When London Became An Island
Part 1 - Section 3
Kings Cross to Bethnal Green
From Maiden Lane bridge walk up to the entrance of Islington tunnel. Just before you pass under the flat concrete bridge that carries Caledonian Road you will see a board giving information about wildlife on the canal. Behind is small garden where ceramic fish swim behind the shrubbery (1). A little beyond the bridge you will come to the entrance to the tunnel (2). The towpath stops there. When the canal was being planned many Islington householders were anxious that robbers might use a tunnel towpath to make good an escape so they would have been relieved when the final towpath-less plan was approved. However, the lack of a foot passage then caused difficulties for bargees, who faced the prospect of 'legging' their boats for nearly a thousand yards. The tunnel took a long time to build, but the standard of workmanship was high. When the canal company was moribund and looking for funds the tunnel was subject to inspection by Thomas Telford who found it constructed in a perfect manner.
As trade on the canal began to develop bottlenecks inevitably occurred and only a few years after the tunnel was opened a small steam tug was employed, which could haul itself and a train of barges along by means of an iron chain. No steam boat travel for us however - we must continue over Islington Hill.
Leave the towpath by the ramp and then turn left and walk along Muriel Street to the T junction. Turn right. Walk up Carnegie Street to the junction with Charlotte Terrace, which leads off to the left. Straight ahead you will see a footpath running between the Vittoria Primary School and the curved frontage of a block of flats. Walk along this footpath and at the end turn left onto Maygood Street. Walking up the Maygood Street incline will bring you on to Barnsbury Road. Turn right here and walk along to the next corner. The road leading to the right is Wynford Street. After crossing Wynford Street looking down and you will see a plaque on the pavement (3), which indicates that the canal tunnel runs below. Given how far you have climbed from the towpath it might come as something of a surprise to know that the foundations of local houses were affected by the tunnel, but they were and Morgan had to field the complaints of, doubtlessly irate, local residents.
Barnsbury Road has now become Penton Street and if you continue to the next corner you will find yourself in front of the Church of St Silas, Pentonville, which stands at the junction of Risinghill Street. If you look right down Risinghill Street you will see the buildings of the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School. This street was once home to Risinghill School, a cause celebre in the early 1960s because of the radical policies introduced by Michael Duane, the Headteacher. Islington has something of a reputation as a cauldron of radical politics. James Mill wrote his treatise 'Government' here as the tunnel was being completed and one of the streets nearby is named Tolpuddle Street in honour of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, six pioneers of trade unionism transported to Australia for administering illegal oaths. In April 1834 a huge rally was held in Copenhagen Fields, which was a short distance from the canal, to protest about the transportation. This helped maintain pressure for the release of the men, which was later achieved.
Crossing Penton Street on the the zebra crossing will take you into Chapel Market. This is one of London's better known street markets and if you walk down it on any day except Monday you will find it in operation. Note the fine facade of the Alma (4), which dates from the era of the Crimean War and note the list of beers too, one of which was very popular at the time the pub was opened. Porter was a dark brew developed in London. It may have taken its name from its popularity with those who had work to do portering heavy loads and I imagine it would have been very popular with bargees too.
At the end of Chapel Market you will come to Liverpool Road and see the Angel Central shopping centre. Cross Liverpool Road and turn left and you will come to a circular building which has a large winged sculpture, made of chrome tube, on the roof. Turn right here, walk through the shopping centre and you will arrive at Upper Street. Looking across Upper Street you will see a road running off by the side of The York pub. This road, Duncan Street, will take you to the east end of the Islington tunnel. To get there you will need to cross Upper Street on the pedestrian crossing, which is to the left.
At the bottom of Duncan Street you will come to Duncan Terrace and then Colebrooke Row. In between there are public gardens, which follow the course of the New River, a man-made waterway constructed to bring water to London from Hertfordshire. There is a board giving information about this important conduit, which was already over two hundred years old when the canal was being built, in the garden to the right. When the Islington tunnel was built great care had to be taken by Morgan to ensure the supply of water was not disrupted and that, of course, no water would leak from the New River into the tunnel once the canal was open.
Cross Colebrooke Row and you will see the entrance to the path that leads down to the towpath. Descend to the towpath, cast an eye over the east entrance to the tunnel and then walk by the moored narrow boats. Just before you reach the next bridge you will be able to look back and see right to the other end of the tunnel (5). At the end of 2013 the stretch between the tunnel and bridge was put under certain restrictions as a result of concerns raised by local residents. Each mooring ring had a notice attached to it indicating this was a Quiet Zone and only single moorings were allowed.
As elsewhere many of the moored boats are narrowboats. Much of the carrying on the Regents Canal was short distance work for which barges were used but narrowboats, designed to negotiate the Midland's network, were a common sight right from the opening day. These days few are manufactured for commercial use, although one enterprising business offers a way of opting to live on a craft with narrowboat dimensions, but with much more space.
In the 1820s Thomas Shepherd, a well-known topographical artist, published a series of views of the Regents Canal, one of which shows the City Basin locks in a view recognisable today. Two hundred years ago the area was a 'green field' site that would have probably been developed for housing. However, the Regents Canal changed all that and after the opening, heralded by the firing of blank charges, it went on to become the most important basin on the waterway, soon superseding Paddington. Today, with the canal trade gone, an air of tranquillity has returned and although the City Road end of the basin is now dominated by two tall apartment blocks (6) the area just beyond the locks is a pleasant area to sit and watch the towpath world go by. On the adjacent wall you will see a plaque (7) erected to the memory of Crystal Hale, who worked hard to develop the basin as a facility for the use of young people. More information about Crystal Hale can be found by clicking on the Islington Boat Club button on the left and selecting History in the Home menu. I am sure she would have been very pleased with a nearby quartet of mosaics. They were made by local children working with by artists and show different aspects of the canal. I found the one in photograph 8 particularly engaging.
Passing along the towpath a couple of years ago I noticed a group of volunteers from Thames 21 hard at work cleaning graffiti (9) and now this whole area has been pleasantly developed as the Hanover School Towpath Garden (10). The ‘greening’ of the canal towpath has really come on in the past couple of years and has been done by a number of groups and organisations or, sometimes, just by individuals.
But no amount of greening can be a substitute for open spaces. A short distance beyond the City Road basin is Wharf Road bridge and a pub, the Narrow Boat, that stands almost opposite Wenlock basin. A couple of years ago review of a new, shared ownership housing development overlooking the basin mentioned the fact that a downside was a lack of ‘immediate green space’ and that Victoria Park is the nearest substantial open space, even though it is two and a half miles away. The most direct route is, of course, along the towpath. Other attractions to the east are the Saturday Broadway Market and the Sunday Columbia Road flower market. Given the number of high density residential developments that have been built, or are being planned, in this area the towpath is likely to get increasingly crowded.
A short distance beyond Wenlock basin there is a pedestrian bridge over the canal and it is worth walking up to this if only to have a look at the curious M by Montcalm Hotel on City Road. Look downstream from the bridge and you will see, on the southbank, the older white buildings that comprise Holborn Studios (11). A campaign mounted to save the buildings from redevelopment had widespread support and it appears they are safe - for the moment.
Returning to the towpath and walking on from the bridge (12) we will soon reach Sturts lock and after passing that we will enter the London Borough of Hackney. Each riparian borough has impressed itself on the canal in different ways and once over the border you will find immediate changes to canal side furniture. We say goodbye to the litter-bins of Islington with their little cast metal canal barges, but there are imaginative signs by the Hackney bridges. Some (13) indicate the route ahead (I am not sure if the estimated walking times between bridges are realistic) and others draw attention to various aspects of canal history, topography and ecology.
As the canal curves round towards Rosemary Branch you will see a building with 'Rosemary Works' on the top peeping over a bridge parapet. This bridge, which is beyond a pipe arching over the canal, carries Bridport Place. I would suggest leaving the towpath at this point by the adjacent steps. From the top of the steps you will see, to the left, a small triangle of ground (14) which is maintained by the same spirit as that which adds charm and pleasure the towpath. At the moment a sombre reminder of the First World war is also being displayed. It commemorates six men of the immediate area who were killed in action or died of their wounds in France or Belgium. Somehow the fact that Shepperton Road looks similar to the way it would have done a century ago makes it easier to imagine these soldiers leaving their homes and trudging off to their mustering points. And then those left behind would have waited, hoping that a telegraph boy would not knock on their door. In the case of these six, as was the case with hundreds of thousands of others all over Britain, that hope was in vain.
Close to the triangle is Rosemary Branch a well established pub and theatre (15). In keeping with the dynamic, arts-orientated communities that seem to occupy an increasing number of areas along or near the canal as we travel further east, this is a thriving place and so too are the small businesses that occupy the Thomas Briggs building to the right (16). No longer serving a single company the rooms and spaces have been taken up by a variety of small enterprises. It is good to see this kind of development for not so many years ago the building would probably have been demolished. So too might the Rosemary Works that, according to the fading sign on its wall once supplied all kinds of boxes.
I am not 100% sure where the ‘Haggerston Riviera’ begins, but it is a reasonable assumption that it is at the Rosemary Branch theatre. To reach the main part of the riviera cross Bridport Place and start to walk down Baring Street. After a hundred yards or so you will come to a tarmac path that runs above the towpath. On this stretch you will be able to see a new block of apartments across the water that, when it was being built, was advertised as offering ‘canal side living’ (17). Attractive as it might seem today canal side living was not always regarded as a bonus and Counsellor Agar is the best example of a resistant local resident. Still, at least the new waterway network was generally quiet, one commentator in the late C18th referring to slumbering, drowsy canals. It was quite a different story when the railways arrived. In 1845 it was proposed to fill the Regents Canal in and turn the course into a railway, something which was happening all over the country. A group of promoters offered a million pounds to buy all the shares in the Regents Canal Company and after this was accepted an application was made to Parliament. But the proposal collapsed when adequate capital could not be raised. Imagine how different things would be today if the scheme had come to fruition. The Paddington to Limehouse railway would be one more urban commuter line offering efficient transport but none of the amenity that the Regents Canal provides.
Descending to the towpath at the end of the railings walk under the bridge, which carries Whitmore Road. It has a white strip painted on the brickwork over the towpath. I presume this is a visual warning to tall people (or cyclists) to watch their head as they pass through. The height of bridge arches was one reason why barge horses tended to be powerful, but mid-height, animals and why the tractors that sometimes replaced them were not full size agricultural models. In 1956 horses ceased to work on commercial freight traffic on the Regents Canal. I have never seen a barge horse on the towpath - or a tractor either for that matter.
Beyond the bridge, at a point where a path leads away from the towpath, is an old crab apple tree. It is growing in a little flower bed and, I think, may have been planted here as a pip. Evidently, according to a recent edition of Waterfront (the magazine for the Friends of the Canal and River Trust), it was once quite common for boaters to plant crab apple trees. The fruit would then be picked and fermented to make ‘verjuice’, a sour condiment that would compliment fish.
One of the main riviera events of the summer of 2014 was the Buskival, which, according to the festival programme, set out to provide a great alternative to the Notting Hill Carnival. The Buskival was a great success and photograph 18 was taken by ‘Crab Apple Corner’. Who knows what such events might eventually lead to? International fame perhaps? After all stars have to come from somewhere. When I was walking along this stretch of the canal recently I noticed one boat with an name evocative of the summers of the late 1960s (19), which many Boomers remember with nostalgia. Half a century on what better way to celebrate a singer, who came from very humble beginnings, than by clicking the button to the left and selecting a video of one of his performances.
Far out man
‘Crab Apple Tree Corner’ marks the start of the heart of the Riviera, Hackney’s own La Prom, and it is possible to stop for refreshment at several places between the tree and the Kingsland Road bridge. A few yards beyond the open fronted Towpath Cafe is Arepa and Co, (which specialises in Venezuelan food - an arepa is a small corn cake) that offers a glimpse, or at least a taste, of South America.
In 1811 many of the more astute potential investors in the Regents Canal must have been aware of the situation in South America and may have known of the visit to London of a delegation from Caracas, which was seeking assistance to throw off Spanish domination. In the compact London of the day many well-heeled residents would have walked by 58 Grafton Way, which today houses the Venezuelan Embassy. When this underwent renovation a couple of years ago, rather than a having a dull hoarding to mask the work, a huge reproduction of a painting displayed inside was erected (20). This showed several important revolutionaries, including Simon Bolivar (standing, centre), who met in the house in 1810.
Maybe some investors in the canal saw Bolivar going in and out. It was anticipated that Napoleon’s defeat would provide many opportunities for wealth generation in South America, which would lead to an increase in trade at the new West India docks. As these were a stone’s throw from the proposed entrance to the Regents Canal it must have been hoped the projected new waterway would benefit too. So, in a way, Arepa and Co is a celebration of a two hundred year old link between the Regents Canal and South America - and particularly Venezuela. I rather think it would be good to see a boat named Simon Bolivar plying the canal. Beyond Arepa and Co you will come to The Archivist. No South American link here as far as I know but it has a restaurant, a cafe, a gallery and also organises events, sometimes with an international theme.
One thing which adds to the pleasure of walking along this part of the canal is the apartment block on the south bank (21) which not only clothes its cladding in vegetation but also appears to have a garden on the roof. This makes the whole building seem so much more attractive to those passing by, either on the water or on the towpath. Such a contrast to the drab Post Office building at Kings Cross.
Just before the bridge the towpath rises to give boat access to Kingsland basin, now used by CHUG - the Canals in Hackney Users Group. Although retaining a C19th profile Kingsland Road bridge is a wide, modern structure that carries an important road. A short distance to the left is Haggerston station, which is on the Overground. This line is a real boon and gives quick access, via a connection at Whitechapel, to the Tube network.
If you fancy in interesting diversion at this point why not turn right and walk down to the Geffrye Museum (22), about a third of a mile away. The museum is on the left. A little beyond the entrance is an archipelago of Vietnamese restaurants, where the food is really delicious and close by is Hoxton station, also on the Overground.
On the towpath itself, after passing under Kingsland Road bridge, a new railway bridge comes into sight. Early in 2006 I took photograph 23. The columns had supported an old metal bridge that once carried a line into Broad Street, which had been closed in the 1980s. They looked forlorn and the ground on which they stood would, I thought, soon vibrate to the pile drivers of a new housing project but the Overground bridge was erected instead. No need for horse ramps on this line I think - no sparks from steam engines and no horses to frighten.
A couple of hundred yards beyond the new railway bridge an older block of flats (no-one calls this type of block an apartment block, although I suppose that is what they are) stood until late 2014. This also had something to catch the eye although there was no luxuriant shrubbery, just the faces of local residents (24) with the words ‘i am here’. The block was eventually demolished (25) and replaced by more a modern development (26). On the opposite side of the canal is the Laburnum Boat Club, which offers local children and adults a chance to experience a number activities both and and off the water. It is a flourishing club which has organised visits to places far removed from Hackney.
One place far removed from Hackney is New Zealand (although I don’t think the boat club has been there as yet!). I took photo 27 of the Waiouru as it was approaching the boat club entrance. Waiouru means ‘the meeting of the waters’ in Maoiri and I only know that because I read it on the Waiouru website. Something else I didn’t know, until a Kiwi on a canal holiday told me, was that New Zealand has no canals. I never got a chance to have a word with the passengers and crew of the Waiouru, but the website is very informative. Click on the button to the left if you would like to read it.
Beyond the entrance to the Laburnum Boat Club a road is carried over the canal by a bridge that seems almost rural in its aspect. A birch tree stands hard by the arch and other shrubbery is always on the look-out to expand its territory, although, in the past, it was cleared from the bridge itself (28). By June 2017 (29) nearly all of the bridge-side mosaics (30), which were created by children from the old Laburnum School, that once stood on the south bank, were well hidden. The Bridge Academy, (31) which has a very state-of-the-art design, has been built on the site of the old school.
The mosaics were a significant tribute to Laburnum School and one of its teachers, Miss Heweitt, who worked there from 1958-1982, and were created by children to celebrate her service. It would be a pity if they were completely lost. I am not quite sure what Miss Heweitt would have made of seeing a state school being supported by a Swiss global financial services company. She would have been used to seeing the initials LSB on any of the School Board for London ‘three deckers’ she may have worked in. UBS originally stood for Union Bank of Switzerland. The world moves on.
The next bridge carries Queensbridge Road and if you are doing the walk on a Sunday morning this might be an ideal place to leave the towpath and have a walk down to Columbia Road flower market. Once at road level walk south (i.e cross the canal) past the Adelaide Wharf development. Keep on going across two sets of traffic lights and you will finally come to a T junction. Turn left and then right and you will arrive at the market. Today many of the shops flanking Columbia Road house a variety of enterprises selling, amongst other things, food, furniture and fashionable clothes. Not far away is the Hackney City Farm, which is also worth a visit, especially if you are doing a walk with children. Always a warm welcome here from a variety of birds and animals - and the staff too, of course!
If you want to continue along the canal you should return to the towpath and walk on towards the next bridge, called the Cat and Mutton bridge. Recently work was done on the road adjacent to the towpath (32). This has made for a smoother ride for cyclists and allows an easy segregation. The railings have been removed too which adds to the feeling of spaciousness. What a pity the whole of the towpath, from Paddington to Limehouse, could not be enhanced by the same treatment. No chance, I’m afraid. After passing Acton's lock you will see a sign pointing to Broadway Market, which you can reach by walking up the steps. Unlike Chapel Market this is a street market that only opens on Saturdays, but it continues to attract an eclectic mix of shops, cafes and bars open throughout the week. There is a popular bookshop (The Broadway Bookshop) here too, which is quite close to the canal. As for the Saturday market a newspaper columnist noted a few years ago that it was 'a rare mix; a winning combination of shops - trendy new-starts and old timers - and a thriving street market selling food, clothes, crafts and quirks'. The newspaper has disappeared, but the market goes from strength to strength and well worth a visit. A few years ago I found it was actually possible to buy refreshments on the canal itself for the Sandwich Barge was moored here. This was a bit unusual then but nowadays there are quite a number of small enterprises which operate from canal boats. The Sandwich Barge has moved on, but click on the button to the left to catch up with it on Facebook.
The Cat and Mutton bridge evidently gave its name to the Cat and Mutton pub at the far end of Broadway Market. It could almost be renamed Bicycle bridge now for it is an important conduit for bicycle travel between Hackney and central London. Not only are there far more bicycles on the towpath than there used to be there are far more bicycles crossing it too. A public bicycle pump stands on the bridge. In the olden days (and in the ever changing world of London that is about seven or eight years ago years ago) before the market really got going and bike travel really took off and the bridge had no-where to sit, the authorities turned a blind eye to fly posting. Posters were pasted on and pasted over regularly in the usual fly tradition. Quite a few of the posters must have been printed for entertainers and film makers who dreamed of making a breakthrough. Most of these hopes were, inevitably, dashed, but one advertised a singer who did make it big although, sadly, her story ended in tragedy. The panels of the Cat and Mutton bridge bridge are kept clear now but click on the button to the left to see snapshots of printed ephemera from 2006 and 2007.
Beyond the Cat and Mutton bridge you will see evidence of the Bethnal Green Gas Works, built by the Imperial Gas Company. Between the Cat and Fiddle bridge and the entrance to Victoria Park the south bank of the canal lies in Tower Hamlets and the north in Hackney. The main gasometer (33), built in the 1850s, was, at one time, the biggest in the National Gas grid. Although the song ‘Dirty Old Town’ was written about Salford about 60 years ago the references to the gasworks and the old canal and the fact that the first boat to leave City Road Basin in 1820 was bound for Lancashire seem to make it apt somehow.
From the bridge you can walk along Andrews Road, which runs by the canal for a couple of hundred yards. You will find an access point to the towpath almost opposite the site of the gas works. It never occurred to me that the framework of an old gasometer would have held much promise as a background to a photo shoot, but that only shows my lack of imagination as I once found a Japanese group taking photographs of a young woman from Eastern Europe in artistic poses (34). I must also say I was very surprised to see, when watching TV in a hotel room about 5000 miles from London, this part of the towpath featured as a backdrop in an advert for a German bank. It was not clear if the athletic banker featured was running to work or just taking a jog, but it seems to me British ‘challenger banks’ have have missed a trick right on their doorstep by not exploiting such an iconic fusion of glamour and engineering integrity in their advertising.
As if to emphasise the right for this part of the towpath to be regarded as the fountainhead of romance, at the side of steps that lead down to the towpath is a marriage proposal (35). I’m not sure if it is the real thing or an innovative piece of canal bank work (by Canal Banksy?) but perhaps, here in Hackney, as in Salford, someone met their love and cultivated their dreams by the gasworks and the old canal. And of course, if the message is genuine, we must wonder if she accepted.
Right opposite Proposal Steps is Containerville (36), a place where micro-businesses and start ups can find their feet in one of 30 converted shipping containers. It is good to see that entrepreneurship is as alive and kicking as in the Thomas Briggs building and we must hope that the enterprises will flourish, especially as Bethnal Green was always the home of the artisan and the small workshop. Throughout much of the late C19th and C20th furniture production was of prime importance in the borough, but the clothing industry was well established too. According to the council guide for 1958 those for whom ‘price is no object’ would look to items produced by Bethnal Green women - as the skill and finish of their needlework surpassed all others. Caps and headgear were a particular speciality too. The same guide reported that the idea of using white plastic instead of white duck in sailors’ and Royal Marine caps emanated from the borough and one had recently been sent to the United States so it could be copied by the U.S. Marines.
A little beyond Containerville are a couple of houses (37) which, I would guess, are the oldest on the banks below City Road basin that were not built by the company itself. A few hundred yards from the canal, on Hackney Road, there are several fine residences (38), one of which has a plaque indicating it was constructed in 1820, the year in which the canal was opened. Perhaps they were built with one of the first consignments of bricks delivered along the new transport route. Unlike the houses on Hackney Road the canal-side houses look ripe for renovation. I hope they do not fall to the demolition man. Oddly, some properties in the East End seem to lay derelict for decades.
When the canal was originally mooted it was intended it would swing south towards the actual green of Bethnal Green from here, but changes took it on a more easterly route, which must account for the kink in the line. Once under Mare Street we will enter the environs of Victoria Park, to which there is an entrance after a couple of hundred yards. Between the park entrance and the next bridge, I noticed, in April 2014, a couple of new enterprises were open for business. One (39), called Frocks Afloat, was selling, well, frocks (and jewellery too) and another (40), the Riverboat Cafe, offered tea for two (note the nice big teapot) on deck. Perfect for a spring afternoon.
Beyond the entrance to Victoria Park you will see the canal is crossed by the ornate Bonner Bridge (41), which carries a road and walkway known as the Nightwalk. Walk under Bonner Bridge and past a mooring point for canal boats and you will come to a gate on the left, through which you can enter the park. Victoria Park dates from the 1840s and was established as an open space for the growing population of the East End. It was laid out by James Pennethorne. Pennethorne was the adopted son of John Nash (he was possibly the biological son of the Prince Regent) who trained as an architect and took over Nash's business after his death. A map in the National Archives shows that very few changes have been made to the boundaries of the park since 1844, although the original five foot six inch high oak boundary fence has long gone. Once in the park it is pleasant to walk around the lake and you will find a refreshment pavilion and toilets on the far side (42).
Before the 2012 Olympics Victoria Park underwent a facelift and some of the old features were restored, one of which was a C19th pagoda (43), badly damaged in the Second World War. The pagoda was bought from a Chinese exhibition in Hyde Park in the 1850s and George Lansbury, a politician who did much to improve social conditions in the East End, said that, as a boy, he thought Chinese people actually lived there and came out at night to take care of the swans, ducks and other wildfowl. Two bridges have also been built to the 'pagoda island' one of which is named after James Pennethorne. Rowing boats, pedillos and even artwork can now be seen on the water.
If you want to end the walk at this point then the best thing to do is to go back to the Nightwalk and cross over the canal. Keep a look-out for dancers in clogs and waving daffodils. Photo 44 is of Pixie Lott and Trent Widdon who were preparing for ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ in November 2014. If you continue straight ahead Approach Road will take you to Old Ford Road where you should turn right. Walk along to the junction with Cambridge Heath Road and turn left. Bethnal Green Tube station is a couple of hundred yards ahead. You might like to pop into the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood before you travel on, which is right on the corner of Old Ford Road and Cambridge Heath Road. If you just want to continue along the canal click the button below.
This section last updated December 2017