brunel’s SS Great Eastern, built in the Company’s twilight years, and financed by the Eastern Steam Navigation, is just more compelling evidence. When people think of Brunel, they think of Bristol, the Great Western Railway and the Great Western Steamship, but this is the man who built a Tunnel and a Ship for the trade to the east.

Rotherhithe is the East India Company town where all Brunel Museum walks end.

Sunday 5th February
10.40 riverside walk from Bermondsey tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Monday 6th February
10.40 riverside walk from Bermondsey tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Tuesday 7th February
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks
18.30 launch of Think Deep: environment experts creating sustainable cities using underground space.

Wednesday 8th February
10.30 French students visit from College Fontreyne, Gap
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks
18.15 riverside walk from Bermondsey tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Thursday 9th February
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks
12.30 Harlow U3A

Friday 10th February
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Saturday 11th February
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks
13.30 lunch at the Tunnel Club, Mayflower pub upper room
17.30 Valentine’s celebration in the Tunnel of Love

Robert