When London Became An Island

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) lock and Uxbridge on the Grand Junction, there were no locks except the regulating stop lock at Paddington. Beyond Hampstead Road lock there were a further 11 to pass though until Limehouse basin was reached. The 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 mechanical lock experiment. The lock had been designed by Colonel William Congreve and is usually known as Congreve’s lock. 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.

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 Chalk Farm Road. Alternatively, 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, clothes and foot ware on sale at local shops such as the one shown in photo 4. Click here to see further fascinating Camden shop facades.

If you are determined to follow the canal walk turn left when you reach Chalk Farm Road and cross the bridge. Immediately on the other side take the path down to the towpath. Turn left again, pass the keystone of the first bridge to be built here (5) and continue towards Kentish Town Road bridge, which is the next bridge downstream.

As you walk towards Kentish Town Road bridge you will pass two locks where lock and towpath users are separated by railings. It was in order to buy land here 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 blue cottages, 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 a fine brick bridge where you may see the reflection of another recent development (7), 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 navvies, employed by a contractor named Hugh McIntosh, 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 (8). 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 9 and 10, 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 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.

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