“The best way to approach London, according to Jonathan Raban at least, is from the north. You should drive down via Archway to take in the classic hillside view of the city and descend deeper within, until you reach the river Thames, where London’s full glory will hit you. My own arrival was rather prosaic by comparison: a dull coach journey up the M4 from Bristol, which ended up amid the traffic at Hyde Park Corner…”
This article originally appeared around ten years ago in a small press print mag called Territories I used to help produce and contributed to. We (Jack Black Publishing) put out four quarterly issues, which sold in small numbers in various branches of Waterstones, Borders and independent bookshops across London.
Being more interested in writing than trying to flog the magazine, we foundered when we ran out of spare cash to fund further issues.
My subject – The Regent’s Canal – has been much covered in the last decade or so and has changed enormously. A cursory glance at the major differences would highlight: a massive increase in cycle traffic along the towpath, along with related saddle-rage incidents, many more former factory/warehouse blocks now become loft-style apartments, a face-lift/opening out of the Packington Estate, major changes at the London Olympics Site, the East London line taking trains once again across the old railway bridges, the City Road basin looking a lot neater, but perhaps less interesting.
Aside from correcting a few minor factual tweaks, the original article as it first appeared can be seen below. Black and White photos from the original magazine by Vanessa Lockett, colour photos by the author.
Along the Regent’s Canal
In his 1974 book Soft City Jonathan Raban suggests that ‘Every big city has a particular entrance, a route inwards which is established by mythology, a point of focus which endows the whole complex with a clear shape and pattern.’
The best way to approach London according to Raban, is from the north. If in a car you should drive down via Archway to take in the fabled Dick Whittington hillside view of the city and descend deeper within until you reach the river Thames, where London’s full glory will hit you.
In 1994, unaware of Raban’s assessment, my own arrival was rather prosaic by comparison: a dull coach journey up the M4 from Bristol, which ended up amid the traffic at Hyde Park Corner.
It didn’t matter. I had finally arrived, in the place that had so excited me as a teenager when I used to visit my older brother, when he was a student the Polytechnic of Central London [now University of Westminster]. I found London a magical place, crowded with an endless variety of people and buildings, appealing bohemian pubs, whole streets of curry houses and arts cinemas all over the place.
I was very excited, but soon realised that being in a city is not the same as feeling that you belong there. Cities need to be claimed by new arrivals. You must negotiate your way in and stake your particular pitch. Feeling your way into the life of the city can involve making new friends, finding a job, exploring the streets, the markets, the parks, everywhere. You must start making connections and memories, for this is a mental as much as a physical process.
Usually there’s something that helps kick-off this establishing procedure. It could be getting into a particular club scene, a regular visit to an interesting bookshop, playing for a football team: it could be almost anything.
My own mental route into London was made via the Regent’s Canal. If you think of London in relation to water, you are likely to think of the Thames. For many the river is London. The city’s very existence is due to the river, which divides it physically and symbolically into North and South. For me though, it was a much less significant waterway that drew me deeper inside the city. Running for approximately eight miles between Paddington and Limehouse, the Regent’s Canal sneaks its way through North London almost embarrassed to be there.
When I first discovered the canal, I used it as an easy way to get home from nights out in Camden. I didn’t know my way around very well unless travelling by tube and I couldn’t afford taxis, so this relatively straight stretch of water seemed an ideal way to get home to Islington where I then lived.
It was only some while later, once I had discovered the joy of night buses, that I realised that stomping along the canal in the dark, whilst drunk had been pretty stupid. I think it had occurred to me at the time that there might be a mugger or worse lurking behind a bridge, but this chance seemed preferable to getting lost in the darkness of the Camden-Islington hinterland.
My lack of money and local knowledge, combined with naïve self-confidence had drawn me to the canal. I knew nothing about it but instantly felt attracted to the potential of this silent thoroughfare. I like the way that buildings were mirrored in the water in the dark. The factories and warehouses, some of them little more than empty shells, seemed to hang suspended in the murky canal. I saw it as a secret nighttime city, like something from The Water Babies that could be seen but not touched.
Through further walks, now also taken during the day, I began to discover more about the canal. Walking along it seemed to offer a means of seeing the guts of the city, in a way that a walk along the river, or a stroll through the West End could never do. I began to view it as a gateway into what I felt was the true heart of London. It is a strange, surprisingly green route that cuts through urban centres and exposes the backsides of industrial buildings, council blocks and expensive homes. When walking the canal I sometimes feel that I’m trespassing in someone’s backyard. Yet I am allowed to be here, peeking behind the exterior and catching a glimpse of what lies beneath.
The canal’s chief appeal for me was its mix of accessibility, with the sense that it was something of a secret. It slices across North London, running through diverse areas; some of great wealth, others suffering from terrible neglect, but it links them all. Limehouse, Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Islington, Camden and Little Venice are all connected by this waterway as it descends some eighty-six feet through twelve locks on its way to the river. Join the canal at almost any point and you are able to pass through the middle of the inner city undisturbed by cars, shops or the alienating crowds of Leicester Square or Piccadilly Circus.
In a city that is becoming increasingly restrictive, with closed-off private developments and the select gated communities of the mega-rich that shut out everyone else, such openness is refreshing. The canal path is a rare thing, a free public space not reliant on commerce. The canal allows a slow process of familiarization to take place. In the company of joggers, cyclists, fishermen, children, dog-walkers and other wanderers, you are able to make your own way, at your own pace through the middle of North London, observing and reflecting. No tube line allows this, no car journey permits it. If you get tired or bored it’s easy to step off and within a couple of streets find a pub, a shop, city life in action.
It has not always been this way. In 1963 British Waterways took over control of the canal, which had suffered years of decline. Long stretches of the towpath were closed to the public and were strewn with debris. Bridges were covered with advertising hoardings, which obscured the view down to the water. The canal was ignored and largely forgotten. Its heyday had long gone, but by 1967 the regeneration process had begun. The Regent’s Canal – A Policy for its Future was published by The Regent’s Canal Group. The report addressed the canal’s decline and looked at ways it could be revitalised. In 1968 the City of Westminster Council reopened one section of the towpath and in 1974 Camden Council opened up a further portion.
Hackney and Islington Councils followed soon afterward. By 1982, apart from the two tunnels, it was once again possible to walk the length of the canal.
On my walks I sometimes went west, past the Zoo and beneath the Snowdon aviary and on to Little Venice. This is a very attractive section of the canal, but I always preferred to head east, towards home, which at first was in Islington and then Dalston.
Heading east from Camden the first things that really caught my imagination were the gasholders near St Pancras Lock. In the spring and summer, when the trees and foliage of Camley Street Natural park are in full bloom, and swans and coots glide on the water, the neo-Gothic of St Pancras station appears more like a cathedral. It could almost be a rural waterway, yet there are plenty of signs of London’s industrial past to remind daydreamers where they are. Stark against the skyline, the Victorian gasholders look like giant crowns, the lost relics of a dead age. Their strange beauty has been recognised by others, as four of them are now listed. [these have now either been moved or dismantled due to the massive redevelopment of the area].
At Battlebridge Basin, further signs of this industrial heritage can be seen. Battlebridge, once the name of the King’s Cross area, is said to mark the site of Queen Boudicca’s attack on Roman Londinium. From the early 1820s the canal and a few years later the railways, fuelled a population explosion in the area as people were drawn in their thousands by the prospect of work on the railways and in the businesses that were springing up throughout St Pancras and Camden.
Here many of the buildings that once housed warehouses and factories can still be seen. These formerly relied on the timber, building materials and other goods that were brought up the canal. At Battlebridge Basin, on the opposite side from the towpath is a building once occupied by Carlo Gatti’s ice warehouse. Norwegian ice was shipped to England and taken up the canal to be stored in the huge, deep ice wells inside the building, which is now home to the London Canal Museum.
I often tried to imagine the canal with its wharves bustling with working boats, thronging, workers cheerily unloading all manner of goods from the boats tied-up alongside. The reality was somewhat different. In this extract from an article entitled ‘Through London by Canal’ originally published in 1885 by Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, a barge captain rails about the canal and its owners: “They never tells yer we’n they’re going to lower the water, nor nothin’. It’s never clean,an it’s allers low water, and there’s nothin’ but naked men a bathin’ and thives wot robs your barge and takes all they can git out of ‘er, and blackguard boys wot calls yer name and spits on yer, and throws stones at yer.”
Aside from tourist cruisers, the only working boats on the canal today and the council-owned craft, which clear rubbish and conduct general repairs. These can be occasionally observed moving slowly along as a crew member dips a long pole into the water and hooks out an abandoned shopping trolley.
Most of the other craft on the Regent’s Canal are private boats. Their owners tend to be a little more relaxed about the whole experience than the 19th century barge captain.
On one walk, I got talking to the owner of a boat moored in the leafy stretch of canal at the eastern end of the Islington tunnel, between Duncan Terrace and Colebrooke Row (Frog Lane Bridge). Here, industrial buildings give way to Georgian Terraces, and it is celebrated in Walter Sickert’s painting The Hanging Gardens of Islington.
Tony seemed very happy with his life on the canal, he grinned as I questioned him on it, telling me that the lifestyle was very relaxing, although stopping in London could be very expensive so he never stayed for too long. He was a retired submariner and after a long period working ashore, was glad to be back on the water. Tony’s broad smile and delight as he showed me around his boat, talking about the places he’d taken it, showed that his decision to go back to the water had been a good one.
At City Road Lock the familiar canal side view of old warehouses begins to reassert itself – though many of those lining City Road Basin, Wenlock Basin and Wharf Road have been converted into apartments. In 1820 crowds gathered nearby to watch a City State Barge make its triumphant journey down to Limehouse as John Nash, the architect and director of the canal, and other notables, celebrated its opening.
Now men fishing gather and sip from cans of lager as they stare into the murky water. Perhaps they are aware of the report that once appeared in the Hackney Gazette of a mysterious creature that had been spotted in the canal. Maybe they’ll catch it one day.
To the left of City Road Lock a school with a playground on the roof overlooks the towpath. Walking past it for the first time, during what must have been the mid-morning break, I was disturbed to hear the sound of children playing, but couldn’t work out where the noise was coming from. Eventually I looked up and saw the wire fence around the school roof and was disappointed to realise that I hadn’t been witness to the ghostly shrieks of a long ended Victorian playtime.
Just beyond Stuart’s Lock, next to the New North Road Bridge, is a building, which once housed Gainsborough Film Studios, where Alfred Hitchcock began his career. You can still see the faded painted lettering displaying the film studio’s name on the side of the wall. [This is now another block of ‘luxury’ apartments]
Along the next stretch, between the Rosemary Branch bridge and Kingsland Road, the canal has accumulated a fine collection of old bikes and other casually tossed scrap. Perhaps this explains the faded notice a little further on that exhorts people to ‘Help Keep the Beautiful in and the Ugly Out. Join C.H.U.G.’(Canals in Hackney User Group).
A little further on from here, past the Kingsland Road Bridge, an old railway bridge crosses the canal. Sprayed onto its western side is a question reading: ‘Tony Blair, Reg Kray has served 30 years?’. A welcome to East London if there ever was one. I once walked past here and saw a van pull up on Dunstan Road. A man got out and started throwing something in the water, I couldn’t make out what it was but I could see fairly large objects splashing down at a rapid rate. As I got closer, I saw that it was a baker, casting loaves of bread into the water and leaving them to form a baked Armada, soon to be destroyed by the local waterfowl.
At Victoria Park the canal side becomes very green. On the towpath, behind iron railings a line of trees mark the southern edge of the park. Opposite, small back gardens slope down to the water, with the odd wooden jetty and small boat moored up alongside, ready for some kind of Hackney Swallows and Amazons adventure.
Nearby are the fearsome statues that guard the entrance to Victoria Park at Bonner Hall Bridge. These Dogs of Alcibiades lend a welcome mythic quality to the sparkling fountains and municipal flowerbeds beyond.
Carry on towards Limehouse and you pass through Mile End Park; this section always seems a little more desolate than the others. Although walking along here one Sunday afternoon I remember being struck by the sight of a swan gliding across the water, its unexpected beauty highlighted by its situation.
Not every encounter with nature on the canal is so charming. Once walking back in the other direction, I ran into some Canada geese strutting on the towpath, they didn’t like me being there at all and honked angrily at me as I legged it out of their way.
Near the Ragged School Museum a huge dog patrols a yard, never failing to bark and snarl at me as I walk past. But the geese and the dog haven’t put me off coming here yet.
Walk along The Regent’s Canal and you won’t see any of London’s great monuments and palaces. What you do see, outside Little Venice, are mostly rather unglamorous buildings: council blocks, warehouses, studios and scruffy pubs – with the odd park, waterside café or well-tended garden thrown into the mix.
You get a privileged glimpse of the city within the city, London’s informal back entrances and utilitarian behinds. I found that whenever I walked along the towpath I become increasingly interested in the areas I was passing through. I wanted to know about their history, but also what was going on right now. By imagining the urban theatre acted out within those workshops, pubs and studios, I began to develop my own sense of belonging there. Like so many others wandering and wondering helped me establish my own place in the city.
Addenda – Feb 2013
The Canal by Lee Rourke
I recently read an excellent book by Lee Rourke called The Canal set approximately along the stretch of the Regent’s Canal that runs from the Islington Tunnel at Duncan Terrace and the bridge between the Packington Estate and Shepherdess Walk. I bought my copy on the excellent Book Barge, when it was moored near Battlebridge Basin in Kings Cross last year, but it shouldn’t be too hard to find a copy in any decent bookshop.
In some regards the novel is a study of boredom, but it makes for compelling reading. Rourke’s deceptively simple style and spare prose says an awful lot with a little. Pretty much all the action takes place within the same small stretch of the Regents Canal in North London, but this just adds to the intensity of the story as it unfolds. Beckett plays and Ballardian themes come to mind, but the book very much has a voice of its own. It’s packed with beautifully observed – though often awkward or even violent moments – and is brilliant at capturing those inbetween places, or non-spaces, in our lives which we all too frequently pass through without ever properly regarding. An outstanding debut and well worth picking up and reading. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/oct/04/not-the-booker-lee-rourke
Essex-Lopresti, Michael, Exploring Regent’s Canal, Brewin Books, 1987