It all started with a bit of a Saturday stroll and by the time the light was fading on an early January afternoon it had metamorphosed into a new project. As with so many of my little excursions it was unplanned but that is the way I like to do things. Let me tell you about it.
As always, apologies to my regular readers (thank you all again) but just a quick word of background is on order for those coming upon my rambles for the first time. Following a period of hospitalisation in August and September 2019, the doctors had told me to take plenty of exercise and walking is my preferred way of doing that. Now that I was more or less “whole” again, I had got back into it but nothing too strenuous as I was nothing like back to the fitness levels of even a couple of years before.
I had already spent two days wandering the Wandle river, which you can read about here. another couple of days going from Epping to Ongar on the Essex Way which begins here and a few decent walks round Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Berwick-upon-Tweed on a recent trip to Northumberland.
I had not decided upon a new project as I have walked most of the major designated paths in and around London and was still trying to decide on what might come next. Secret / hidden rivers are a possibility but on this Saturday morning in early January 2020 I just fancied a walk, as much for the sheer love of it as for the undoubted health benefits.
I absolutely love canals and everything associated with them and have been lucky enough to have had several holidays “on the cut” as canal people refer to it and also a few turns at crewing for mates on their boats. Two dear friends of mine actually make their living with working boats on the canal system.
When I started this site I had a vast amount of old projects saved from previous sites I contributed to and I have barely scratched the surface of transferring them here. One I have managed to do is a long weekend spent with friends on a narrowboat travelling on the Hebble and Calder navigation. You can read all about it here if you like.
With this passion for all things inland waterways, I am extremely lucky to have a canal about fifteen minutes walk from my home in the form of the Regent’s Canal which runs from Limehouse Basin on the River Thames to little Venice in Paddington. It then becomes the Grand Union Canal which continues all the way to Gas Street Basin in Birmingham. This was one of the main arteries of the transportation system that was in place before, and made redundant by, the coming of the railways.
I walked the Regents / Grand Union many years back from the Thames as far as Milton Keynes but it was so long ago that I wasn’t doing it particularly with an eye for travel writing although some features of note made it to my pages on the wonderful and now sadly demised Virtual Tourist website. Some of the descriptions in this and subsequent posts may be cut and pastes from those pages, suitably edited and updated if necessary, but I will indicate if that is the case. I might even use the occasional old image to show how things have changed.
I took the direct route from my home to the basin and even before I had started my “walk proper” I passed a couple of things of interest which I’d like to share with you just to show how much the East End is changing and how some things still cling on. The first image is definitely one that is just about clinging on if only in appearance and not in function. This is one of many “ghost signs” which you can see all over London but most people don’t notice because they never look up. Mobile (cell) ‘phones have only made this phenomenon worse with people staring down at them and walking into you. They don’t know what they are missing.
Had you lived in England 100 years ago, you may well have been eating Daren bread which was baked using flour from the Daren mills in Kent. I won’t go into it too much but there is a fascinating article here although I warn you that it may put you off bread for life! As a local’s tip and the first aside of the post, it is still possible to get excellent bread and pastry products not 500 yards from here in a place you will never find if you don’t know it. All you need to do is get to Rinkoff’s Bakery (use the link) which is over 100 years old and was founded by a Ukrainian Jewish immigrant which is so typical of this part of London.
Enough of the perils of 19th century sandwiches and let’s move on to a couple of sights that sadden me greatly although I have seen them both before. The building without the scaffolding was once the Mercer’s Arms and I drank in there once or twice. It was fine but not one of my regular haunts and is now a block of flats (apartments). The other one, which has suffered the same fate, was the Royal Navy in Salmon Lane although the scaffolding does not denote a conversion taking place as it has been residential for years now. Just to give you an idea of how many pubs have closed in the East End, the excellent Lost pubs website, which I contribute to, lists nine in this one road alone. Salmon Lane isn’t that long and I have not even included the one that closed down in the 1940’s! It really depresses me.
With a slightly heavy heart I arrived at Limehouse Basin and, like the pub scene in my area, this place has changed out of all recognition since I moved to London in 1988. My first home in the capital was about 15 minutes walk from here and it has been demolished now as well! The Basin had actually changed slightly since I was last here which surprised me a bit as I had not realised how long it had been since I walked the canal.
At this point I shall reproduce my old Virtual Tourist tip verbatim. I think it dates to about 2006 or thereabouts.
“You may have read my other tip on walking the towpath of the Regents Canal, and if you walk to the end of it you will come to the delightful Limehouse Basin. Now a somewhat swanky (and expensive) mooring for pleasure craft, and surrounded by luxury homes, it nevertheless has an interesting history.
A couple of things stand out. Firstly, the basin was innovative in 1852 in it’s use of a hydraulic system to revolutionise how cargo was removed from boats. The tower that the hydraulic equipment was in still stands although is only open on very limited occasions. Contact British Waterways for further details. Secondly, the railway arches which stand to the North of the basin (see photo) and now carry the Docklands Light Railway are the second oldest urban railway viaduct in the world. They were built in 1840 for the now long defunct London and Blackwall Railway. It was used until 1962, then lay neglected until brought back to life by the opening of the DLR. A triumph of recycling, I would say.
Should you feel a little peckish or thirsty, multi-award winning chef, Gordon Ramsay has his Narrow pub / restaurant called The Narrow just beside the basin on Narrow Street”
Ah, that takes me back. Whilst the history has not changed, one thing at least has. I mentioned British Waterways, properly the British Waterways Board, which ran the canal system at that time. It was a statutory body but was replaced in 2012 by the Canal and River Trust, a charitable NGO. They shall feature again here a bit later on.
I am not sure if the footbridge you see was built last time I was there nor the inlaid sign beside it which indicates the Jubilee Greenway which will also feature heavily later. It is a 60 kilometre circular path beginning and ending at Buckingham Palace which was cobbled together to commemorate Her Majesty’s 60th anniversary as Monarch and also the London Olympics the same year in 2012. I have included an old 2006 image I took when I was out playing with my then new and now ludicrously outdated Konica Minolta camera. It has changed a bit since then.
Dead centre in one of the images you can see St. Anne’s Church, Limehouse which was built to the design of Nicholas Hawksmoor who I have recently researched whilst writing about a military barracks in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Berwick is almost exactly 350 miles North of here and even more distant in terms of appearance and just about everything else. I am not going to repeat everything here but you may wish to look at this entry as Hawksmoor really is a fascinating character and, if you like a good conspiracy theory, you’ll love that entry.
I wandered round the entire Basin and, for sake of completeness, went right down to the river. where I took the images above. The one on the left looks out onto the Thames and the building on the right of it is the Gordon Ramsay restaurant I mentioned above which is still trading despite his having had to close a few over the years. I have never been there and don’t intend to go. I don’t do posh. Still, he probably has not been in it for years either!
It is fascinating to think that 200 years ago ships were unloading here with goods from the British Empire and beyond being transported all over the country and, in the other direction, British products were exported all over the globe. In the days before rail, this really was the major means of commercial transport.
An Act of Parliament was passed in 1812 for the construction of a canal to link the Paddington Canal with the Thames and a company was formed with the famous architect John Nash as Director. He was responsible for Buckingham Palace and Marble Arch amongst other things. At that time he was in the process of constructing Regent’s Park and wanted the canal to run through it although it ended up running round it. Both canal and park were named for the Prince Regent who was later to become King George IV.
There were all manner of problems during construction including, slightly improbably, fights between “navvies” building the canal and gardeners employed by a local landowner. That must have been worth seeing. Incidentally, if you are wondering where the British slang word “navvy” comes from, it is a contraction of navigational engineer or navigator i.e. a man (often Irish) who dug canals. I’ll not go into all the details of what happened but if you are interested then the wonderful Canal Museum, which I highly recommend, has a fascinating website here.The section from Paddington to Camden opened in 1816 and it was finally driven through to the basin you see in 1820 so exactly 200 years ago. There are any amount of celebratory events planned and I intend to attend a few if I can, I’ll report back here. Let’s go now for a stroll along this fine bicentennial waterway.
If you are planning to walk the Regents, and I thoroughly recommend you do, it is a touch over eight and a half miles long and has 13 locks. You have already seen Locks 13 at the river and 12 at the North end of the Basin and you will realise that, as usual, I am doing everything back to front. I have an awful habit of doing that. The lock you see above, with the flashy new footbridge adjacent, is Salmon Lane, Lock #11 on the road of the closed pubs I had walked along earlier.
Passing under the London, Tilbury and Southend railway bridge, I was faced with this chimney which stands rather forlornly by itself. I am sure I was once told what it had originally been part of or used for but if my life depended on it I cannot remember now. I suspect it was associated with a canalside activity rather than the canal itself and was probably part of an industrial building that stood here. My guess, albeit an educated one based on my knowledge of the area, is that the green space here is probably a bombsite from the Blitz and the chimney is all that remains of the former site.
Passing under Ben Jonson Road I walked past this fairly unremarkable looking building, obviously another old industrial remnant from another age. I happened to know that it is in fact a museum, specifically the Ragged School Museum and that the building had started life as warehouses for canal trade. In 1877 Thomas Barnardo, he of Barnardo’s Homes fame, opened a “ragged” school here to provide free education for the very ragged children of this most deprived of urban areas. The Museum is primarily aimed at children and groups of them come to experience what Victorian schooling was like. I actually remember the Museum opening back in 1990 which caused quite a stir locally.
I almost ignored the next item I saw which looked like either the poorly built nest of some monstrous bird or the aftermath of a particularly lazy council gardener but it was neither although if not for the sign I would have been none the wiser. This is nothing less than a bug hotel constructed, if that is the right word, by someone called Si who is a member of the Lower Regent’s Coalition which I had never heard of, despite being a local. I was to pass one of their groups out on a litter pick a little further on and I thought it was great what they were doing. I am seriously thinking of volunteering myself.
On a bit further and we come to lock #10 – Johnson’s Lock. I should warn you that I had by this point decided to photograph all the locks I saw, so you have been warned. Johnson’s Lock is unusual in that it still has it’s horse ramps which were used for animal rescue when the poor old horses pulling the working boats fell in the canal as they occasionally did.
Next we come to Mile End Road bridge which is totally unremarkable as you can see. The only reason I took this image was that I was already thinking about writing up this piece and I wanted to mention that if I had gone left on the road here I could have walked home in 15 minutes, that is how close I live to the canal. Don’t worry, we are not going to my place yet.
Actually, I am possibly being a bit unkind to the poor old bridge. Mile End Road is the A11, one of the major roads leading from the centre of London like the spokes of a wheel. If you followed this spoke far enough you would end up in Norwich, but it might take you a while. It is a very busy road and considering the bridge dates to 1818 I think it is doing very well.
From the towpath here I saw the rather sad sight of another old pub gone, in this case the New Globe which was so called to differentiate it from the nearby Old Globe which itself is now a betting shop. In the six weeks between taking the image and writing this piece I see that there is renovation going on and it is apparently going to be a hotel / pizza parlour / karaoke bar. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry!
Walking along past Mile End Park, I couldn’t resist the image above. I’ll bet there were not too many swans here when the Regents was a fully functioning, filthy waterway.
I did warn you that you were going to get most of the locks and here is #8, Old Ford. Not far beyond that I came to the first of a common sight on the Regents and every other canal in England.
House prices in London are ludicrous and many people simply cannot afford them. A marginally cheaper and infinitely cooler option is to live on the water although narrowboats do not come cheap and mooring costs in London are also pretty steep. The vessels range from tiny 35 footers barely afloat to double width 70+ foot barges converted into floating palaces and where my flat (apartment) would fit in the living room! I was going to do this some years ago but decided to buy a more solid residence instead.
What you see above represents another one of those places / structures that I cannot ever seem to take enough images of. Other examples are Ramsgate Harbour and bridges anywhere as I have mentioned before. These old disused gasometers are in Corbridge Crescent and I simply love them. I have images of them in every conceivable light and weather and will undoubtedly take many more in future. I think they are unbelievably photogenic although you may have a different view. You may well think they are an eyesore and should be torn down to make room for something useful. Land in this part of town is extremely valuable and these undoubtedly have a huge footprint whilst they do, well nothing really.
Just past the gasometers I came to the wonderfully named Cat and Mutton Bridge and I walked up from the towpath to the bottom of Broadway Market where I took the two images you see above from the same spot and which say so much about the modern East End, not much of it good!
The image on the left is of the lower end of Broadway Market, which used to be a proper market in what was a fairly rough and ready part of the capital called London Fields. It is in the London Borough of Hackney and I have some dear friends who live five minutes walk away, proper East Enders. There was a proper butchers here. The butchers now is a “Master Butcher and Cookshop” specialising in organic meat and it turns into a restaurant at night. What is that all about?
Another staple of the East end was the pie and mash shop and Cooke’s here was legendary. It closed less than two weeks before this image was taken on Xmas Eve 2019 after 120 years in the same family on this site (back to 1826 on another site). Tragic. What were once real shops for real people are now eco-friendly this, vegan that, ethical the other and overpriced everything. Hackney has become hipster central and it hacks me right off.
The right hand image is about the only authentic business left in the Market although technically it is just outside it in Goldsmith’s Row. It is the Perseverance pub and remains fairly much as it always was although the hipsters are starting to infiltrate in search of the next “authentic East End experience”. It is the only pub in the whole area I would drink in now. I mentioned the Cat and Mutton Bridge which is named for the Cat and Mutton pub just down the road. It may be the other way round, nobody is really sure but the pub used to be OK a few years ago. I wouldn’t thank you for it now with it’s premium lagers, Disney quiz nights (for adults?) and £6 cheese toasties. Sod that. It is described online as a “traditional gastropub” which, as oxymorons go, is surely up there with “honest politician” or “truthful lawyer”. Right, I’ll get off my soapbox.
After a pint and a watch of the rugby in the “Percy” as it is known locally, I took to the towpath again and soon came to Lock #7, Acton’s Lock. Who Mr. Acton may have been I have no idea but I can tell you about the adjacent moorings which are called Talavera Moorings and named after a battle of that name in the Peninsualar Wars which was fought in 1809. Presumably the event was still fresh in the memory when the canal was being constructed less than a decade later.
In the moorings I saw a narrowboat and I simply had to take an image. You may already know that Silmarillion is a book by J.R.R. Tolkein but that is not the reason I took it. The book also gave rise to the name of possibly my favourite band ever who started off using the name but later shortened it to Marillion to avoid copyright hassles. That was then an earworm of various old Marillion tracks which stayed with me the rest of the day.
By now I was in Haggerston and once again I had to wonder at how things have changed. The Haggerston and Kingsland estates were some of the roughest places in the East End in the 1980’s when I came to London and that is certainly saying something. You really needed to know what you were about to even go there. Now, it is much changed with many South East Asian immigrants, especially Vietnamese and a lot of small tech businesses as well. Another locals tip here for visitors. If you want the best Vietnamese food in London, this is the place to be.
I won’t bore you with Lock #6, Sturt’s because it is pretty ugly so we shall pass on, by way of a lovely boat underway to what you see in the right hand image. Where’s the towpath gone? Good question. What you are looking at is the Eastern portal of the Islington Tunnel, all 960 yards (880 metres) of it which bores under the higher ground round the Angel.
I have already mentioned that the working boats were initially horse drawn so how did they get through here with no towpath? Well, it took a bit of legwork. Literally. Men would lie on top of the cargo or the roof of the cabin and literally propel the craft through by pushing with their legs. Remember that these are 70 foot long boats loaded with literally tons of cargo so how they did it I really do not know.
The legmen were soon replaced and in 1826 a steam tug took over the hauling. I have navigated a 68 foot narrowboat through the Blisworth Tunnel in Northamptonshire which is admittedly three times as long but when we emerged my eyes were streaming from the diesel fumes in there. 19th century canal tunnels are not well ventilated and so what conditions must have been like with a coal powered tug belching out fumes I can only imagine. It must have been awful but it remained that way for over a century until a diesel engine was installed in the 1930’s.
Naturally, if you are walking the towpath you have to go “overground” at this point and I’ll tell you the official route as it is not that well signed. To make matters worse, there are at least three different types of sign in use as you can see but it is not too difficult.
Follow the way you were going along Duncan Street until you come to the busy main road which is Upper Street, then turn left. Walk along the same pavement towards the Angel Tube station and cross at the pedestrian crossing just before it. Go up the main road opposite (Liverpool Road) and turn first left into Chapel Market. There may even be a market here as it still functions and is a proper one unlike it’s Broadway counterpart. Follow that all the way to the end and you are at Penton Street. Cross over and turn right. The second road on the left is Maygood Street which peters out into a path through a housing estate. I have included an image to help you. This will bring you out onto Muriel Street where the Western portal is.
I was lucky enough to catch a vessel coming out of the tunnel and the eagle-eyed amongst you will see that it is the same one I had photographed earlier. I am not sure who was following who. It demonstrates a point about how relaxing being on a canal boat is. The speed limit on all English canals is 4 m.p.h. which happens to be exactly the speed I normally walk at, so you are literally living at walking pace instead of rushing about at Mach Two which seems to be the 21st century way. No wonder people love it.
By now it was about 1530 and I was figuring on probably diving off the towpath at King’s Cross which would give me an easy tube ride home but there were still a few little goodies to see.
The two images above show just how inventively used the canal now is. The vessels are self-explanatory and moored not too far from each other. Wouldn’t it be lovely to have your home and business here all in one place in these lovely surroundings? I think it would be bliss.
The light was starting to go quickly and I decided that Camley Street would do me as I know my way round there for reasons I shall explain in the next entry but before I got there I discovered that I didn’t know the area quite as well as I thought. In my defence, it has been a long time since I was there. What I remembered as another old gasworks and ancillary industrial buildings has been transformed out of all recognition with the block of flats, office block, shopping centre and park you can see above. It is quite spectacular. Friends of mine used to live on their boat in St. Pancras Basin across the canal here and it certainly did not look like this back then.
I did take a couple more images on my way to the Tube station but they are not great due to the light and I retook much better ones the next day when I returned to do a bit more. I’ll show you them then.
Before I go, I have one last thing to do. In the last entry I promised you that a vegetable fell in love with me and I would tell you about it in this post so here goes. Amongst all my other medical woes, I was awaiting a cardiology consultation at this time which was pretty pointless as I had known about the condition for over 30 years and had been told then, and more recently in hospital, that it is nothing to worry about but my G.P insisted on sending me. One evening, as I was preparing dinner, I happened upon this and I took it to be a good sign. I didn’t have the heart (get it?) to eat it and am now trying to grow it on my windowsill! Sorry about the quality of the image, but you get the idea.
Speaking of the next day as I was, in that entry I carry on with my new project, go too far as usual, hang out with some Mods and get to the end of the Regents Canal so stay tuned and spread the word.