City break London
A city walk along Regent's Canal
A city walk along Regent's Canal, starting at Limehouse Basin in the Docklands via Victoria Park, Hackney, Islington and Camden Town to Little Venice. A 14 km long towpath takes you along bridges, locks, old gas plants and other industrial landmarks. London's former trade artery no longer carries the traditional narrowboats with cargo: nowadays it's tourists. But it still is an oasis of peace and quiet within the metropolis.
Travelogue & photos: Kees van Tol
London is worth a visit in the first place because it is a modern, dynamic metropolis. But because I also love quiet, nature and "industrial archeology", I like to take walks along Regent's Canal as well.
Walking along the water, I enjoy the views of old gas plants, which stand out beautifully against the London skies, the fronts and backs of atmospheric mansions, gardens by the water and even construction sites.
A walk along Regent's Canal is a special experience: you are in the metropolis and at the same time you're not. Numerous bridges and viaduducts take you back into the bustle of the city, but you can also stay here and continue strolling by the murmuring water.
You pass small and large parks (Regent's Park with the London Zoo and extremely quiet Victoria Park), highrises, modern architecture, centuries-old locks and many old, stone bridges with busy traffic under which you pass.
It's possible to walk the whole route, nine miles/fourteen kilometers, along Regent's Canal in a day. But it's also fun to just start at any point and walk as long as you like. Public transportation is never far away. Don't forget to take a break on a bench by the water to enjoy the quiet and the view.
It's impossible to get lost. Only near Islington it gets tricky for a short while, but with a guidebook with city plan it can't be hard to find the canal again. If not, ask one of those friendly Londoners for directions.
The old harbor now is a trendy neighborhood
The historic beginning of Regent's Canal is in Regent's Park. Ground was broken there in 1812 to connect the Thames via the Paddington branch of the Grand Union Canal with the rest of the English system of canals.
I start my walk at the other end: Limehouse Basin at the Docklands in East London. From here the canal runs north-west with a wide bend around Central London. It passes the tourist attraction Camden Town, known for its lively fleemarket, where time seems to have stood still since the 1960s and '70s, and ends in Regent's Park.
The Docklands is a former harbor district, with a whopping 21 km² surface. In its heyday some 100,000 people worked here. In the 1980s it was transformed into a trendy neighborhood with expensive apartments and super-modern office towers. The new financial center Canary Wharf (built on the former West-Indian Docks) is its prime location.
The canal was completed on August 1, 1820 at the Regent's Canal Dock, as Limehouse Basin was called then. In this harbor on the Thames all cargo was transferred from sea ships to smaller boats that were suited to sail the canal.
They were the characteristic narrowboats, designed especially to navigate the narrow (because dug by hand) English canals. The boats are not wider than 2.10 meters, making it possible to pass one another on the canals, but up to 22 meters long, which made them fit - just - in the locks.
The by the London Docklands Development Corporation redeveloped Limehouse Basin hardly reminds of the harsh circumstances in which sailors and dockworkers had to work. The scene is dominated nowadays by huge office towers. The many yachts docked in the Limehouse Basin serve the recreational needs of rich Londoners.
Walking along the canal you can still see many colorful narrowboats or canalboats, now mostly used as houseboats, but also as tourboats. They are either replicas of, or original freighters. Some are neglected, others are shining jewels, evidence of their owners' love for them.
Sailing on Regent's Canal they have to pass through locks every now and then. The two-centuries-old system of locks still works. The skippers open and close the locks themselves, manually, and their ships rise or fall with the water level, depending which way they are going.
At the Limehouse Basin is the first lock, Limehouse Lock, but this one is for boats that go to and come from Limehouse Cut. The twelfth and numerically last lock in Regent's Canal is a little bit farther: Commercial Road Lock.
On summer days the park is a green beach
It is said, and also written, that the part of the Thames up to Victoria Park is the least attractive. It has some industry, rather uninspiring new buildings, but also lots of greenery. It's a special experience, this much quiet in a metropolis.
Between the canal and the green space sits an at least century-old industrial red-brick chimney. Just like that, all alone. A little farther, to the right, out of view, is the estuary of the Lea River, which will be the backdrop for the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
There are billboards with information along the canal, which tell you how many bridges there still are to go to the final destination.
In this part of the canal many bridges wear a strange sign that exhorts witnesses of collisions by boats or cars to call the phone number of the British Railways and tell them a crash took place at bridge #591.
Immediately after that, you have to call the police. I have no idea how the numbering works, because there are "only" around sixty bridges over the canal.
Another strange sign tells us that you have arrived at the Ragged School Museum, also called Towpath Cafe. It offers tea, coffee and snacks, but taking into account its extremely limited opening hours, you have to be very lucky to be able to actually enjoy those.
Just before Victoria Park there is a canal on the right, which connects Regent's Canal to the Lea estuary. If it's busy on the water, it's fun to watch the skippers try to avoid collisions at this T-junction.
Victoria Park is rather large and on weekdays there is room for everyone. Here and there people are playing sports or lazying about and the atmosphere is relaxed. But during heat waves, Londoners flee their houses in South Hackney and surroundings to go sunbathing in the park, which then turns into a green beach.
Near Victoria Park is the Old Ford Lock, number eight of twelve.
Gas holders are reminders of the past
My favorite leg is between Victoria Park and Camden: it's nice and quiet and it has a good atmosphere. There is a remote feeling that somewhere near is a hurrying metropolis, but the nineteenth-century canal almost forces you to take it easy... and to look at the interesting surroundings.
On the leg between the Thames and Camden Town I see mainly Londoners, mothers with strollers, joggers, people who are walking their dogs and other relaxed locals. There are also bikers, like the young Dutch doctor who teaches at the University of London. He prefers the route along the canal from his apartment in the diverse neighborhood of Hackney to (almost) the university building over a zig-zag route in city traffic.
London city traffic still has to get used to the increased stream of bicyclists, after the bomb attacks on the underground in July 2005. Bikers, on the other hand, often seem to think that they are the only traffic.
Between the Old Ford Lock and Camden Town, British Waterways London, which manages the area, made all kinds of improvements in 2007 that should prevent the increasing number of visitors from being in each others' way. There even is a code of behavior. Pedestrians have right of way and bikers have to yield to them. They have to ring twice when they want to pass by and decrease their speed. To force them to do that, there are "bike sluices" here and there.
A little past Victoria Park - we are still in Hackney - is one of the landmarks from the days when gas was still produced in plants and was stocked in huge gas holders. The Imperial Gas Light Company Works was in charge of them once upon a time.
Every now and then you still see some of those impressive gas holders, for which the coal was transported via the canal.
There is an easily accessible footpath along the canal. In old times, this path was used by horses or people who towed the narrow cargo boats, hence towpath. In 1953 tractors were introduced to replace horse power.
Three years later the last horse that had drawn a cargo-loaded boat through the canal was unharnassed.
Dodging off the ceiling through the tunnel
The water, flowing toward the Thames, quietly ripples toward you. As you get closer to the somewhat posh borough of Islington (a residential district where Tony Blair lived before he became PM), it gets greener around the canal. And then, unevitably, you reach the spot where the canal disappears into a tunnel and the tow path dissolves into nothingness.
In the early eighteenth century, the horses were unharnassed at Islington Hill and skippers had to lie on their backs and, dodging off the ceiling of the 866 meters long tunnel with their feet, had to provide propelling power themselves. Later a steam tugboat was used to pass through this obstacle.
In all of London there are only three canal tunnels and all of them are part of Regent's Canal. The Islington tunnel is the longest by far with its 886 m. The others are Maida Hill Tunnel (251 meters) and Eyre's tunnel, only 48 meters, underneath Lisson Grove, which often incorrectly is considered a bridge.
The two shorter tunnels are near the connection with Grand Junction Canal's Paddington Arm, also known as Little Venice.
Having walked along the canal for a while, you can feel somewhat disoriented in Islington, without the compelling direction indicator of the canal and its towpath. Here you have to use your city plan to find the other end of the tunnel. A little detour through some quiet and some very lively streets in this district leads to the London Canal Museum on New Wharf Road. It is close to the underground stop Kings Cross. Brown signs show the way.
Since 1816 the canal was an important trade artery for the capital of the British Empire. After the introduction of other kinds of cargo transportation, trains and trucks, local freighter transport declined and in the severe winter of 1962-1963 it stopped completely, a sign in the London Canal Museum tells me.
In the building on the bank of the canal an old wooden freighter is on display. Getting inside, you can imagine how constricted skippers' families must have lived. The museum is located by one of the so-called basins along the canal, which used to be places where ships were unloaded and their cargo was transported further into the city.
Everything that arrived in Britain over sea, was transported via the canal. Ice was brought to London this way. It was kept in the building that now houses the Canal Museum.
In the museum I also read that Regent's Canal was dug to connect the Paddington branch of Grand Junction with the Thames at Limehouse. One of the CEOs of the canal company was the famous architect John Nash. He was friends with the Prince-Regent, later King George IV.
In the third season of the television comedy series Blackadder, the Prince-Regent is portrayed as an extravagant, unworldly collector of socks who is constantly cheated by his servant Rowan Atkinson.
Regent's Park, London Zoo and Little Venice
We are getting near the end of the walk. Camden is already visible. Don't get scared by hippy-like people who are napping on the grass after smoking a little too much weed or other youngsters who are digesting their beers in the afternoon sun on the concrete banks of the canal.
Other tourists are inevitable in London, but I mainly see them in the part of Camden near Regent's Park. Here you also see lots of tourist boats. Early May the fun of walking is not yet spoiled by other tourists. I can't say anything about the summer, though.
It's crowded at the Camden locks. Some hikers cannot resist the temptation to take a look at the many stalls with clothes, Eastern tchotchkes and other thingies. There's also the delicious, exotic smell of food. Unfortunately the competition is harsh, and cooks are screaming their lungs out to get your attention; even a modest look at their food seems to be interpreted as an order. A certain unflappability is called for here.
The last leg is visible now. The atmosphere here is partly dominated by tourists and tourboats, but the canal is still a mysterious miracle of beauty in this city of millions.
The canal meets London Zoo in Regent's Park, where it discharges into Grand Union Canal. Near this system of canals is Little Venice, not far from Paddington Station.
As early as 1840 the idea was foated to let the canal dry out, so it could become a railway embankment for the steam trains that were up and coming as means of transportation. I am happy that never happened and that the London authorities now understand that Regent's Canal is not only important for local bikers and hikers, but also for foreign tourists.