As the road rises you will see that a restaurant has been established over the entrance to the tunnel (1) 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 Tewitfield to Kendal section of 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 (2) 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 (3) (after Boris Johnson, the mayor of London at that time) has been a great success with the public. Initially, 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. It is now home to the Marouch Lebanese Restaurant but a swinging sign acknowledges the historical name, which was Crocker's Folly.
Opposite Crocker's Folly, at the point where Aberdeen Place and Cunningham Place meet, our route goes along an alley. At the end, if you do the walk in spring, you might be able to admire a blooming magnolia tree as you approach steps leading to the towpath. If you choose to go down the steps you will get some idea of how deep the cutting was at this point. In 1816, not long after the Maida Hill tunnel had opened, Morgan had difficulty with land slippage. 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 tunnel entrance in place would have been. Digging tunnels demanded constant attention to the possibility of a disastrous collapse that could bring death and injury to the workforce and jeopardise the completion of the whole project. Concerns about this danger had been raised when the canal plan was being discussed by a House of Lords committee and attention was drawn to the recent collapse of a tunnel only a couple of miles from the proposed line of the canal. This had prompted the production of a ‘burlesque operatic tragedy’ entitled ‘The Highgate Tunnel or the Secret Arch’. Fortunately, although there were difficulties in building all the tunnels on the Regents, none offered enough material to embarrass the company on the London stage.
As a path at the western entrance of the Maida Hill tunnel would have been too steep for horses to descend to the towpath they had to be walked over Lisson Grove. They were then led back to their barges on the other side of Eyres tunnel, which you can see in photo 4. 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 what appears to be a small office will be seen on the other side of the road. As you cross the road you may observe the little building is officially called Canal House, but it is unofficially known as the ‘Upside Down’ house. You now have two options to continue the walk, either along the towpath at canal level or on a raised path on the south bank. There is a footbridge at the other end of the raised path, which will take you back over the canal.
If the access gate is open and you decide to use the towpath, walk under the cormorant (5) 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. In fact cycling of any kind is discouraged. The high retaining wall and the abundant, cared for plantings give the section a pleasantly rural feel (6). 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 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 cormorant access gate. Instead, walk over the canal and go through the decorative gateway on the left after first checking if the footbridge is in use. 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 canal where you may take a really high view. Note the model plant boats in the adjacent garden as you go (7). The walk ends at the bridge that will take you down to the MCC plaque (8) and back on the towpath.
Paddington to Camden Lock
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When London Became An Island