Canals in London

The canal network of England has the peculiarity that it has almost completely fallen out of commercial use but nonetheless has several key routes in usable condition. The result is that the nation’s primary cities – Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, London and Bristol – are connected together by an entirely operational transport network, little of it much under 200 years old, that is not used for commercial transport.

Each city does something different with this landscape. Birmingham perhaps makes most of its waterways for promoting itself, with its happy arguments that it has more miles of waterway than Venice. (Philistines are given to observing that Birmingham is bigger than Venice.) Birmingham of course has little else to shout about in terms of obvious heritage and attractive features, although the Town Hall and Symphony Hall have their points.

Birmingham Canal Basin (s) JPGA canal basin in central Birmingham early one December Sunday morning with the Mailbox development in the background.

Yet London has the oddest relationship. It is home of “Little Venice” (not to be confused with the Italian city occasionally sarcastically nicknamed “Little Paddington”) where the Grand Junction Canal meets Regents Canal about quarter of a mile from Paddington station. Passengers can walk from the nation’s seventh busiest railway station to a quiet haven of London, centred on an island of trees and geese, where a different intercity network congregates.

Paddington 4 JPGSpot the difference – big Paddington station….

Paddington 5 JPG…and Little Paddington. Before the railway came to town, this was quite literally all fields. An engraving when the canals were new shows sweeping farmland, rolling hills and a patch of woodland. The canal infrastructure has changed little (although the island now has a protective wall round it that was lacking in the engraving, assuming that the artist didn’t leave it out for reasons of artistic integrity). The impressive canal loadings and horses towing the narrow boats have of course all been replaced by the motor lorry, sharing transport space with the general public’s living areas, as part of the spirit of progress.

Particularly odd about the relationship between London and its canals is that every other scrap of land in London, it sometimes seems, is made to work for its living. The canals, by contrast, feel quite underutilised. Of course, there are occasionally wharfs that look like they might be being used:

Old Oak wharf 1 JPGThe wharf at Old Oak on the Grand Junction canal, a couple of miles from central London and only a few years old.

Mostly, however, the canals are used as living space and linear parks – in both of which roles they are quite successful. The Regent’s Canal, from Paddington in the west to Limehouse in the east, provides space for people to live in Maida Vale inside what are little more than water-borne caravans. Except because water is attractive, the trees around the caravans are mature and the caravans are resting in a 200-year-old transport link they seem to be considered to enhance the value of the area. Perhaps the traveller population should take to living on canals.

(The travelling canal population has curiously disappeared from the scene, whereas the travelling road population is still highly noted – albeit mostly for not travelling.)Maida Vale 1 JPGMaida Vale. Looking down this stretch of water – separating Little Paddington, behind the camera, from the first tunnel along the route of the Regent’s Canal, in the distance – it is tempting to murmur things about the possibility that a boat parking permit here would cost more than rent for a fixed house in most other parts of the country.

The Regent’s Canal – which is quite fortunate to be here, as its convenient start and end points via most of North London resulted in proposals to turn it into a railway during the First Railway Mania – now loops through an ever-changing urban scene. In some ways its presence is a valuable way of helping social cohesion. A wander along the canal from Maida Vale passes through the regal Regent’s Park, chattering London Zoo and vibrant Camden Market before reaching Kings Cross – for connections to Cambridge, Paris, Brighton and Aberdeen plus the headquarters of the Guardian newspaper. (Whether Guardian columnists who live in Maida Vale cycle along the green-lined concrete towpath of the canal to get to their offices is another matter, but the Guardian‘s presence on the canal bank is rather appropriate. It’s a very Guardian sort of canal. It contrasts strongly with the more Torygraph-esque Kennet and Avon Canal that connects Reading with Bath and Bristol.)

Since a picture is worth a thousand words (even if it does require three thousand times the bandwidth), the remainder of this article will be covered with some pretty pictures of Things to be Seen on the western half of the Regent’s Canal:

Before I die 1 JPGSome of these things, of course, have an interesting interpretation on how to be artistic or thought-provoking – although the take-up for this one was quite impressive.

Regent's Canal 1 JPGSometimes the canal picks up a vaguely Continental air. The canal boat on the right proceeded to provide a kind demonstration of how to do a three-point-turn with a 60-foot narrow boat. Two centuries of landscaping, including the development of Regent’s Park on the right, has served to hide the deep cuttings that the canal scarred across the once-rural landscape.

Regent's Canal 2 JPGThe canal, being a Georgian creation, is notable for its very intricate bridges. The modern architecture on the left is more notable for its general absence of any intricacy at all. A couple of faint grey points sticking up above the further bridge mark the bird cage of the London Zoo. Some of the birds have got it into their heads that they’re advertising the Zoo to potential visitors and like to pout impressively on their side of the netting next to the canal towpath. Alternatively they’ve just learnt that if they stand there they get fed.

Camden 1 JPGWhile the canal passes through North London discretely on an east-west basis the West Coast Mainline makes its way through on a slightly more north-south basis. A Virgin Pendolino on the world’s first trunk railway slopes over a not much older suburban canal. Flats look over the strikingly green and peaceful scene that calls on passers-by to linger as electric trains canter lightly overhead – an absolute gift for the rail and canal lobbies – barely a mile north of the Euston Road (which, when canal and railway were built, marked the northern edge of the urban sprawl). A few yards away to the North is Camden Roundhouse, a celebrated concert venue and of course the railway’s original engine shed. 

Camden 2 JPGA direction post in the middle of Camden, London, indicates the ultimate destination of the Grand Union Canal. At a reasonable non-sadistic rate, taking locks into account, this represents about twenty days travelling time at standard canal speed (walking pace). 

Camden Lock 1 JPGThe market at Camden is a bustling affair, made more so by its cramped position between the ground-level canal and the elevated North London Line (which would have enhanced this picture more if the photographer had thought to wait for one of the externally-cheerful Overground trains to go past). The grassy banks of the towpath provide vital sitting space next to the cool water, overlooked by some more attractive properties, a couple of warehouses and a large array of elevated knitting. The fence adds additional colour to the splodgy green trees.

Camden Geese 1 JPGThe canal is relatively unpolluted for an urban waterway (at least in terms of crisp packets, sweet wrappers and plastic bottles) with the result that it provides a delightful home for an array of common waterlife. (Less common waterlife, including turtles, may occasionally be identified – particularly in the outer suburbs on the Grand Union Canal – by those who look carefully enough.)

St Pancras Lock 1 JPGThe Kings Cross St Pancras area has been seeing some rebuilding work in recent years, tidying up some of the more derelict buildings and rebuilding one of the gasholders as an innovative decorative sculpture for a new garden area (still under construction, on extreme right). Notable companies and organisations in or moving to the area include the University of Arts London (Central St Martins College), the aforementioned Guardian, Network Rail and Google.

Brighton 1 JPGWhen you get bored with the canal, why not hop on one of the four direct trains per hour from St Pancras and go to Brighton for the rest of the day? A more flamboyant style of Regency architecture than the canal’s is seen here in the form of Brighton’s Royal Pavilion.