When London Became An Island
Part 1 - Section 2
Camden Lock to Kings Cross
Right from the 1820s there must have been refreshment establishments at Hampstead Road lock, places where men and horses could rest and recuperate after their long working day. Many industrial and commercial units, which included warehouses, coal depots, food manufacturing plants, furniture factories and gas works, were built on or near the canal, but it should be remembered that the waterway itself also generated a substantial demand for goods and services. Stabling, for example, was most important. At dusk a horse would be tired and sweating and, with an early start the following morning, it was important to rest the animal properly overnight. Stables needed straw and oats and they needed to be 'mucked out' too. Given the rhythm of traffic and the care needed in ensuring canal horses were well shod, many stables had a blacksmith's forge within easy reach.
To canal boats going from the Midlands to the Thames docks the locks at Camden Town were at the end of what was essentially a single long pound because, between Hampstead Road (now Chalk Farm Road) and Uxbridge on the Grand Junction, there were no locks except the regulating stop lock at Paddington. Between Hampstead Road and Limehouse basin there were 12, with a total descent of a little over 80 feet. We will now see the first.
Returning to the towpath through the doorway in the brick wall we will turn left and walk over the canal on the elegant curved oblique bridge (1). You will see there are a pair of ordinary canal locks close by, which were built after the failure of the Congreve experiment. The oblique bridge was designed to allow boats to be pulled from the south pound to the north bank towpath and was constructed in 1845. Pulling the boats across was a hard job and special horses were employed, which became so used to the routine that, once they had completed their task, would make their own way back to the starting point via the road bridge. Today the Hampstead Road locks are the only working double locks that remain on the canal, all the rest have been converted to single locks with a weir installed in the second chamber. When the area is busy there is always a large crowd of onlookers to watch the operation of the gates (2).
Once on the south bank you will see the old lock keepers' cottage straight ahead (3). Although extended in the 1970s the original cottage was built in 1815 and, before the project was abandoned, housed the pump for Congreve's lock. Although the cottage is now a Starbucks it has served as a canal information point for some years and improvements have recently been made to this facility. A series of colourful information boards, which were prepared by the Friends of the Regents Canal, are directly to the right once inside the main door. In the wall on the opposite side of the canal you may see the keystone of the original bridge, also built in 1815 (4).
Walking past the cottage will take you to Chalk Farm Road. Unfortunately you cannot access the eastbound towpath from here (although you can go down and have a closer look at the keystone). Because of a new development the towpath is closed between Chalk Farm Road bridge and Kentish Town Road bridge, which is the next one downstream and so you will need to make a diversion. Of course, having walked a fair distance on the towpath, you might now consider a trip on the canal itself. If so the booking office for the Jenny Wren is over the road.
If you decide to continue on foot walking over the bridge will take you to the railway bridge which has Camden Lock painted on the side (5) where you should turn right down Castlehaven Road. Then turn right into Hawley Road and again right into Kentish Town Road and walk along until you reach the bridge. This is the long way round. If, instead of walking over the bridge, you simply turn right and go down to Hawley Crescent, which is the first turning on the left, you will be able to walk along to Kentish Town Road and see the bridge from the junction. Access to the towpath is by temporary metal steps.
Whichever way you go to Kentish Town Road bridge, you might stop for a while and get a tattoo or have your body pierced. Not quite ready for that (or have too many of those kinds of things already)? Well, just buy one of the enormous assortment of accessories on sale at local shops (6); a belt masquerading as a bandolier of bullets for instance, or what about or a pair of boots with huge soles or a T-shirt with head-turning slogan. Don’t forget, however, that you might have to carry that kit all the way to Limehouse.
From Kentish Town Road bridge you may look back and see two locks as well as the new development and the blocked towpath (7). It was in order to buy land for the lock furthest away that James Morgan made his fateful journey to see Sir Henry Hawley in 1818. Coming back to London the coach overturned and Morgan broke his arm but he appears to have met his injury with stoicism and was soon back at work. It is becoming rarer and rarer to catch a glimpse of any buildings that date from the very earliest days of the waterway’s operation and which would have been familiar to Morgan. He continued as the canal engineer after construction was complete however, and a small row of cottages (8), that may be seen soon after leaving the locks and walking on towards Kings Cross, may well have been known to him.
After a couple of turns and passing under another fine brick bridge where you may see the reflection of another recent development (9),we will come to the point where William Agar lived. If you want to see the approximate spot leave the towpath at St Pancras Way, cross the road towards the Constitution pub and turn left. After a few yards you will come to Barker Drive. Turn right here and walk up a little bit and you will arrive at a little open space on the right hand side. No-one will bar us from the land today as McIntosh’s men were barred in 1815 because nothing remains of the old Elm Lodge. It is not, however, too difficult to imagine what the view would have been like from the house. The whole of London would have been visible, as it will still be from the most of the floors in the tower block (10). It is, perhaps, understandable that Agar was an early ‘Nimby’, but he subsequently turned the canal to financial advantage. Then, after his death, the area he had leased in 1811 was developed by his son and became known as 'Agar Town'. Short leases were granted on small plots which were developed by speculative builders, who had no interest in investing in the infrastructure. The undrained, unmade roads became channels of mud after rain and sanitary provision was lamentable. Conditions in 'Agar Town' were eventually brought to wider public attention through 'Household Words', a periodical reflecting the social preoccupations of Charles Dickens. Curiously, Dickens had lived within a few hundred yards of Elm Lodge when he was a boy, having arrived in London two years after the canal was opened. Perhaps he saw Counsellor Agar once or twice.
Returning to the towpath we can continue our walk down to Kings Cross. I think photographs 11 and 12, taken more or less from the same spot, are a good illustration of the changes that have taken place on the canal in the last few years. The sight of an ‘industrial’ barge is relatively rare but there are now many more moored residential boats and an increasing number of riparian apartment blocks too. What has happened near the Constitution, which now seems to be a lively venue (13) is replicated at a number of places along the canal. The south bank is developed for residential use often with nothing, not even a shrub or a flower, between the waterway-facing side of the blocks and the canal itself. Opposite are a row, sometimes two, of tied-up boats. These vessels block the view of the waterway but at least there are usually lots of points of interest for the eye and even for the nose too, sometimes. Catching the smell of a wood burning stove is to catch the smell of the C19th. Of course, both these developments are manifestations of the remorseless pressure on living space in the capital in the C21st.
Kings Cross was known as Battle Bridge in the early C19th. At that time legend had it that, almost 1800 years before, Queen Boudicca had made her last stand against the Roman conquerors at this point, but this now seems doubtful. As we walk along we will pass a large building, which is, or was, property of the Post Office. Old warehouses backing on to the canal usually had some features worth looking at, this seems to have very few and no-one could say the colour scheme does much to lift the spirits (14). In fact it is only the screen of trees and moored and passing boats that improve the scene (15).
Shortly afterwards, after passing the fine new block intended for student living, we will arrive at St Pancras basin, home to the St Pancras Cruising Club, and St Pancras lock, which, had circumstances been different, may well have been named Agar’s lock. To the left, within Gasholder Park, you will see the newly renovated Gasholder No 8, which has recently been refurbished (16). It now stands at the centre of a development quite unlike all of the others that have been passed. Grass is thriving at the centre of the circle of columns that once guided the telescopic gas holder (17) and an unusual polished metal circle, itself supported on columns surrounds the green. Standing by the grass it is possible to see a reflection of the towpath and the canal itself (18).
The area behind St Pancras and Kings Cross railway stations was once home to the Imperial Gas Works, which is where Gasholder no 8 previously stood. Canals and the gas industry are inextricably linked and this was once the largest gas works in London. From 1822 until the early years of last century, gas was actually produced there. In the pre-natural gas era gas production demanded enormous amounts of coal, which, at first, came via the canal. However, after the establishment of the railway link between London and south Yorkshire, coal could be brought right to Kings Cross and the area north of the station was soon developed with this trade in view. Rather than destroying canal trade the new freight yards provided fresh opportunities for canal carriers, leading to the development of a substantial interchange between the Regents Canal and the railway. The coal mines of Yorkshire have now gone, the last deep mine at Kellingley having closed in December 2015, but memories of the old coal and gas links are remembered in names in the new developments. Coal Drops Yard is one, Gasholder Triplet another and a very evocative photograph was reproduced on one of the hoardings erected during the time of the next development you will come was under construction (19).
Interestingly, Hugh McIntosh, the contractor who undertook groundworks on long sections of the canal when it was under construction, was also involved in the gas industry. This started in London in 1812 and spread rapidly to other towns in England. McIntosh supplied the mains pipes installed in Carlisle, the first town in the old county of Westmorland to have a gas works and it had been up and running for a couple of years before coal began to be heated in the retorts of the Imperial. It is not surprising McIntosh took on the contract, his fingers had a wide geographical spread and he undertook all kinds of projects in the developing industrial infrastructure of early C19th Britain.
Much of the Kings Cross area is currently still subject to considerable redevelopment. A new terminal was opened for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link at St Pancras station in 2007 and, although this caused some disruption when being constructed, it was nothing like that which occurred when the initial railway development took place. The line into St Pancras led to the clearance of some 4000 houses in Somers Town, St Pancras and Camden Town and it is estimated that 32,000 people were displaced. Compare that to the construction of the Regents Canal half a century earlier. Even a critic conceded that the line was certainly chosen, in some respects, very judiciously, as comparatively few houses are required to be taken down.
After St Pancras lock the canal curves towards Maiden Lane bridge. On the opposite bank is the Camley Street Natural Park, which is closed at the moment. When it re-opens it will be accessible by a new footbridge from which photo 20, of St Pancras lock, was taken. However, the towpath has been substituted by a pleasant footpath, to one side of which you will see the development of Coal Drops Yard, a venue of shopping and eating places which has recently opened. On the right of the path are renovated offices originally built to match the curve of the canal (21) and the words Coal Office is still visible on one of the gables (22). Disused for some time, like most of the old industrial and commercial buildings on the line, they were the victim of the decline and fall of canal traffic. Jack Whitehead, a local historian, takes the view that the great freeze of 1962 -1963 was the point the when canal trade ceased to be a viable entity. With the canals frozen over many companies used road haulers to move their goods and did not return their custom to canal carriers afterwards. Even if there is a revival of the coal industry I doubt if we will ever see coal dust drifting over this part of the canal again.
A little beyond the coal office building are steps leading from the canal to the plaza, called Granary Square, in front of the Granary Building. A couple of years ago, when walking the towpath, I visited Word on the Water, the London Bookbarge, which was moored there (23). The dog seemed to be staring at a nearby illustration of a fox but did not seem inclined to give chase (24). The Granary Building itself (25) was used to store grain brought down from Lincolnshire and direct barge access from the canal was via tunnels. Now the building is used by the University of the Arts, London, but it is possible to go inside part of it and if you have the time and inclination why not walk between the rows of fountains and go through the main door. The cow shown in photograph 26 was, I presume, produced at the university, but I have no idea if it is related in any way to the one on the balcony near Grafton Bridge. Perhaps model bovines are tributes to unsung animal toilers. When canals were built they often had to be lined with clay to stop them leaking and the clay had to be ‘puddled’ to make it watertight. This meant pounding the material to increase plasticity, a hard job for navvies. Consequently, cattle were sometimes driven up and down the lining to help in the process. Puddling cows we salute you!
Part of the building to the west of Granary Square is called East Coal Drops. Perhaps surprisingly, the area became well known in the 1990s as being the venue of one of London’s largest clubs, called Bagleys. According to a display board on the wall of the passage which leads through the building, 2,500 clubbers could be packed in on some nights. Things seem a bit more sedate these days.
Return to the towpath and after passing beneath another concrete bridge (and by the Bookbarge, which has moved a hundred yards or so) you will come to Maiden Lane, which is known as York Way today. The bridge, however, is still called Maiden Lane bridge. I took photograph 27 close to the bridge in order to show that Kings Cross railway terminal was built at a lower level than the canal. Rather than build a bridge in the manner of Robert Stevenson's line to Euston, the Great Northern Railway (GNR) decided to carry the canal over the permanent way by means of an aqueduct, which would certainly have meant GNR rail traffic would have been less frightening to passing barge horses. A large new office block now stands by the side of the bridge, partly built with steel girders transported along the canal, which helped reduce road congestion. When the Regents Canal project was being considered by a House of Lords committee in 1811 the reduction of road congestion in London was one reason put forward by its sponsors, so, two centuries years on, their arguments are still being proved correct.
Battlebridge Basin (28) lies close to Maiden Lane bridge. This was originally known as Horsfall’s Basin and was partially constructed with earth excavated from Islington tunnel. It was from this point, in 1820, that the convoy of boats which celebrated the opening of the canal embarked. As such it is a fitting place for a museum and the London Canal Museum, which constantly celebrates the canal, has adjacent premises. If you want to end your walk here, but would like to visit the museum before you go home, walk up to Maiden Lane bridge, cross it and then start to walk down to Kings Cross railway station. After a couple of hundred yards you will see Wharfdale Road leading off to the left. Walk down here and look out for New Wharf Road on the left. The canal museum is on the left a short way along. Kings Cross Railway station has access to the Tube but those who want to continue the walk should click on the button below.
This section last updated December 2018