When London Became An Island

A signboard close by the lock gives a little information about the pleasure gardens created here after the canal was built. The entrance was by the New Globe tavern which is now called the Cherry. The façade bears the date 1820 but the eye is now drawn upwards to a cherry rather than a globe (1).

Some years ago, a short distance from Mile End Road bridge, in the direction of Stratford, I took photograph 2. At the same time, a little further along the terrace, signs in windows indicated concerns about Crossrail, the new rail line linking east and west London and beyond. Crossrail runs through a tunnel under the East End. I wonder if any houses above the tunnel suffered from subsidence and, if so, if the owners got the kind of immediate attention Morgan gave to the residents of Islington when the Regents Canal tunnel was built? Crossrail has been an expensive project, running well over budget. So was the construction of the 2012 Olympic site and, of course, the Regents Canal too. This is not a new problem. In 1816, when the shareholders of the Regents Canal faced the fact that the initial cost projections of the project had been far too low, they were told that the extra money required for completion would be less in proportion than has occurred in almost every instance of great works of the same nature. The London Docks, Liverpool Docks, Bristol Docks and Strand Bridges were cited as examples. Cost overruns on large developments are nothing new and it is doubtful they will be eliminated any time soon.

Many of the bricks used in the initial development of Mile End after the opening of the canal were evidently imported from Kent, particularly brickworks on the River Medway. Today, on the Mile End Road bridge itself, by the towpath, there is a sign to discourage graffiti. It says that the bricks are over 100 years old. But now we are in 2021 we can surely assert that many of the bridge bricks will be over 200 years old!

Just before the 2012 Olympic Games began the Olympic torch was carried over the bridge by the Jan Mela (3). At the age of 13 Mela was severely injured as a result of a taking a 15,000 volt electric shock when sheltering from the rain in a building housing an electrical transformer. However, despite then becoming a double amputee he showed incredible resilience and set out on expeditions to both the North and South poles. He reached the first when he was fifteen and the second the day after his sixteenth birthday. A remarkable man.

Between the Mile End Road bridge and the next lock is an area, which, today particularly, may seem to be evocative of Loudon’s plan. The open area to the left is wide and on the other side of the canal trees and shrubs still run down to the water’s edge. There always seem to be plenty of birds about, mostly moorhens and Canada geese (4), but swans may be seen occasionally and a heron too. I have also observed, but admittedly only rarely, kingfishers. On a lovely morning in April 2020 when cycle traffic was far lower than usual and the numbers of joggers seemed much reduced I felt, as I approached Johnson’s lock, that there was something else that was supporting a returning sense of tranquillity. I couldn’t quite work out what it was until I realised the skies were silent. London City Airport was closed and no aircraft at all appeared to be approaching Heathrow from the east. Pleasant as this absence of engine noise was I couldn’t help but reflect what a devastating blow to the economy the sudden grounding of so many aircraft, with the subsequent possibility of company liquidations and bankruptcy, must have been having. There has certainly proved to be an enormous price to pay for the respite from noise in cities which London City Airport serves and, indeed, worldwide.

As you approach Johnson’s lock, you may see a sign similar to the one shown in photo 5 which was erected by the Lower Regents Coalition, a voluntary group that, as it says on the poster, cares for the canal between Mile End Road and Limehouse Basin. From here on you will notice a number of such notices all of which mark an improvement to the banks beside the towpath.

A short distance after the lock you will come to the Ragged School Museum (6). It is a very popular attraction where old fashioned lessons are given to new fashioned children. They go down a storm and I am sure Dr Barnardo would have approved. The museum is open to the general public and access to the museum cafe is from the towpath. The cafe is open Wednesday and Thursday from 10 to 5 and on the first Sunday of each month from 2 to 5.

Looking across the canal at this point you will see a relatively new housing estate but for most of the past two hundred years the view would have been dominated by the Stepney gas works. This was established in the early Victorian period and parts remained active until the early part of this century. When the final site clearance took place the ‘rotten eggs’ smell, such constant feature of old gas works, was noticeable from the towpath. All gone now.

Nothing like the development which has taken place in Kings Cross is evident here, but if you leave the towpath by the steps and walk over Ben Jonson Road Bridge you will see the remaining cast iron wall plates, which were used to secure wrought iron bars that ran across the gas works coal store. Boats would unload coal from the canal into the store and such was the pressure on the brickwork that the bars and plates were fitted to stop the walls bulging (7).Turn right at the end of the wall and you will see two boards by the side of the canal. These give information about the gas works and near the end of a winding path that leads off through the estate you will find two more. These stand by four column bases that mark the point where one of the gasholders once stood (8).

Returning to the towpath and passing under the bridge will take you by the side of a small open area from which you will get a good view of the towers of Canary Wharf. There are mooring posts here, one of which used to be painted with an exhortation (9). To be honest I never knew Soul and Punx were divided - did you?  The call for unity has now been painted over, sadly, but I hope Soul or Punk will return to renovate it soon. Although they both will probably be middle aged by now, it would still be better if they could make up their differences.

The canal now swerves to the right, dictating the curve of a row of terrace houses. The tall chimney hard by the towpath was built to serve one of the tunnels that fed into Joseph Bazalgette's Northern Outfall Sewer, constructed to carry London sewage away to the east. The canal is a little wider at this point and this seems to encourage the growth of various types of plants (10). At certain times of the year tangential light from the afternoon sun may illuminate the under water world where shoals of small fish nibble away at banks and strands of submerged green weed that respond gently to the slow current or the displacement of a passing hull. Ghostly scraps of metal trash might also be seen occasionally (11). Once shiny and new these items are now casually discarded, forlorn and forgotten. Just a pity the owner couldn’t be bothered to dispose of them properly.


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