When London Became An Island

Over the past few years several large and very impressive houses have been built on the south bank of the canal (1). 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 (2).

Nash envisioned that this section of the canal would eventually resemble a wooded valley and so it does, in part (3). 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 (4) 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 (5). 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 (6) and if you look carefully you will see a small bust of the architect on one of the houses (7).  

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 (8). 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 (9).

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

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