Monday, May 23, 2005
Walking the Regent's Canal
One of the best ways to see the real London is to take a walk along an old canal towpath. The Regent's Canal stretches from Paddington to Limehouse, well away from the usual tourist hotspots, and the true breadth of the capital lies spread out along its banks. From multi-million pound villas to rundown council estates, from gasworks to hi-tech offices, from mosques to markets and from antelopes to ducks - all London life is here.
I've recently walked the Regent's Canal from end to end.
Here's what you might find if you follow in my footsteps.
A quick history of the Regent's Canal: The Regent's Canal is 180 years old this year. Canals criss-crossed the country during that brief period between the onset of the Industrial Revolution and the advance of the railways, as a cheap means of transporting goods across long distances. The Grand Junction Canal was the first to reach London, snaking 143 long miles from Birmingham, but it reached no closer to the centre of town than Paddington Basin. In 1812 a consortium was set up to build a new canal that would link Paddington more usefully to the docks in east London. Amongst the company's directors was famous architect John Nash, a good friend of the Prince Regent, and it was after him that the canal was right royally named. This new waterway took a full eight years to build, skirting to the north of the capital to avoid upsetting a few large landowners. Twelve locks (and three tunnels) were required to lower the water level by 86 feet on the journey down to the Thames. Within a couple of decades the canal was under threat from the railways, and on several occasions there were even plans to drain the water and lay down tracks instead. But the Regent's Canal survived the gradual disappearance of commercial traffic, and has since been reborn as a green leisure artery through some of the most built-up parts of town.
Regent's Canal links
[some photos] [a history] [a leaflet] [a walk] [a map]
A slight detour: Paddington Basin
At the foot of the Grand Junction Canal, on what used to be the edge of town, lies Paddington Basin. It's a golf-club shaped stretch of water, more a putter than a wedge, which 200 years ago was the final destination of narrowboats and barges crossing the country from Birmingham and beyond. A thriving docks were established, and goods completed their journey by transferring to the "New Road" (now the Marylebone, Euston and Pentonville Roads). But tradesmen soon tired of all this land/water interface hassle and so the new Regent's Canal was constructed, branching off from the old canal slightly to the north at what is now Little Venice. With its trade diverted Paddington Basin was left to wither slowly, like a watery appendix. [see map]
Within the last five years, Paddington Basin has undergone a renaissance. Gone are the rundown warehouses and in their places has risen a gleaming new development of high-rise offices, hotels and very expensive flats. Apparently "nowhere else balances so much eclectic charm with corporate and lifestyle convenience so near a waterside environment", for which read "it's beside an old canal just behind Paddington station". Without the canal this would just be another mixed use development, but one tiny strip of mucky water suddenly makes this a "premier business, residential, healthcare and leisure district".
Many of the new buildings are architecturally adventurous, and you can even lease office space on one of six (fake) barges moored up along the edge of the basin. Three impressive footbridges have been built, including the Rolling Bridge (which can curl up like a snake) and the Helix Bridge (a giant retractable metal-and-glass corkscrew). Two other bridges, however, cut across the waterway like a scar - Bishop's Bridge (in the midst of a mammoth three year replacement project) and the A40 Westway (vaulting the canal on ugly concrete stilts). Maybe the whole development will look lovely when it's finished but at the moment there's still a whiff of the building site hanging over the area, and more a feeling of isolation than of community. It's good to see an old canal brought back to life, but I wonder what those 19th century bargemen would make of the modern cappucino lifestyle.
by tube: Paddington (Hammersmith & City)
Walking the Regent's Canal
Stage 1: Little Venice to St John's Wood
Little Venice: The Regent's Canal starts (or finishes, depending) at Little Venice. I'd never been before this year, and I was expecting if not gondolas then at least fairy-tale bridges and ice cream. I was only partially disappointed. If anything the open water and grand stucco townhouses reminded me more of Amsterdam. Little Venice is a triangular canal basin, a sort of watery roundabout with exits for Paddington, Limehouse and the West Midlands. The green central island is inhabited by ducks, cormorants, Canada geese and other territorial waterfowl. Three barges moored to the towpath host a floating cafe, a floating art gallery and even a floating puppet theatre, but there's not really a lot here for tourists apart from a reflective oasis of peace and quiet. Unless you turn up over the May bank holiday, that is, which is when the three-day Canal Cavalcade takes place. The basin fills up with colourful narrowboats from far and wide, and the banks are packed out with canalfolk, localfolk and the usual kebabvanfolk who congregate at events such as this. It's busy, it's friendly and it's recommended - although you have 11 months to wait for the next one.
by tube: Warwick Avenue
From Little Venice the Regent's Canal heads northeast beneath a canopy of trees, sandwiched immediately between Blomfield Road and Maida Avenue. If you wanted to live anywhere along the canal you'd probably want to live here, it's gorgeous (and somehow very Dutch). Well-tended houseboats line the towpath, berthed at permanent moorings complete with mini-gardens and bankside electricity supply. In fact so proud are the boat owners of their residential 'street' that the public are locked out and forced to use the pavement instead.
The Maida Hill tunnel: At 248 metres long this is the second longest canal tunnel in London. It's dark, relatively wide and it takes a narrowboat a full three minutes to pass from one portal to the other. The interior of the tunnel is mostly bricked, with a few recently-repaired patches, and tiny lengths of chalky deposit hang down like trainee stalactites. On foot, however, you have to take a detour up and across the top of the tunnel, past the Cafe Laville over the tunnel mouth, across the Edgware Road and into Aberdeen Place. No large buildings could be constructed on top of the tunnel itself, just on either side, so this quiet backstreet feels unnaturally wide. One of those large buildings is The Crown Hotel (or Crocker's Folly), most recently a pub, but now sadly boarded up. This oversized watering hole was built speculatively in readiness for the arrival of a railway terminus that never came, and the owner later threw himself from the upper window in despair. On the other side of the tunnel the canal emerges into a deep manmade chasm, although pedestrian access is barred at the moment while the Electricity Board construct something mysterious along the towpath.
There's another (very short) tunnel beneath Lisson Grove, just round the corner from Lord's cricket ground, although from outside you'd swear it's only a bridge. To the east lies Lisson Wide, a broad section of canal where scores of narrowboats are tethered end-on across the channel. It's quite attractive, so long as you don't look up and see the huge National Grid substation immediately to the north or the council estate spread out along the south bank. The next stretch of towpath is anything but attractive, sunk beneath broad grey bridges sprayed with graffiti where the Metropolitan line and railway into Marylebone pass low overhead. Hang on in there, the London Central Mosque and Regent's Park are directly ahead, it gets better...
by bus: 13, 82, 113, 274
Local attraction 1: boat trips
You can glide along the Regent's Canal from Little Venice to Camden for about a fiver. There's a very different view down at swan's eye level, watching the blossom, bottles and beer cans float by. It's also the only way to get a look inside the tunnels along the way. I chose the London Waterbus, a glass-sided narrowboat with faded leather seats which boasts hourly departures from each terminus during the summer months. Alternatively you can travel with the slightly more upmarket Jason's Trip for a 1½hr return trip in an open-sided boat. It's a less frequent service but comes complete with tour guide and commentary. Take a virtual cruise here, although you should be warned that the real boat travels at the rather more relaxing pace of 4mph.
Walking the Regent's Canal
Stage 2: Regent's Park
Regent's Park: This whole area used to be Henry VIII's hunting chase, a protected patch of lush woodland to the north of the capital. In the early 19th century John Nash transformed it into the vast circular park we know today, complete with central lake, grand villas and a holiday home for the Prince Regent. His plan was to build the Regent's Canal straight through the middle of the park, because there's nothing like a good water feature to boost house prices. Unfortunately snobby locals thought otherwise, fearing that the navvies would be uncouth and foul-mouthed. Nash therefore altered his plans and diverted the canal across the top of the park instead, and also hid it in a cutting where it couldn't be seen just to be on the safe side.
One consequence of this is that you can't actually see Regent's Park from the Regent's Canal, despite it being immediately nextdoor. Entering the park eastwards the view is dominated instead by these classical white villas. They're not Georgian originals but much more recent additions, built to Nash's original designs, and they're clearly owned by people who are very very rich indeed. On the opposite side of the canal are the private gardens of Nuffield Lodge (formerly Grove House), fenced and barred for the exclusive use of the residents as if somehow the nearby public park weren't good enough for them.
The next bridge may look like just an ordinary footbridge but it's also a covered aqueduct, transporting the waters of the ancient River Tyburn across the canal. Honest. That's followed by Macclesfield Bridge, also known as 'Blow-up Bridge' in memory of London's largest pre-war explosion. In 1874 a barge containing a cargo of sugar, petroleum and five tons of gunpowder caught fire beneath this particular bridge. The resulting explosion killed the crew, destroyed the bridge and a nearby house, and shattered windows up to a mile away. A nearby plane tree still bears the scars of the blast damage, apparently, although I found it impossible to spot amongst the wooded slopes dripping with wisteria and cow parsley.
Local attraction 2: London Zoo
The canal continues past the foot of Primrose Hill, straight through the middle of London Zoo. Don't get your hopes up because you don't get to see much from your free low-level passage, just a few ruminants, some birds and a lot of homo sapiens wandering around gawping at animals you can't see. But at least you get to see the stunning Snowdon Aviary, a spiky geometric cage erected beside the canal 40 years ago, and well worth not paying the admission price for. The wires are too close together to allow these prize avian specimens to escape, but pulled just far enough apart in one particular canalside spot to permit our smaller British species to nip in and out to steal all the best morsels of food.
Should you care to fork out £14 for a ticket (and £10.50 for every accompanying child) you too can enter the world's first scientific zoological gardens, here to observe a global menagerie in its non-natural habitat. You can even arrive by narrowboat if you so choose. Like the neighbouring park and canal, London Zoo also dates back to the 1820s. The oldest buildings are the Clock Tower and the Giraffe House, the most famous building may well be Lubetkin's modernist Penguin Pool, and the ugliest eyesore is arguably the utilitarian concrete Elephant House, now thankfully empty. I visited London Zoo as a small child, and I half remember a hotchpotch of buildings scattered around a compact site accompanied by the light stench of animal dung. The elephant house was still full at the time, the giraffes were very tall and the penguins made me laugh. But I've never been tempted to go back, not inside anyway, so I was pleased to discover that the giraffes are still visible from the road outside (and without any accompanying unpleasant smells).
by bus: 274
Walking the Regent's Canal
Stage 3: Camden
On leaving behind the roar of London Zoo, the Regent's Canal glides gracefully into the London borough of Camden. There's a sharp left turn out of Regent's Park, so canal cruisers have to be careful not to carry straight on and smash into the Feng Shang Chinese restaurant. Of all the eateries along the canal this is certainly the most striking, a multi-storey red junk imported from the far east, although hopefully the crispy duck isn't locally caught. Round the corner you'll see a smart Victorian terrace, each tiny well-kept garden full of rustic benches and pot plants backing down to the water's edge. Make the most of the view, because it's the last decent scenery for quite some time. Yes that really is a pirate castle ahead. A nasty brown brick castle, which is the perfect disguise for the 1960s youth club that lurks within. Here disillusioned kids gather to be shaped into useful members of society with a particular talent for messing about on the water. Mind the canoeists, please.
Local attraction 3: Camden Lock
Suddenly the towpath rises up along the side of an old warehouse into a busy courtyard. There is no escape, you're going to have to walk past stalls dripping with ethnic jewellery, steaming stir fries, pseudo-Wiccan paperbacks, whiffy candles and t-shirts emblazoned with hemp leaves. Don't worry, it's only a very short detour round the basin where the Waterbus turns, you don't have to wander off into the maze of henna tattooists, rug sellers, palmists and windchime merchants. There's no obligation to buy a homemade pendant, a flimsy lampshade, a leather handbag or a tray of falafel, not if you don't want to. And this is the upmarket section of the market. The mass-produced pirate video games, Che Guevara posters and cheap PVC belts are all further on. Venture out onto the teeming high street if you dare and the true nature of Camden will be revealed. This is where all the alternative teenagers in London are drawn to 'express themselves', which tends to mean buying stack-heeled boots, or some gothic bracelet, or a vat of hairdye, or getting some other fleshy lobe pierced. It's all harmless fun, they'll grow out of it eventually... by the looks of the crowd in about 10 years time. In the meantime you can sneak back onto the towpath, head under the bridge and continue safely on your way. (Unless you really do want to have a look round, that is. Oh go on, I'll hang around and wait...)
by tube: Camden Town
Hawley Lock: It takes a few hundred yards for the influence of Camden Lock to wear off. Slouching on the grass beside the next canal basin you'll find a motley assortment of the human species clutching either a tray of noodles or a can of lager, or maybe both. A long gabled building stretches out along the opposite bank, a series of telltale eggcups perched on the roof revealing that this used to be the headquarters of pioneering breakfast broadcaster TV-am. Here the Famous Five attempted to keep us entertained, Mad Lizzie chivvied us into fitmess, Greg Dyke cut his teeth, Roland Rat waggled his rubber ears, and Anne and Nick beamed from the famous beige sofa. For the best part of a decade at least, before Maggie's greedy 1991 franchise frenzy saw fledgling GMTV grab the breakfast crown with a massive overbid. Read the full eggsasperating story here. The former HQ in Hawley Crescent is now owned by MTV Europe, who are probably still busy getting bimbos to link together godawful R&B tracks and shaggy rock numbers on channels I can't receive, for all I care.
And then the tourists disappear, apart from a few stragglers who don't realise there's nothing more to see. The canal snakes off beneath the busy streets of central Camden, rather narrower now and somehow cut off from world above. Every bridge bears the name of the road above but there's no way up, no stairway back to civilisation. Children from a local primary school have drawn some delightfully simple murals to illuminate the space beneath each bridge, safely secured on the opposite side of the towpath out of the reach of passing vandals and grafitti artists. There's another mural on the wall of the Constitution pub on St Pancras Way, but the beer garden was locked when I walked by and the route to alcohol inaccessible. There are a few shiny (and less shiny) apartment blocks, but the landscape is mutating now to drab light industrial, most notably the huge post and parcel sorting depots on the southern bank. Keep your eyes open though and you might see the odd lonely swan, or a dead eel rotting by the water's edge, or even say hello to a passing blogger. You never know your luck.
Walking the Regent's Canal
Stage 4: King's Cross
And then came the railways. In this case that's the Midland mainline whose modern bridges sprawl across the canal, blotting out the sky as the occasional train thunders overhead. The St Pancras Cruising Club is based here (watersports only), beside a pair of rather splendid looking locks (as seen in the Michael Caine film, Alfie). And then comes the unexpected beauty of Camley Street Natural Park, tantalisingly out of reach on the opposite bank. It's quite surprising to stumble across two acres of wild green space bang in the middle of an industrial wasteland, but this carefully conserved canalside site (once a mucky coal depot) now buzzes with plant and animal life. In the near distance, to the south, slender cranes slowly turn as the Gothic masterpiece of St Pancras station undergoes intense redevelopment. Only one of the famous gasholders still stands as the Channel Tunnel Rail Link wipes the 19th century landscape clean away. Within ten years this rundown end of town should have blossomed into a cosmopolitan quarter for bohemians and businessmen, so they hope. For the time being the old rail warehouses thrive only as huge weekend nightclubs or go-kart arenas, which is probably a lot more fun than their eventual destiny.
The canal may have passed under the tracks from St Pancras, but within a few hundred yards it passes over the tracks from neighbouring Kings Cross. Special stopgates were added close to Maiden Lane Bridge during WW2 to prevent bomb damage inadvertently flooding the railway tunnel below. Battlebridge Basin, which follows, is a spacious sidearm flanked by old warehouses and modern wharf living. Estate agents wax lyrical about the dwellings to the south of the canal ("A selection of fantastic two double bedroom apartments within this sort after gated canal side development"), whereas the flats on the northern side are more likely to be swapped on the social housing register.
Islington Tunnel: By the time we reach the entrance to the Islington Tunnel, waterside living is looking a little less appealing. Mind the bloke with the pitbull, and the three lads sitting fishing with worms in one hand and a spliff in the other. This is the longest canal tunnel in the capital, measuring over half a mile in length. There's no towpath inside the tunnel so the first narrowboats had to be legged through, until the introduction of a pioneering steam tug which chugged repeatedly through the inky blackness until the 1930s. But if you're attempting to follow the canal today you'll have to do what the horses once did and walk up the ramp and through the streets of Islington to the other side. Apparently there are pavement markings in the street for you to follow but I couldn't find them. Maybe I was too busy watching out for the pitbull.
[Camden → Kings Cross walk (pdf)]
Local attraction 3: London Canal Museum
Yes, there really is a London Canal Museum, though you've probably never heard of it. It's not easy to find either, but if you follow the brown pedestrian signs from Kings Cross station you should find it lurking up an insignificant sidestreet next to Battlebridge Basin, just north of Wharfdale Road. I can best describe the museum as 'refreshingly amateur'. A few well-chosen barge-related exhibits fill this old canalside building, which is staffed (and, one suspects, stocked) by a merry band of keen pipe-smoking volunteers. There's half a narrowboat downstairs, a series of small exhibitions upstairs, and a long ramp connecting the two floors down which stabled horses were once led. This was originally a warehouse for the storage of ice, owned by Swiss Italian entrepreneur Carlo Gatti. Back in the mid 19th century he imported huge blocks of ice from Norway and stored them in two giant wells in the cellar before chopping them up and selling them on to the well-to-do of London. The museum tells his story too. I enjoyed the video playback of two old public information films depicting everyday life along the Regent's Canal, one of them from the slightly jerky era of the silent movie. The museum's well worth 30 minutes of your time... but if you can manage the full hour then you're probably the sort of person they'd like as a volunteer.
by tube: King's Cross St Pancras; by bus: 17, 91, 259, 274
Walking the Regent's Canal
Stage 5: Islington Tunnel to Victoria Park
Most canal walkers don't make it to the other side of the Islington Tunnel, which is a shame because the canal on the other side of the Islington Tunnel is also very pretty. But only for the first 500 yards. The waterway emerges into a green cutting lined with trees and houseboats, drops through yet another lock and opens out into City Basin. This is the longest (and widest) of all the sidearms on the Regent's Canal and was originally the main unloading point for goods destined for the City of London. Now it's the perfect spot for junior kayak training at the local Boat Club and, this being Islington, for the creation of a "a vibrant and active waterspace". There's a blue and white tiled mural on the northern wall, the title to which should read REGENT'S CANAL except that the centre section containing the S and C has unfortunately fallen away. Some locals walk no further before returning home, while others are brave enough to continue over the invisible border into Hackney.
Sorry, but the two miles through Hackney are the least attractive on the canal. Not that there's anywhere truly ugly along the way, but equally there's nothing especially outstanding. There are a couple of scenic locks, some pleasant arched bridges and this splendid gasholder, as well as various well-judged arty installations along the canalside, but most of the walk is dominated by flats, blocks of flats and long flat towpaths. The canal gentrifies all that it touches, even the harshest council estate, but you sense that local architects haven't repaid the compliment. Indeed there are several waterside apartments, both old and new, where it must be better to be on the inside looking out than on the outside looking in. As another blogger so appositely phrased it, "this is a nice walk, though it has rape scene aura to it".
Rest assured that the Hackney stretch does have its highlights. Drinkers sit at wooden tables in front of the Rosemary Branch in De Beauvoir Town, a characterful pub which also contains a tiny theatre. The long-faded remains of a painted rainbow can just be seen on a sewerpipe arching over the canal nearby. To the east of Kingsland Road (pictured) the pillared remains of a dismantled railway bridge can be seen, originally supporting the mainline out of Broad Street and soon to be reborn as the northern end of the East London Line extension. The hooligan element have been out in force with black marker pens at CANAL WALK. Pigeons congregate nearby, pecking at discarded takeaways in the turd-strewn grass. Historic Broadway Market leads down from London Fields, an unexpectedly characterful shopping street that's well worth a diversion. Mare Street, on the other hand looks much better from underneath. And don't worry, the decent scenery will soon be back - those trees in the distance are the welcome sight of Victoria Park.
Walking the Regent's Canal
Stage 6: Victoria Park to Limehouse
Victoria Park: The final stretch of the Regent's Canal heads south through Tower Hamlets to the Thames. Victoria Park comes as a welcome green respite after the long grey haul through Hackney. You can either yomp parkside along the towpath or slip in through the Canal Gate for a stroll beside the lake terrace or a sprawl on the fresh-mown turf. Victoria Park was laid out in the 1840s as a philanthrophic gift for the East End's rundown masses, although what the local urchins made of the lamplit carriage drive is anyone's guess. It's still packed out, but with joggers, sleeping grandads, trainee footballers, multi-racial couples and kids queueing for melting ice creams. The Regent's skirts the ornamental west end of the park, while the rather quieter Hertford Canal runs along the southern edge. The two meet just south of Old Ford Lock at Duckett's Junction, so be careful to carry straight on at the humpback bridge or you'll end up (eventually) at the old Big Breakfast House.
Mile End Park: And then, almost immediately, a rather more modern park. Mile End Park is a thin strip of politically correct open space, divided up into well-meaning zones for "play, art, ecology, sport and fun". It's rather nice, but it's no surprise that Victoria Park is always busier. You can drop into Bow Wharf for a giggle and a pint at Jongleurs, although the Palm Tree in the ecology park is a much better bet if you want a traditional East End boozer. Just past this traditional warehouse on the western side (pictured), students at Queen Mary University are stacked high in tiny (but architecturally impressive) flats. Shame that crippling debts mean they'll never be able to afford any of the other canalside apartments along here, of which more and more are gradually being built along this section. The famous Green Bridge carries grass and trees over the Mile End Road, although I was more impressed by the steely resolve of a pair of swans nesting amongst discarded litter in the bullrushes a little further on. The sound of bhangra blared from an upstairs window, and Little Venice suddenly felt a very very long way away.
Local attraction 6: Ragged School Museum
Life was no fun round here in the 1870s, which is why Dr Barnardo bought up two canalside warehouses and opened them as the Copperfield Road Ragged School. He offered the very poorest local children a free education, and threw in breakfast, dinner and a roaring log fire for good measure. By 1896 there were more than 1000 children on roll (and 2500 on Sundays), but government inspectors shut the place down for health and safety reasons a decade later. The building is now a unique museum, aimed particularly at school visits but also opened to the public on the first Sunday of each month. I visited earlier this month and snuck around the local history exhibit, the racial equality display and the pre-war kitchen. Highlight of my visit, however, was attendance at a lesson given by oh-so-strict Victorian teacher Miss Perkins. She gave us slates to write on, made us chant some Empire geography facts, ordered us to sit up straight and swished her cane around with aplomb. I'm not sure that I could have coped with that level of strict discipline on a daily basis, nor even that I'd have learnt very much (apart from how to cope with backache). You might fare better.
by bus: 309
Limehouse Basin: After a quiet half mile plagued only by flies and cyclists, the Regent's Canal approaches its final destination in London's Docklands. There's one last lock beneath a Grade II listed DLR viaduct and then, assuming they ever reopen the towpath, you walk out into the luxury enclave of Limehouse Basin. This was one of London's first riverside docks, linking traffic on the Thames to the inland waterway system and built large enough to accommodate sea-going vessels. It used to be packed solid, such that (so they say) you could walk from one side to the other by jumping from one boat to the next. Today the basin has been reborn as a 90 berth marina surrounded by glass and steel apartment blocks - all yachts and yuppies. The rich may come here to play with their floating toys, but the tied-up narrowboats bring the place back down to earth. There's one last lock between the basin and the river, with flashy electronic gates and a swing bridge operated by two uniformed blokes wearing what looks like Arsenal kit. I watched them in operation as a sleek white yacht sped out of the basin, past the bistro pub on the corner and out into the Thames. This canal terminates here.
by train or DLR: Limehouse; by bus: 15
Regent's Canal characters
Boaters: They own narrowboats with names like Nemesis, Hartley Harlequin or Meandher II, they chug pointlessly up and down from here to there and back, they go nowhere fast, but I suspect they're all having a whale of a time.
Joggers: If you're lucky enough to live near a canal, what better destination for a bit of regular (but lonely) heavy breathing?
Anglers: More solitary hobbyists, who might have more luck dipping their lines if the waters weren't so regularly disturbed by passing narrowboats.
Cyclists: Champions of the sustainable transport environment, although not one of them appears to be able to read the words "Please dismount beneath bridge".
Dogwalkers: Come rain or shine you'll see them trudging along the towpath, plastic bag in gloved hand.
Lowlife: If you're lucky, that shining glint is just a lager can, a cigarette lighter or a bling pendant. If you're unlucky, it's a knife.
Walkers: That'd be me then. And maybe you?
Ducks: Quack, quack quack quack.