When London Became An Island
Part 1 - Section 4
Bethnal Green to Limehouse
If you decided to stroll around Victoria Park return to the towpath, turn left and pass the notices on the railings (1) and then the old lock keeper's cottage and outbuildings. There were stables here originally and, to enable water to be returned from the lower pound to the upper one, a pump, driven by a steam engine, was installed. After descending to a lower level (2) and running under Old Ford Road bridge, the towpath begins to rise again for it must cross the entrance to the Hertford Union Canal. This was constructed as a link to the River Lee Navigation. It was also known as Duckett's Canal (or, locally, Duckett’s Cut) after Sir George Duckett, who was responsible for building it.
If you fancy a walk along the Hertford Union you can take the path that runs off from the towpath. At the crest of the bridge go through the gap in the metal fence, which separates the towpath from Stoneway Walk. Turn left, walk along for a few yards and turn right down Pavers Way. This will take you to the towpath of the canal. Click here and you will find details of the towpath walk down to the Lee Navigation.
Should you decide to explore Duckett’s Cut at later date just continue over the bridge which spans the entrance. From here right down to Limehouse you will find yourself with plenty of open space to your left, which is the result of the adoption, over the past half century or so, of the principles of a visionary 'green space' plan produced in the Second World War, which was greatly influenced by Sir Patrick Abercrombie. During the war a considerable amount of open space, much of it in the East End, resulted from bombing attacks. This created opportunity as well as devastation.
Abercrombie was not the first person to suggest how the need for open spaces in London could be met. Nine years after the opening of the Regents Canal a visionary landscape planner named John Loudon, suggested, in an article entitled ‘Hints for Breathing Places for the Metropolis, and for Country Towns and Villages, on fixed Principles’, that the centre of London should be surrounded by concentric rings of 'country' interspersed with rings of 'town'. As Regents Park, Islington and Bethnal Green would have been in the country and Loudon suggested that the rings should be varied according to local circumstances it might well have been that, had the plan been carried through, the Regents Canal would have been maintained as a 'country' canal in perpetuity. Instead its banks became almost wholly industrialised and commercialised. I suppose now we can say now that they are well on their way to being residentialised but a couple of years ago the canal side area between Mile End and Limehouse was awarded the Green Flag for the quality of the green space, something to which a number of organisations have contributed. I think Loudon would have approved.
The first open area is called Wennington Green. It is mainly used for recreation, and has an open-air gymnasium. On the far side, close to Grove Road, Rachel Whiteread created the controversial cast sculpture ‘House’ for which she won the 1993 Turner Prize. ‘House’ seemed a little forlorn to me, standing alone, the last reminder of a row of pleasant, bow fronted houses which had been built, probably with material shipped in by canal, for those with more money than usual in this part of London. The cast didn’t stand long as it was demolished by the local council in the following year. This was very controversial move but today, except for the gym equipment, there are no permanent structures in the little park although a travelling circus has been known to pitch a big top there (3). Coincidentally, the first big top travelling canvas circus tent was seen, albeit in the USA, only five years after the Regents Canal was opened. It is doubtful if a circus will be returning to Wennington Green anytime soon, but not because of a threat of new bombing attacks. Covid-19 is the danger now and until recently, at the Grove Road and Roman Road junction entrance, there were over 500 tributes by Peter Liversidge for his ‘Sign Paintings for the NHS’ project dedicated to those helping in the struggle to overcome the problems the virus was, and is, bringing. Picture 4 shows the project in the early days.
After passing under the curiously named Twig Folly Bridge (which actually carries Roman Road) you will see a signpost indicating you are now in the Ecology Park (5), which contains an earth covered pavilion, a wide variety of flora and fauna and a small lake. You have the opportunity to walk through this park as you continue towards Mile End as the path, although it meanders a little bit, will bring you back to the canal towpath. As you cross a wooden bridge you will, perhaps, hear the whirring of the windmill before arriving at the palm trees which stand by the side of the Palm Tree pub (6).
The towpath beyond the Palm Tree has been regularly used for small, boat based markets (7) and, close by a footbridge which spans the canal, you will see three pieces of public artwork. One represents a barge horse, one Sylvia Pankhurst, the Suffragette leader who worked in Mile End during the First World War helping the poor, and the other Ledley King, the Tottenham and England player who grew up locally. The artwork was erected by Sustrans, a cycle charity.
Continuing towards Limehouse you will pass the premises of the Mile End Climbing Wall and then walk under a railway bridge. The railway line crosses Grove Road on another bridge a couple of hundred yards away and here a plaque indicates the first V1 flying bomb landed in London in 1944. Three years earlier the East End had been subjected to the Blitz and unexploded bombs from that air offensive are still turning up, a large one being found close to the canal in May 2007. There was great apprehension of the effects of bombing on London prior to the war and huge numbers of metal stretchers were produced to carry casualties. When the war was over these were usually scrapped, but a few are still dotted about, put to other uses. The one in photograph 9 is in Hackney, a few hundred yards south of the Cat and Mutton bridge. It serves as a climbing frame for plants.
Passing under the railway bridge will take us to the Art Park, which also contains an earth covered pavilion, regularly used for exhibitions of work produced by local artists and craftspeople. It also has a small lake on which cygnets sometimes make their debut in the world (10). As they grow they will doubtless be introduced to the canal too. The lake is hidden from the canal, but easily accessible by the track which runs off from the towpath about 100 yards beyond the railway bridge.
On the opposite side of the canal is the Queen Mary campus of London University. The old lock keeper's cottage at Mile End lock is now used by the university and a meeting room was built on the side some years ago. It is, perhaps, not an addition that will meet with the full approval of all those interested in the preservation of canal architecture, but the world moves on. Close by the lock is the Art Mound, which looks like an Iron Age barrow. Mound or barrow there are seats on the top where you can rest after the climb and look over the surrounding area.
A signboards close by the lock gives a little information about the pleasure gardens created here after the canal was built. The entrance was by the New Globe tavern which is now called the Cherry. The façade bears the date 1820 but the eye is now drawn upwards to a cherry rather than a globe (11).
Several years ago, a short distance from Mile End Road bridge, in the direction of Stratford, I took photograph 12. At the same time, a little further along the terrace, signs in windows indicated concerns about Crossrail, the new rail line linking east and west London and beyond. Crossrail runs through a tunnel under the East End. I wonder if any houses above the tunnel suffered from subsidence and, if so, if the owners got the kind of immediate attention Morgan gave to the residents of Islington when the Regents Canal tunnel was built? Crossrail has been an expensive project, running well over budget. So was the construction of the 2012 Olympic site and, of course, the Regents Canal too. This is not a new problem. In 1816, when the shareholders of the Regents Canal faced the fact that the initial cost projections of the project had been far too low, they were told that the extra money required for completion would be less in proportion than has occurred in almost every instance of great works of the same nature. The London Docks, Liverpool Docks, Bristol Docks and Strand Bridges were cited as examples. Cost overruns on large developments are nothing new and it is doubtful they will be eliminated any time soon.
Many of the bricks used in the initial development of Mile End after the opening of the canal were evidently imported from Kent, particularly brickworks on the River Medway. Today, on the Mile End Road bridge itself, by the towpath, there is a sign to discourage graffiti. It says that the bricks are over 100 years old. But now we are in 2020 we can surely assert that many of the bridge bricks will be over 200 years old!
Just before the 2012 Olympic Games began the Olympic torch was carried over the bridge by the Jan Mela (13). At the age of 13 Mela was severely injured as a result of a taking a 15,000 volt electric shock when sheltering from the rain in a building housing an electrical transformer. However, despite then becoming a double amputee he showed incredible resilience and set out on expeditions to both the North and South poles. He reached the first when he was fifteen and the second the day after his sixteenth birthday. A remarkable man.
Between the Mile End Road bridge and the next lock is an area, which, today particularly, may seem to be evocative of Loudon’s plan. The open area to the left is wide and on the other side of the canal trees and shrubs still run down to the water’s edge. There always seem to be plenty of birds about, mostly moorhens and Canada geese (14), but swans may be seen occasionally and a heron too. I have also observed, but admittedly only rarely, kingfishers. On a lovely morning in April 2020 when cycle traffic was far lower than usual and the numbers of joggers seemed much reduced I felt, as I approached Johnson’s lock, that there was something else that was supporting a returning sense of tranquillity. I couldn’t quite work out what it was until I realised the skies were silent. London City Airport was closed and no aircraft at all appeared to be approaching Heathrow from the east. Pleasant as this absence of engine noise was I couldn’t help but reflect what a devastating blow to the economy the sudden grounding of so many aircraft, with the subsequent possibility of company liquidations and bankruptcy, must have been having. There has certainly proved to be an enormous price to pay for the respite from noise in cities which London City Airport serves and, indeed, worldwide.
As you approach Johnson’s lock, you may see a sign similar to the one shown in photo 15 which was erected by the Lower Regents Coalition, a voluntary group that as it says on the poster, cares for the canal between Mile End Road and Limehouse Basin. From here on you will notice a number of such notices all of which mark an improvement to the banks beside the towpath.
A short distance after the lock you will come to the Ragged School Museum (16). It is a very popular attraction where old fashioned lessons are given to new fashioned children. They go down a storm and I am sure Dr Barnardo would have approved. The museum is open to the general public and access to the museum cafe is from the towpath. The cafe is open Wednesday and Thursday from 10 to 5 and on the first Sunday of each month from 2 to 5.
Looking across the canal at this point you will see a relatively new housing estate but for most of the past two hundred years the view would have been dominated by the Stepney gas works. This was established in the early Victorian period and parts remained active until the early part of this century. When the final site clearance took place the ‘rotten eggs’ smell, such constant feature of old gas works, was noticeable from the towpath. All gone now.
Nothing like the development which has taken place in Kings Cross is evident here, but if you leave the towpath by the steps and walk over Ben Jonson Road Bridge you will see the remaining cast iron wall plates, which were used to secure wrought iron bars that ran across the gas works coal store. Boats would unload coal from the canal into the store and such was the pressure on the brickwork that the bars and plates were fitted to stop the walls bulging (17).Turn right at the end of the wall and you will see two boards by the side of the canal. These give information about the gas works and near the end of a winding path that leads off through the estate you will find two more. These stand by four column bases that mark the point where one of the gasholders once stood (18).
Returning to the towpath and passing under the bridge will take you by the side of a small open area from which you will get a good view of the towers of Canary Wharf. There are mooring posts here, one of which used to be painted with an exhortation (19). To be honest I never knew Soul and Punx were divided - did you? The call for unity has now been painted over, sadly, but I hope Soul or Punk will return to renovate it soon. Although they both will probably be middle aged by now, it would still be better if they could make up their differences.
The canal now swerves to the right, dictating the curve of a row of terrace houses. The tall chimney hard by the towpath was built to serve one of the tunnels that fed into Joseph Bazalgette's Northern Outfall Sewer, constructed to carry London sewage away to the east. The canal is a little wider at this point and this seems to encourage the growth of various types of plants (20). At certain times of the year tangential light from the afternoon sun may illuminate the under water world where shoals of small fish nibble away at banks and strands of submerged green weed that respond gently to the slow current or the displacement of a passing hull. Ghostly scraps of metal trash might also be seen occasionally (21). Once shiny and new these items are now casually discarded, forlorn and forgotten. Just a pity the owner couldn’t be bothered to dispose of them properly.
Beyond a railway bridge that always seems to be busy with passing trains are another set of locks, which take their name from a nearby street. At Salmon Lane lock I spotted the feathers of the Prince of Wales (22), much like those painted on the gondola of Mr Saddler's balloon when he drifted over this area in 1811.
On Salmon Lane itself, close by the bridge there is a pub called the Prince Regent. The pub sign (23) has gone now but I do hope that generations of patrons raised a glass every August 12th to the Prince’s portrait and memory and will do in future too. It was pleasing to see the Prince Regent was open on July 4th, helping to bring some sense of normality back to daily life. Perhaps we might also raise a glass, wherever we are, to those volunteers who help with canal clean-ups. Thames 21 have played a part in this vicinity as have the Canal and River Trust and Moo Canoes too.
After passing under the footbridge and then Salmon Road bridge a large oblong box, on the far side of the canal, soon becomes visible (24). At first glance the box may seem just to be randomly camouflaged in an abstract way in bright colours, but look closely and you will see the wrap-around mural represents aspects of bird life. This is fitting as the structure, which is a super size nesting box, was built in order to encourage kingfishers that over-winter in the locality to remain through the spring and summer. Construction was supported by Tower Hamlets Council and the Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park and actually built by volunteers from Grounded Ecotherapy of Providence Row Housing Association. The painting was done by Chris Hylton, who was supported by Trapped in Zone One and the Lower Regents Coalition. Let’s hope all this hard work pays dividends. Click on photo 25 for more details about the nest bank.
The next point of note is the unusual twin arched bridge carrying Commercial Road (26). Commercial Road was an important link between the new docks, which were established at the turn of the C19th, and the City. When the first railway link was built it followed much the same route and the viaduct which carried it may be seen just beyond the last lock on the canal. Today, the viaduct carries the Docklands Light Railway (27) and it is rather ironic that trains on this system have no drivers. The civil engineer who designed the original railway was Robert Stephenson and he decided that fitting steam engines at either end of the track would be a better option than using conventional locomotives - so there were no drivers on his trains either. When services began in 1840, passengers boarded at either the Minories or Blackwall or one of the intermediate stations and the carriages were hauled to their destination by a long rope. Several years ago a biography of Sir John Bowring, by Philip Bowring, was published by the Hong Kong University Press. The title ‘Free Trade’s First Missionary’ is apt and the book has a photograph of the Regents Canal at the point where it is crossed by the viaduct - Bowring became chairman of the company that operated the railway in 1845. More on Bowring in ‘Soochong, Shogun and the Saracen’s surveys’.
Once under the viaduct we arrive at Limehouse Basin. No longer a freshly dug basin awaiting its first collier nor a busy commercial dock handling goods from every corner of the earth it now gives service as a C21st leisure marina. Walk over the footbridge immediately ahead and carry on by the side of Stephenson’s viaduct. A danger sign (28) was once displayed here. It seems to have disappeared but look closely and you will see it was just a warning about your happiness levels! I hope, if you feel happy, it is as a result of having completed your walk all the way from Paddington.
If you want to leave the walk here go straight ahead. You will soon come to Limehouse station on the Docklands Light Railway. Alternatively, turn left at the corner of the dock and follow the dockside to Narrow Street where a lock allows boats access to the Thames.
Turn left on Narrow Street and walk along to a little triangle where you will see a giant bird and the 'Grapes' and 'Booty's' and then turn right onto the Thames Path. The entrance is through an 'arch' a little beyond the little park called Ropemakers Fields, which is on the left-hand side of the road. If you follow the Thames Path path you will get good views of the river (29) and will eventually come to Canary Wharf, a modern centre of commerce built on the site of the old West India Docks. Some of the old warehouses remain and here you will find the Museum of London Docklands.
The Museum of London Docklands is well worth a visit as it gives an excellent overview of the development and operation of the old docks over the best part of two centuries. There is a coffee shop there too so if the last cup you tasted was at the Waterside (and that will probably seem like an age ago) why not treat yourself and forget about the hand that set free the world for half an hour. Alternatively, close to the museum is a Wetherspoons pub housed in the old Ledger Building, which, long before the invention of the filing cabinet, let alone the computer, was the administrative heart of the docks. The interior still seems to retain something of the atmosphere of the C19th.
A long time ago?
It is now two hundred years since the construction of the Regents Canal was completed and this probably seems in the dim and distant past. But in the 1980s a Bethnal Green neighbour of mine, who was born in 1894, told me a number of stories about her childhood and adolescence. Of soldiers returning from the war (the Boer War), of nearly being sacked from her job for taking time off to watch an exciting event (the Siege of Sydney Street) and of going off to central London on a horse drawn, open topped, number 8 bus. Perhaps some nonagenarians of 1900 may have remembered seeing the arrival of the grand procession at Limehouse on August 1st 1820 just as clearly as my neighbour remembered events in her childhood. So it is not so long ago really is it?
Currently, the consequences of the pandemic make it impossible to give clarity about the opening of the hospitality venues and other attractions mentioned.
The illustration above dates from the 1820s and shows Limehouse Dock and the entrance to the Regents Canal. It is based on one originally created by Thomas Shepherd, who saw views of the new canal as being very marketable. Shepherd’s prints were copied (and modified) by other artists. This one, by J.Cleghorn, is in the Science Museum collection.