When London Became An Island

From the top of the steps you will see, across the road and to the left, a small triangle of ground on which there is a sombre reminder of the First World War is displayed (1). 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 rather 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 muster 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 (2). It was a venue for a performance of ‘Regents Canal - a folk opera’ that went on tour to celebrate the start of digging in 1812 (3). 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, Rosemary Branch is a thriving place and so too are the small businesses that occupy the Thomas Briggs building close by (4). 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, which runs parallel to the canal. 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’. 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 and run a steam powered railway in its place, 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 may have become 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 an article in 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. In 2018 the Riviera Buskival was held here. There were a number of buskers performing (5) and the event was enjoyed by many - how good it would be to see a similar event organised to celebrate the lifting of the lockdown.


‘Crab Apple 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 and a few years ago, when renovation of the building was taking place, a painting of Bolivar was displayed out side (6). Maybe some investors in the canal saw Simon Bolivar, ‘The Liberator’, 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 or even The Liberator plying the canal.

One thing which adds to the pleasure of walking along this stretch of the waterway is the apartment block on the south bank (7) 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 a boat 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 Museum of the Home (previously usually known as the Geffrye Museum) (8). You will pass a little cafe as you cross over the bridge, which, curiously enough, is called ‘by the bridge’ (9) which has fine artwork on the façade. If you are lucky, may be able to buy a pain au chocolat straight from the oven here. Absolutely scrumptious! The Museum of the Home is on the left a few hundred yards further on. Although closed at the moment, the façade may still be seen through the railings. Incidentally, a little beyond the entrance is a bonus, an archipelago of Vietnamese restaurants, where the food is really delicious. Close by is Hoxton station, also on the Overground.

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