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London - Regent's Canal Towpath Walkway, Paddington to Limehouse
The Regent's Canal
London Regent's Canal runs East-West through North-central London, linking the Paddington arm of the Grand Union Canal to the Limehouse Basin and the River Thames in East London. This hub explores the towpath walkway.
Before the railways took over most freight movement, England's inland waterways were of great commercial importance. The Grand Union Canal was the major link between London and the industrial heartlands (Birmingham and the Black Country). In connecting this main artery to London's docklands, Regent's Canal was a vital link in the chain of commerce. In those days, hundreds of horse drawn narrow-boats and barges plied this short stretch of water. Now, all but deserted, the towpath forms an idyllic and peaceful walkway, free from the bustle and traffic of the modern City.
Little Venice (above), just North of Brunel's Paddington Station is where the Regent's Canal branches off from the Grand Union. From there, it wends its way through town to Regent's Park. That's where we'll pick it up today, just as it is leaving Regent's Park for destinations East.
Sights unseen (from a car)
These first two pics were taken from the bridge, looking down on the canal, or through it to the sky, just where it leaves the very public Regent's Park to sneak, largely unnoticed, across North Central London between Victorian yards and warehouses, many of them long disused. Or in some cases still active by road freight, but with their backs turned to the canal.
The towpath is on the North bank and is more or less continuous. Most of the canal bridges span the path too, so the horse could walk underneath and stay connected. But in longer tunnels there is no towpath. The horse was led around to the far end, while the men would lie on their backs and 'walk' the boat through by pushing with their feet against the tunnel roof. This was called legging it.
Camden features in the next three pictures. Traditionally, small shops and market stalls would tend to cluster around canal locks, because that's where the boats would be forced to stop and wait their turn. Camden Lock is no exception. The famous Camden Market originally grew up around the moorings at Camden Lock. The lock is still functioning, and is also something of a tourist trap, with craft stalls and various food outlets to tempt passers-by.
The Regent's is a fifteen foot canal. This means that the locks are fifteen feet wide to accommodate two narrow-boats side by side. (The Grand Union, being a major artery, is also fifteen feet). Lock gates are traditionally of larch-wood which has great water-resistant properties and lasts for many decades. They shouldn't leak like this one is doing. A leaking gate wastes water and is very difficult to open, because the leaking prevents the water-level equalising on both sides.
I'm not quite sure what the black lion is doing here, apart from doubling as a sofa. There were two of them, but whether permanent fixtures or available for purchase I didn't bother to find out. But enough of the tourism. When walking I'm far more interested in the little things, the details.
Like this tuft of grass, rooted and struggling to survive between the edging stones. And the sun is doing wonderful things to the black still water. That's the beauty of canal waters. They are calm and smooth yet never perfectly still.
Horses, ropes and time
Here's something to conjure up times long past. A canal always narrows at a bridge. This means that as the horse pulls the boat out from under the bridge, the tow-rope rubs against the upright brick corner of the exit. The engineers reinforced these corners with iron to protect the bricks. But over the years, deep grooves were worn into the iron itself, by the rubbing of the ropes. One wonders too, how many fingers were lost on cold winter mornings, to these ropes and grooves; it was a regular occurrence. Of course, with the coming of steam and later diesel, the ropes and horses were discarded. But these deep grooves remain to this day as their eloquent memorial.
Navigation and safety
You may be wondering how you know exactly where you are with respect to the 'normal' London of streets, shops and houses. Fortunately, you don't have to keep leaving the canal-side to find out, because every bridge carries a name plate of the street above, So as long as you know the names of a few of the major North-South roads, you can't get lost.
A slight word of warning: This is not the Thames Walkway. It's a secluded and little used pathway through some rough and ready parts of London. Most of it is unlit. I wouldn't recommend using the path at night, and even in the daytime, it's likely that you'll encounter a few down-and-outs, along the way, especially further East. Harmless, mostly, but be prepared.
Some colour to finish
Old canals, like disused railways, always show signs of gradually reverting to nature. All over London, in nooks and crannies with no maintenance, you can find buddleia growing wild. An incredibly hardy plant, it hardly needs soil at all. Some broken walling is good enough. Always the natural pink-purple, not the garden varieties.
And where there's water, given half a chance, there will be overhanging willows.
This is more or less where I left the canal today, on Caledonia Road, Kings Cross, summoned from the waterside by pangs of hunger and the thought of a cool beer. There will be other days.
Thanks for the read!