There are few better ways to explore London than a boat trip across the capital and for most visitors that means hopping on board one of the many pleasure boats that patrol the River Thames, passing many of its most famous landmarks along the way. However, for those looking for a cruise away from the crowds there is a smaller, somewhat forgotten waterway that offers an altogether different experience – and there’s never been a better time to explore it.
Celebrating its bicentenary this year, the Regent’s Canal Company was formed in 1812, to carve out a new canal from the Paddington Arm of the Grand Junction Canal to Limehouse, where a dock was planned at the junction with the Thames. One of the directors of the canal company was the eminent architect John Nash, who was a friend of the Prince Regent, later King George IV, and later named the project after him.
Despite having Nash and engineer John Morgan at its helm, the canal suffered two major setbacks during its building – the failure of an innovative hydro-pneumatic lock at Hampstead Road Lock at Camden and the embezzlement of funds by the promoter Thomas Homer in 1815. The canal was also significantly more expensive to complete than anticipated, costing £772,000, which was twice the original estimate. Despite such setbacks it opened in two stages, starting with the stretch from Paddington to Camden in 1816, followed by the rest of the canal in 1820. Built to improve the flow of cargo in and out of the capital, the canal’s main centre of trade was the Regent’s Canal Dock, where seabourne cargo was unloaded onto canal boats.
The completion of the canal coincided with the advent of the railway and several attempts were made to turn the canal into a railway during the 19th century. However, these were unsuccessful and the canal system provided a handy alternative to the hard pressed railways during the latter part of the Second World War, while huge quantities of timber, coal, building materials and food continued to be carried along the canal right up to the 1960s.
Now used as a leisure facility, the Regent’s Canal is somewhat of a hidden attraction, often concealed behind terraced houses as it winds its way through the heart of London. It is a peaceful haven away from the city’s busy streets, and from the towpath or aboard a canal boat you experience a completely different view of the capital. Stretching west to east, from Paddington to Limehouse, the nine-mile-long waterway passes some of the city’s best loved landmarks, including Regent’s Park and London Zoo.
You can reach the canal directly from Paddington Station footbridge, following signs for Paddington Central. Heading east from the redeveloped Paddington Basin (worth a visit if only to see the Rolling Bridge) the Regent’s Canal starts at Little Venice, home to the Puppet Theatre barge and Waterside Café barge. Overlooked by elegant townhouses, the triangular basin has a small island in the middle and is known as Browning’s Pool, after the poet Robert Browning who lived nearby.
About half a mile east, the charming Café Laville sits atop the mouth of Maida Vale Tunnel, the second longest canal tunnel in London. There are private moorings along the tree-lined canal here; walkers and cyclists are ‘locked out’ and have to take to the road.
There follows a less attractive stretch before you emerge alongside Regent’s Park. It was created in the early 19th century by John Nash, and contained a holiday home for the Prince Regent. Nash wanted the canal to run through the park, but his plans were foiled by well-healed locals, fearful of hordes of navvies pouring into the area. Instead, it passes along the edge of the park, hidden in a deep cutting, home to enormous Georgian-style villas within spacious grounds.
Boaters and walkers cannot see into the park itself, but there’s no such problem with the next landmark: London Zoo. Dating back to the 1820s, its animal enclosures run right down to the towpath; if you’re lucky you might see a hyena or giraffe, while the huge, geometrically shaped Snowdon Aviary is a spectacular sight.
Between the park and zoo, you pass under a couple of bridges, one of which is actually an aqueduct, carrying the waters of the River Tyburn across the canal. Macclesfield Bridge is known as ‘Blow-Up Bridge’ due to an incident in 1874, when a barge carrying a heady cocktail of sugar, petrol and gunpowder caught fire beneath the bridge – the ensuing explosion killed the crew and blew up the bridge. When it was rebuilt, some of the original Coalbrookdale cast iron columns were put back the wrong way round, as evidenced by tell-tale rope marks from tow-horses. If you’re walking with children, they’ll love looking out for rope marks on bridges along the canal, as well as boundary markers and bridge-makers’ marks, all a fascinating glimpse into the canal’s past.
The canal turns left sharply at Cumberland Basin, where you can’t fail to spot one of its more unlikely landmarks, the Feng Shang Princess, a bright red floating Chinese restaurant. An attractive row of terraced houses backing onto the canal follows, before another unexpected sight, a pirate’s castle! This quirky building is home to a canoe club and offers canal boat trips; their slogan is ‘adventure on the canal for all’.
The next stage of the canal is probably its busiest, as it passes by the crowd-pulling Camden Lock Market. Dingwalls Wharf, formerly a timber yard, is now a complex of shops, bars and cafés.
There follows an uneventful stretch before you reach King’s Cross, which has experienced much change in recent years but is still in the midst of an exciting 67-acre development. King’s Cross has been listed by English Heritage as ‘One of England’s 20 Best Heritage-led Developments’; some 20 historic buildings and structures are to be restored, including the Fish and Coal Offices, gas holder guide frames and the Coal Drops. The Granary Complex has already been refurbished creating the new home for Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design. The development also includes improvements along the tow-path and access to the Regent’s Canal.
A small marina in a former coal drop basin has been the base for St Pancras Cruising Club for over 50 years. You may also be surprised to see Camley Street Natural Park, two acres of wild green space right in the heart of London.”
Detour slightly to visit the London Canal Museum in a side street next to Battlebridge Basin, a spacious sidearm flanked by converted warehouses. The museum tells the story of London’s canals and is housed in a former ice warehouse; you can peer down into a Victorian ice well used to store ice imported from Norway and carried by ship and canal boat.
Walkers have to take to the road again at Islington Tunnel, as did the tow-horses, as London’s longest canal tunnel doesn’t have a towpath. It was originally operated by ‘legging’, but 1826 saw the introduction of a steam chain tug, which was one of the earliest uses of steam power on the canals. Some 886 metres long, the tunnel was the canal’s major engineering work. Just past it, City Basin is the largest of the Regent’s Canal sidearms and was once the main landing point for goods heading to the City of London.
The next couple of miles through Hackney are the least inspiring part of the canal, although there are a few attractive locks and bridges, as well as the popular Broadway market. You then emerge into Victoria Park, a welcome splash of green. Created in the 1840s, it is one of London’s oldest parks, with a lake and pretty gardens. The canal passes round its west end, while the Hertford Canal runs along the southern edge; they meet just south of Old Ford Lock at Duckett’s Junction.
Almost immediately you come to another green space, Mile End Park, with its ecology park, terraced garden, adventure playground, sports stadium and climbing wall.
On the towpath here, the Ragged School Museum provides an insight into the East End a century ago. It is based in what was once London’s largest ‘ragged’ or free school, which opened in 1877 some 10 years after Thomas Barnardo established his first school in London.
Finally, you reach the end (or start, depending on your direction) of the canal. Formerly the Regent’s Canal Dock, Limehouse Basin is the easternmost link between the canal and the River Thames. It also connects with the Limehouse Cut, an access point to the Lee Navigation. Limehouse Basin was one of the capital’s first riverside docks, linking Thames traffic to the inland waterway system, and large enough to take seagoing vessels. It was once so tightly packed that you could walk from one side to the other by stepping from deck to deck. Now it’s a popular marina, overlooked by luxury apartments.
While 2012 is a milestone for the Regent’s Canal, it is also a big year for Britain’s waterways collectively. From this summer, the way Britain’s canals are managed is set to be transformed when British Waterways is reinvented as the Canal & River Trust, transferring responsibility for the waterways network from the public sector into the charity sector. This will give stakeholders and local people more say in the management of the canals, and will close the current funding gap, enabling more charitable fundraising and donations. A council of representatives will be made up from interested parties such as boaters, anglers, heritage, environment and local authorities, while a board of trustees will run the organisation. The trust will still receive funding from the government, but this will now be in the form of a guaranteed, long-term contract.
It is perhaps inevitable that the Regent’s Canal’s bicentenary celebrations will be overshadowed by the 2012 Olympics, but it is possible to enjoy both. Visitors to the capital during the Games, who arrive at Paddington, could use the canal as an alternative and very picturesque route east to the Olympics Park. Simply catch the London Waterbus or Jason’s Trip Boat from Little Venice (five minutes’ walk along the towpath from Paddington Station) to Camden, then stroll along the towpath to King’s Cross and pick up the seven-minute train from King’s Cross to Stratford and the Olympic Stadium.