When London Became An Island
Hertford Union Canal
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A pub, named The Italian Job, stands at the top of the ramp. A plaque (1) affixed to the wall between the pub and the ramp commemorates an infamous murder, evidently the first ever committed on the British railway network. At that time the pub which occupied the site was called The Mitford Castle.
A bridge carrying the North London Railway once ran over the Cut here. Sometime after 10pm on July 9th 1864 an engine driver stopped his locomotive close by the canal after he spotted a suspicious object lying between the tracks. On investigation the train’s stoker and guard found a man who was both severely injured and unconscious. After the alarm was raised the man, who turned out to be a senior bank employee called Biggs, was carried to the Mitford Castle but his injuries, which it appears were caused by an attack and having been thrown from the train, were so grave that he died within a day or so. It quickly became apparent that Biggs had been the victim of a robbery and subsequent detective work soon pointed the finger at a Franz Muller who had departed for the United States by sailing ship on July 15th. Had the only way to pursue the suspect been on another sailing ship it is possible Muller would never have been intercepted but such was the speed and efficiency of transatlantic steamers that on arriving in New York he was met by two London police officers who had been there for many days. A watch belonging to Mr Biggs was found when Muller’s trunk was searched and he was subsequently extradited. Back in London he was tried, found guilty and executed. ‘Mr Briggs’ Hat’ by Kate Colquhoun gives a fascinating and detailed account of the case.
If it were not for Victoria Park it is quite possible there would be none of the original cast iron bridges left on the Cut, for, although suitable for carriages, they could not have carried the motor traffic generated by the industry and residential developments which grew up around it. Continuing beyond the ‘ramp junction’ will take you under two reinforced concrete bridges which carry heavy traffic of all descriptions to and from east London and the Blackwall tunnel. There is a gap between them that lets in light, which is certainly welcome on this gloomy stretch.
Until recently, once beyond the bridge, the Cut seemed rather rural. This was due to the fact that it was not overlooked from the south bank by any development, residential or otherwise (2) until the next footbridge. Then cranes were erected (3), heralding a change. The construction of new blocks, some of which house both workshops and apartments is certainly changing the area. Photo 4 was taken in June 2017 and 5 in November 2020. Unsurprisingly, there is considerable concern amongst many artists and craftspeople who work in the adjacent area, called Fish Island, that the re-developments will, for one reason or another, drive them out.
The Bottom lock, the third and last lock of the Cut, is only a short distance from the large bridges. It has a much lower fall, not even four feet, than either the Top or Middle locks and the short gates look rather curious but the striking thing about this part of the canal are the nearby walls, which have become, essentially, display boards for ‘spray painted graffiti visuals’. I borrowed that description from the website of Silent Hobo who, in the early summer of 2017 produced a mural on the largest of the flank walls. I didn’t manage to get a picture of it before it was partly painted over but, even at that stage, much of the work was clearly visible. However, over the next couple of weeks, most of the mural was obliterated by the work of other spray can specialists and nothing can be seen of it today.
The artists (not to be confused with those anti-social sprayers who aimlessly disfigure the lock gates and bridges) who work here seem to accept their creations will be transient, but I wonder what will happen to these walls as, surely, it is only a matter of time before another demolition team moves in. Is there any chance of them being preserved - something of a counterpoint perhaps, to what is going on all around?
Click the button on the left to see the gradual disappearance of Silent Hobo’s mural and the work of other graffiti artists too. A bollard watches from the opposite bank, clearly angry at the incessant destruction (6). Still, the relatively quick change of graffiti visuals means there is always something new to catch the eye and those who prefer to look for evidence of more traditional canal life can just observe boats using the lock. I always find it surprising how many working narrow boats have survived after having been converted for leisure use or simply to provide a floating home. Photo 7 shows one boat which, I understand, dates from circa 1925, passing work on the graffiti wall that was barely dry.
A few yards beyond the Bottom lock the towpath becomes a little wider. There is another metal bridge at the end of this stretch (8). I’m afraid the tree between the towpath and the canal shown in the photo (taken in 2016) was cut down, which seems a pity. The bridge remains and although it doesn’t date from the 1820s it has its own attraction.
If you are tempted to cross the bridge on a frosty morning take care. It can be rather slippy underfoot. Planning permission has already been applied for to replace the bridge and open a new access route between Roach Road and White Post Lane. Let’s hope the new bridge will be built with a less tricky surface and thought given to replacing the cut down tree too.
Over the past few years the planning departments responsible for the whole area of the lower Lea valley have had plenty to do because considerable post-Olympic residential developments have either been built already or are in the pipeline. It is estimated that, over the next 20 years, approximately 20,000 private residential units will be built here. The impact on commuting towpath traffic on both the Hertford Union and the Regents canals is likely to be considerable too and it is to be hoped the relevant authorities are giving due consideration to ensuring the safety of all users on what is essentially quite a narrow path.
You will now be near the end of the Cut and if you feel in need of refreshment you might think of calling in at the White Post Cafe, the entrance to which is a little beyond the ramp that runs up to the metal bridge. If not continue a few more yards and you will arrive at the junction with the navigation. You might see a number of small metal sculptures here (9), which, like the London Stadium across the water, date from 2012. The feeling of spaciousness around the stadium that existed at the time of the Olympics is gradually being eroded as a number of large, non-residential buildings, such as those for the University College London, are constructed close by. By 2022 the feel of the area will be quite different to the way things were 10 years previously. Hopefully, the metal sculptures will remain in situ, a reminder of the optimistic summer in which they were put in place.
Close to the figures you might sometimes see a pair of mute swans. I doubt if anyone knows how long swans have lived on the Lee but if you see their gravitas and stately progress it is not difficult to imagine why these birds are often associated with royalty. At one point, in the medieval period, the Crown claimed ownership of all swans in the kingdom, and even today, the Queen has special rights to some of the swans on certain stretches of the River Thames.
At this point the excursion ends. Should you wish to explore the River Lee Navigation, either north or south, then follow the towpath round, turn right and cross the bridge and go down to the towpath. This area has become quite popular as a social venue over the past year or so and is one place where the Village Butty has moored. When the photo on the right was taken (10) snow obscured what was on offer, but click here to read about the current situation.
By going south from here it is possible to reach Limehouse Basin via Three Mills and the Limehouse Cut towpath. However, if you want to return to the Regents Canal (and don’t wish to simply turn round and walk back the way you came) you could use public transport. Instead of turning right at the bridge, turn left and walk down to the bus stop. You can catch a 339 here which will drop you at St Barnabas Church (stop Y), close to the junction of Grove Road and Roman Road. When you alight walk back towards the church, cross Grove Road at the lights and continue west along Roman Road until you reach Twig Folly bridge, which crosses the Regents Canal just south of the entrance to Duckett’s Cut. Steps will take you back to the towpath and you may continue your walk along the Regents to Limehouse (click the blue button on the below to go to the Bethnal Green to Limehouse section).