When London Became An Island
Part 1 - Section 1
Paddington to Camden Lock
On leaving Warwick Avenue Tube station (hope you are not as upset as Duffy) by turning right at the top of the escalator you will see you are in a wide road flanked by villas. The area has always offered opportunities for the Hackney Carriage and a stand for black cabs lies close by as does an old cabman’s shelter (1), which probably dates from the pre-motor age. If you walk up Warwick Avenue you will come to the junction with Blomfield Road. The Regents Canal runs off to the left, but it is worth taking a stroll around the triangular pool of water lying to the right. This is sometimes called Browning's Pool, after the Victorian poet Robert Browning who lived close by in the 1860s. The island in the middle is also called Browning's Island.
If you follow Blomfield Road to the right you will see moored barges that are home to several enterprises including Jason’s Trip and the London Waterbus. The annual Canal Cavalcade, which has been running since 1983, is also held here (2).
It was fairly clear from the time the pool was created that fine houses built on the banks would command a premium and the nearby row of villas were some of the first to be built in the area. At Westbourne Terrace Road turn left and walk over the bridge. Below you will see the conduit for canal trade between London and the Midlands, which is the Paddington branch of the Grand Union Canal (3). This was the Grand Junction Canal until absorbed by the Grand Union in 1929. A little beyond the bridge you can turn left again (after noting the Canal Cafe Theatre on the corner of Delamere Terrace) and walk down to the towpath that runs beside the basin, passing the floating Waterside Café and Information Centre (4), which might be a perfect place to treat yourself before you start the walk. I must admit to having a low resistance to places like the Waterside and if I had to choose between the hand that set free the world or a cup of good coffee might be tempted to take the coffee!
Following the towpath further you will probably become aware of increased noise from traffic and if you look up you will see why. A bridge carries Harrow Road over the canal and above it a flyover carries the Westway. The Westway was built in the 1960's, which was a great time for ripping out the inner parts of English cities to make new motorway-style roads. Much more tranquil are two rows of bubbles that span the Grand Union at this point. A nearby notice indicates that, rather than being a wildlife jacuzzi, it is actually a bubble gate installed to help keep the canal clear of debris. The area beyond has now been developed with offices, shops, restaurants and residential apartments and goes under the name Paddington Central. The canal itself, which ends a short distance away at Paddington Basin, is looked after by the Canal and River Trust but I am not sure to whom the nearby oversize and rather intimidating statues belong (5).
A footbridge will take you on to the other side of the Grand Union and you can walk back to the start of the Regents Canal through Rembrandt Gardens, a pleasant, tranquil little park established to celebrate the 700th anniversary of the founding of Amsterdam.
Leaving the gardens and turning left on Warwick Avenue will bring you back to the Regents Canal. Running from this point to Limehouse the waterway divides both north and east London.
In the spring of 1820 it was anticipated the canal would be fully opened from Paddington through to Limehouse in the summer and plans were finalised for a grand opening ceremony. However, on the August 16th 1816, the Prince Regent’s birthday, a small flotilla of five barges had celebrated the opening of trade along part of the summit level. It was hoped that the whole canal could soon be completed, but an economic downturn combined with the results of unrealistic cost projections and a shortage of cash led to the suspension of work on the line. Only a government backed loan, facilitated through an agency, allowed the canal to be completed and if that had not been forthcoming it is rather doubtful if money to save the project could have been raised elsewhere. Perhaps this rescue should have been reflected in the name of the new waterway but the Commission for the Issue of Exchequer Bills doesn’t roll off the tongue so easily as Regents.
For the first stretch of the walk, up to Edgware Road, you can choose to walk along the north side, on Blomfield Road, or on the south, on Maida Avenue. If you are very concerned about status remember the Road is in W9, but the Avenue is in W2. And so too are the post boxes that serve the boats on the south side of the residential moorings. We are going to put a virtual foot forward in Maida Avenue. Looking over the railings you will see the old toll keepers' house (6). As water was such a precious commodity a lock to regulate the flow from the Grand Junction to the Regents Canal was built close by. This caused problems for a Mr Hatton, who established a business offering boat trips soon after the first stretch of the Regents Canal was opened. He found he could not turn his boat around when he arrived at the junction and, although it would have been easy in the wider waters beyond the regulating lock, pleaded in vain for permission to pass there without charge.
When looking over the railings at the toll keepers' house on a 'bi-centennial celebration' walk I noticed a pleasure boat named Lady A passing by. It had services advertised on a roof-top sign (7). One offered the boat as a venue for Marriage Proposals and another for Wedding Receptions. I am sure that you, like me, would love to know how many bookings for the first have lead on to one for the second.
The towpath between the old toll keepers' house and the entrance to Maida Hill tunnel is now used as a residential mooring, but we will walk along Maida Avenue. The name Little Venice is often given to this whole area and a number of famous people connected with showbiz, including the actress Lillie Langtree, a mistress of King Edward the Seventh, have been attracted to live in the vicinity. Note the blue plaque on the house in photo 8 and you will see it indicates that John Masefield, Poet Laureate, once lived there. 'Twilight. Red in the West.' begins one of his poems. He could have seen many western twilights from the second floor of this house. Further along another dwelling was, according to the plaque erected by the Dead Comics Society (now the British Comedy Society), home to Arthur Lowe. Arthur Lowe found fame as Mr Swindley in Coronation Street (anybody remember Miss Nugent?) in black and white TV days and then as Captain Mannering in Dad's Army.
As the road rises you will see that a restaurant has been established over the entrance to the tunnel (9) where customers may watch boats passing below. Maida Hill tunnel was the first to be built on the canal. It had no towpath and so canal boats had to be 'legged' through. Legging meant that the bargee, or a 'legger' (a tough specialist who did nothing else but this work), would lie on his back and push the boat through the tunnel using his legs and feet. It appears much of the work may have been done by direct labour under the immediate supervision of James Morgan, the canal engineer, but Daniel Pritchard, a contractor who successfully completed a number of canal tunnels, is credited by some authorities as being responsible for the one under Maida Hill. At approximately 270 yards it was not particularly long, and, probably, similar techniques were involved in building the Hincaster, which is also credited to Pritchard, on the Lancaster Canal a few years later. Gangs started digging at both ends and met in the middle, the Lancaster Gazette reporting in November 1817 that a breakthrough had just been made in the ‘extensive perforation’.
We will follow the route of thousands of weary horses and walk over Maida Hill. Our route is not as intriguing as the horse path (10) over Hincaster’s ‘extensive perforation’ (a tunnel that was nearly 400 yards long), but interesting none the less.
Crossing Edgware Road, which officially started life as Watling Street almost two thousand years ago during the Roman occupation, will bring us into NW8 and we must walk along Aberdeen Place. A bike rack stands close to the junction, housing bicycles for rent. A transport innovation introduced in July 2010, initially nicknamed the Boris bike (11) (after Boris Johnson, the mayor of London at that time) has been a great success with the public. On the towpath the bikes seemed favoured by young couples having a day out rather than intense commuters determined to get to work, or home, within a strict, self imposed target time.
A little way along Aberdeen Place there is another blue plaque, this time erected by English Heritage, to Guy Gibson. Gibson was a much decorated, Second World War pilot best remembered for leading the raid on the Moehne and Eder dams, which were breached by the use of the 'bouncing bomb'. He did not live to see the end of the struggle with Nazism, to which he made such an outstanding contribution, as he was killed in an air crash the following year. He was 26.
Many years after the Regents Canal was built it was anticipated a terminal of the Manchester and Sheffield Railway would be built in the vicinity of Aberdeen Place, which would certainly have altered the character of the whole area. Nothing came of the plan, but an entrepreneur named Frank Crocker took a gamble and built a huge public house in anticipation of tapping into a thirsty market of passengers. The gamble failed, but Crocker's public house still stands (12). After being closed for some time it has now re-opened as a bar/restaurant under its last name, which was was Crocker's Folly.
Opposite Crocker's Folly, at the point where Aberdeen Place and Cunningham Place meet you will see an alley down which you should walk. At the end of the alley look below and you will see the eastern entrance to the tunnel and a massive concrete retaining wall. In 1816, not long after the tunnel had opened, Morgan had difficulty with land slippage at Maida Hill. He tried to overcome the problem by using timber, but it is easy to see how difficult the task of keeping the sides of the entrance in place would have been.
As it was too steep for horses to be taken down to the towpath at this point they had to be walked over Lisson Grove. They were then led back down to the canal on the other side of the short ‘perforation’ called Eyres tunnel, which you can see in photo 13. Should the gates to the towpath steps be locked you will have to continue along the old horse route too. If, at this point, you hear a distant roar it may well be that England (or the opposition) have scored a resounding Test Match victory. When the Regents Canal Act became law a cricket ground owned by a Mr Lord stood in the way of the intended line and so it had to move, which is how Lord's ended up on its present site.
When you reach Lisson Grove, and another rack of Boris bikes, you will see what looks like a small office on the other side of the road. As you cross the road you will see the little building is officially called Canal House, but it is also known as the ‘Upside Down’ house. You may now have two options to continue the walk, either along the towpath at canal level or on a raised path on the south bank. At this point, even in ‘normal’ times, the towpath is only open for restricted hours due to a section of permanent moorings and cycling along it is discouraged at any time.
If the access gate is open and you decide to use the towpath walk under the cormorant (14) and down to canal level. You will immediately see why the ‘Upside Down’ house got its name. It is unusual to have a front door at the top of a house.The canal is wider than normal here, as it was once a busy place where commercial traffic would serve the long-gone railway freight yards behind Marylebone station. As the canal developed it was widened at many places to allow for the transhipment of cargo and some companies had their own small 'lay-byes' to allow boats to moor in a way that would not impede passing traffic.
Proceeding along the towpath will take you through a residential area (and which should be respected as such) where most craft are moored at right angles to the bank and concrete humps prevent fast cycling. The high retaining wall and the abundant, cared for plantings give the section a pleasantly rural feel (15). Here is a garden shed, there a boat turned into a large flower container, whilst bags of compost lie beside small stacks of smokeless fuel (not a lump of sea coal or Staffordshire to be seen). In the Spring this section is, in my view, probably the most attractive part of the whole canal. When the section ends at another interesting gateway (see photo at top left hand side of this page) the canal suddenly seems dull, for the modern railway bridges are charmless, but the monotony does not last. Given that the Regents Canal is less than nine miles long it must offer, mile for mile, variations in the cityscape that few other waterways can match and within a couple of hundred yards you will arrive at the edge of Regents Park. As you walk this stretch keep an eye out for the Lord's Cricket Ground plaque, erected by the MCC.
If you decide to take the raised path, don’t go through the access gate. Instead, walk over the canal and go through the decorative gateway on the left. A view from here will make it clear just how wide the canal is and will be the only place on the whole length of the walk where you take a high view. Note the model plant boats in the adjacent garden as you go (16). The walk ends at a pedestrian bridge that will take you down to the MCC plaque (17) and back on the towpath.
Over the past few years several large and very impressive houses have been built on the south bank of the canal (18). Their designs are based on those of John Nash and so are quite in keeping with the park he laid out. Originally the architect anticipated that 56 villas would be built in the park, but as only 8 were constructed, I suppose we could view the modern houses as restarting a suspended development. I doubt if any of the new houses are heated only by coal, despite the chimneys. Beyond the houses, trees and leaves permitting, you may be able to see the minaret and of the London Central Mosque (19).
Nash envisioned that this section of the canal would eventually resemble a wooded valley and so it does, in part (20). The towpath is wide and has quadruple use. It is a jogging track, a cycle path, a footpath and a cover for heavy duty cables that run below the concrete. These cables transmit electricity from power stations in the Thames estuary to west London. One can hardly imagine what the park would look like if dominated by pylons or divided by railways. However, the railways were kept away and the bridges that link the park with the north bank enhance the view. The first is actually an aqueduct as well as a footbridge, for it was built to carry the River Tyburn over the canal. The second (21) was originally named after Lord Macclesfield, the Noble Chairman who saw the canal project through to completion, but after 1874 people started to call it ‘Blow-up Bridge’ because in that year a barge carrying gunpowder and petroleum suddenly exploded and destroyed it. Although the crew of the barge lost their lives it was fortunate that the detonation took place at night and in a cutting. If the accident had occurred in the middle of a normal working day in a built up area like Limehouse or Camden Town the death toll would almost certainly have been much higher. The bridge was rebuilt, but you will see that the iron columns on which it stands have been turned and the grooves worn by innumerable mid-C19th tow ropes now face away from the water.
Not long after the canal was opened London Zoo was established in Regents Park. You will pass into the environs of this soon after the bridge and, if you are lucky, you may see some of the animals belonging to the zoo wandering along the south bank. Don’t worry, the fence is strong and they won’t break out. On the towpath side is the Snowden Aviary, which houses a variety of exotic birds. It was built on the north bank in the early 1960s and you will pass very close to it. Curiously, the aviary sometimes attracts quite a number of local birds who cling to the mesh and seem to want to get in and join the captives. I wonder if some of those are distant descendants of the birds that lived in the zoo's western aviary prior to the 1874 explosion. When a hole was blown in the roof many birds escaped and some evidently took up residence in the counties around London, for the Superintendent began to receive letters saying that strange and beautiful birds had been seen in country gardens. Since its inception the whole park, with its plentiful supply of water (listen for the waterfall), has always been something of a haven for birdlife and currently has a wide range of residents and migratory visitors.
From the MCC plaque to the place where land owned by London Zoo ends no moorings are permitted on either bank, but from at that point on you will start to see moored boats again. There are certainly many more boats moored on the canal than there were a few years ago and this has caused some contention. Consequentially, you will sometimes pass notices by the towpath making it quite clear what is permitted and what is not.
A couple of hundred yards after the zoo the canal leaves the environs of the park. It was at this point that the collateral cut towards the New Road was built and is where, in 1816, the first opening celebration on the canal took place. Cumberland Market was eventually built close to the cut and in 1830 the hay market that once stood south of Piccadilly Circus was transferred here. A huge ice well was constructed too, the final destination of blocks of ice shipped across the North Sea from Norway. Trade along the cut declined prior to the Second World War and much of it was eventually filled in with bomb site rubble. All that remains is a small inlet, but a floating Chinese restaurant is moored at the junction (22). Should you have time to make a small diversion you can climb the steps by the bridge close to the junction and walk down Prince Albert Road towards Park Village East. Here you will find terraces which were erected by John Nash (23) and if you look carefully you will see a small bust of the architect on one of the houses (24).
Returning to the towpath and continuing towards Chalk Farm Road (as the old Hampstead Road has now become) will take you beneath the first of the remaining brick bridges typical of those built in the 'canal age'. Although, all over the canal network, many similar bridges have been widened and strengthened, the original profile has often been retained and to the towpath user they can often look much the same as when first built. Grafton Road bridge is one of these. It was at this point a couple of years ago I thought I spotted a spring, a bubbling stream of water originating in the Bagshot Sands of the Northern Heights. But this was not a spring nor a wildlife jacuzzi either, for I later learnt it was actually run-off water from the system used to keep the underground electricity cables cool. Bang went my idea of marketing bottles of Regents Spring Water to health food shops far and wide. Another point of interest close by is the sign indicating a horse ramp (25). Steady though barge horses were they could sometimes fall into the canal, especially if frightened by the alarming noise, smoke and sparks of an early steam locomotive. The ramps were built so the horses could walk out of the canal after a tumble. I am not sure what effect smoke, sparks and steam would have on the cow perched on a nearby balcony (26).
Beyond Grafton Road bridge there is a mooring point. Most canal boats have fairly prosaic names but sometimes one comes across something unusual. Here I spotted a barge with the name Ibn Battuta (in English and Arabic) displayed in a window. These days many people like to explore the canals by boat and, given that Ibn Battuta was one of the all time great sea-going explorers the romantic name is apt.
The next cluster of railway bridges carry traffic to Euston. Euston was the first of the main terminals to be built on the New Road and dates from 1837, a time when railway engines were still not very powerful. When Robert Stevenson, the engineer responsible for the Euston line, decided to build a bridge over the canal the resulting incline into the station was so steep that a stationary steam engine had to be employed to pull the carriages up the slope. The engine house, with two tall chimneys, stood on the opposite bank of the canal
Ibn Battuta roamed the seas many years before the smoking chimney of any steam engine was seen on land or sea, but, like many explorers, he may have kept an eye out for burning ships as they might indicate the presence of pirates. If so he might have been nervous on the next part of the canal as there is a Pirate Castle (27), complete with battlements and a fluttering Jolly Roger, and a pirate boat might also be seen (28). No need to be afeared though, the outlaws in this redoubt are harmless. The Pirate Castle grew out of an idea by Viscount St Davids to develop a canal orientated youth club. Originally it was based on a barge, but successful fund raising eventually led to the construction of the club in quite an unusual design. The Central Electricity Generating Board added to the effect by building a water pumping station in the same style on the north bank, which was very sporting.
Passing beneath Oval Road (don’t worry the portcullis will not come crashing down) will bring you close to the end of this first section of the canal. Much of the industry that grew up in Camden Town, partly as a result of the proximity of the canal, has long gone. For example, Gilbeys, now best known for its gin, had a considerable presence here until the 1960s. Today Camden Lock has a quite different image to that of half a century ago and certainly to the one it had when people assembled to see a demonstration of a mechanical lock, registered as a Hydro-Pneumatic Double Balance lock, in 1816. The area close to the lock is now a popular place for entertainment, as evidenced on a variety of videos uploaded to You Tube. I always find it something of a disappointment that so little of the early history of the canal is reflected in local names. After all, without the canal there would be no Camden Lock. What about a club venue called the Hydro-Pneumatic or even the Double-Balance?
Before we end the first section of the walk we must, keeping a lookout for passing coracles (29), pass over a hump in the towpath. This crosses the entrance to what was once known as Dead Dog Tunnel, which ran to a basin that fed a substantial number of underground vaults, collectively known as the Camden Catacombs. Once over the hump look out for a doorway in the brick wall just before the oblique bridge (30) linking the canal's north and south banks. Go through the doorway and you will find yourself in part of Camden market with several places to get refreshment. Here are offerings from many parts of the world including Columbia, Venezuela, Holland, Greece, Indonesia - even Yorkshire! (31). You might also like to browse amongst the second hand volumes of the Blackgull Bookshop - all secondhand bookshops should be supported!
Want to leave the walk and go to the Tube? Then you should cross the oblique bridge and walk on to Chalk Farm Road. Now turn right and walk down to Camden Town Tube Station. Otherwise click the button below.
Currently, the consequences of the pandemic make it impossible to give clarity about the opening of the hospitality venues and other attractions mentioned.