When London Became An Island
If you decide 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 on the blue Hertford Union Canal button at the top of this page 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 too late to object now. 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.
Bethnal Green to Limehouse
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