EXPLORING THE CAPITAL'S SECRET WATERWAYS !!
My second week off at the end of August was dominated by the four day trip we took on a 58-foot long canal boat named 'Kathleen', hired from the Willow-tree Marina in the west of London, near where we live just outside Ealing !! We have often thought that thids would be an interesting journey, and so it proved !! Our route would take us a whole four days - remember, the speed limit on the canals of Great Britain is all of 4 miles per hour !!
Travelling along the old Grand Union Canal, right round to the Paddington Basin and Little Venice, where we would then take a left turn into the Regent's Canal, and travel all the way round North and North-east London to the Limehouse Basin in the east London docklands area. There we would take another left turn into the Limehouse Cut which skirts round the Olympic Park, and links the Regent's Canal to the ancient River Lea Navigation, now a canal waterway, which in turn leads into the Hertford Canal, which returns back to the Regent's Canal just outside Victoria Park in Hackney Wick !! Then we would make the return journey exactly the same way we had come, all the way back to the Willow-tree Marina, where Our Kathleen had to be returned by 9.30 am on Friday morning !!
Wow - what a journey and what a fabulous way to see London in a totally new light !!
DAY 1 : WILLOW-TREE MARINA - LITTLE VENICE
So let me introduce you all to our lovely boat - here she is in all her glory !! She is a 58-foot long narrow-boat, built especially for travelling along the canals of Britain. She is fully equipped with all mod cons - fully functioning bathroom , fully stocked kitchen two double beds and a good sized lounge area with a table and chairs for dining, right in front of the kitchen area !!
Of course, we couldn't possibly let her go out completely unadorned - she was rechristened the 'Scullduggery' and bedecked in pirate bunting and flags - we of course had the Pirate gear too...
Here's some pics of the interior - these boats are much more spacious than you'd think !! Here's the galley, with sink, cooker and shelf-space - very compact and well-thought out !!
Just in front of the galley is the dining table with four chairs, and then a lounge area with two large black leather armchairs !! You will of course not fail to notice the piratey cups...
Here's the corridor leading from the bedrooms at the back of the boat down to the lounge area at the front of the boat.
The Captain and his Mate - about to set out on our adventure !!
Captain Adam doing a sterling job of steering the boat in a fairly straight line...
You can see how very country-like the canal is in West London - it was pretty much like this all the way round to Paddington on Day 1, with a few exceptions.
Not far out of the Marina, we encountered our first Emergency Stop situation - this was a difficult manouovre, as the boat has no brakes - all it has is a stop button and a reverse gear, both of which can be used to startling effect !! This little motor-boat directly in front of us had encountered a huge amount of pond-weed which had somehow wrapped itself around the propellor - so the guy was trying to get the boat over to the bank so that he could untangle it out of harm's way - he reckoned without having to deal with the total amateurs we were...we struggled to avoid crashing into his boat by throwing ours into full-throttle reverse - we succeeded, but not without reversing into the bank ourselves !! We did manage to get out of this, but it was a lesson learned.
The lesson was don't panic - approach slowly and think ahead at all times !! Because we were going so slowly, the boat takes a long time to respond, and it doesn't look like you are going to avoid something successfully, but then at the last minute, the boat slowly turns to one side. We discovered that the faster the boat went, the easier it was to control it - but the speed rule is basically this :-
Travel at a top speed of 4 mph - ( feels surprisingly fast on a canal actually), and slow down when passing other boats, moored or moving !!
Russ, the Second-in-Command took the whole piratey thing very seriously !! He looks great though...
So did Adam, come to that...
We were blessed with super weather as you can see - and the canal is so tranquil, you easily forget that you're passing through a major European capitol city. This strange little tunnel under the building is called 'Dead-dog Tunnel' and the building is actually an eighteenth century warehouse - the tunnel is where the canal boats went to enter a dock to unload their goods !! Although it's no longer in use, it is still there and visible from the water !!
Around six miles along, at Acton, we encountered our first real bit of navigation - this is the North Circular Aquaduct, a bridge to carry the canal over the North Circular road - a very busy motorway-like bit of highway, this is a major ring-road round London, not quite as far out as the M25...here is the view from the road - you'd never guess that this bridge carried water in it, would you ?!!
Here is the aquaduct from the boat's eye view - you will of course notice that most of the way through the water is blocked by a huge island of concrete right in hte middle - that's to minimise the amount of water actually being transported over the bridge. Concrete is clearly lighter than water...the gap we had was about two feet either side of the boat - carefully does it !!
As we hadn't picked up the boat from the Marina until 2.30pm, and then we had had a quick refresh lesson in how to steer etc, by the time we arrived at Little Venice, the sun was going down and it was time to moor up for the evening...and I have to say that Little Venice is one of the most beautiful areas of London I have ever seen !! It was simply ravishing...
You approach under this bridge and come out into a large triangular basin with an island in the middle, bedecked with weeping willows, All around the edges are canal boats permanently moored up, with restaurants and cafes aboard - there is a floating market here on some days, which would have been amazing, but that must happen at the weekend I should imagine !! This area of London is a bit of a forgotten gem, hidden away just north of the centre, but it's so pretty...
We moored up just here, in front of the Waterside Cafe, where the space was supposedly reserved for the Canal-bus - that, happily, wasn't going anywhere until 10 am the next day, so we stayed where we were and had a great picnic aboard our boat !!
Here is an engraving of the Little Venice area back in the 18th Century when the canal was used for carrying freight from the docks in London's East End all the way up to Birmingham and the North of England. As you can see, the island has always been there, but the houses, pubs and canal-boat cafes haven't...
DAY 2: LITTLE VENICE - VICTORIA PARK
When we woke the next day, we had a couple of problems with the boat, namely the loo wouldn't flush properly, and the engine's whistle wouldn't go away !! However, we did the right thing and read the manual - what we found was that the loo needs electricity to work, as well as water, and the battery supply was a tad low, so all we needed to do was run the engine for a few minutes and all was well - hurrah !! (What a relief !)
We set off in the direction of the Regent's Canl, which is actually a left turn at Little Venice. the other arm of the triangle is the Psddington Basin which is now redundant as a canal route, but is still interesting to see. Our route took us under another exquisitely pretty little bridge where Warwick Avenue went over the canal, and then the first of our tunnels...
LISSON GROVE BRIDGE or EYRE'S TUNNEL
All along the cutting approaching the tunnel, there was this amazing creeper growing over the wall, turning a gorgeous shade of orangey-red - I couldn't resist a photo...
Here's Eyre's Tunnel - all 53 yards of it - not a big one then !! It's more of a big bridge really...
Interestingly, this is the only one of London's canal tunnels that has a towpath running alongside it. Those of you who are clued up on the function of Britain's canal system will know that all the tow-paths that we use today for cycling, jogging and strolling with the dog, were an absolutely essential part of the whole canal system - where else would your massively strong Shire-horse walk as he towed your barge up the canal, laden with coal, sacks of sugar and flour, or piles of wood ?
MAIDA HILL TUNNEL
Our second tunnel on this journey and a slightly more significant one in length then the first, at 272 yards, (but not even coming close to the third !!) This one is where Edgeware Road goes over the canal, and there is even a restaurant overlooking the water...
The land to the right was once occupied by warehouses and a stone yard. Chutes hung over the canal ready to load aggregates directly into boats. This location was used for a Doctor Who episode - 'The Invasion' (1968) The Doctor and Jamie paddled in a canoe along the canal and into Maida Hill tunnel to escape from the Cybermen.
Here they are in their little canoe...
After this little tunnel, we emerged into a big curve in the canal where lots of boats were moored up endways, rather than the usual alongside-the-bank fashion - this was a bit of a marina, with most of these being permanently moored house-boats. Some of them even had little gardens with loads of pots growing tomatoes, herbs and flowers !!
The best canal bridge in London was coming up next - this is Macclesfield Bridge, on the edge of Regent's Park, and forever known as 'Blow-up Bridge' - why, I hear you ask - well - thereby hangs a tale !!
Here's the story, exactly as it was presented in the London Illustrated News:-
The Regent's Canal of course, goes straight through Regent's Park, and through the centre of the Zoo, and we spotted the enormous and impressive Snowden Aviary from the water...
Having left the aviary behind, we passed under this pair of pretty ittle iron-work bridges, simply known as the Inner and Outer Zoo Bridge respectively !! Beyond them, we caught sight of something we really didn'ty expect to see...
Yes - a real Chinese floating restaurant !! This bit of the canal is known as the Cumberland Basin, and it was a 1 kilometre-long stretch of canal that was built to serve Cumberland Market. It was also used to supply water to fire pumps attending fires through the West End. It was finally closed in 1942, and by 1948 the arm and basin had been filled in with rubble from demolished buildings following the end of the war. Later the site was converted into allotments for the local residents to grow their own fruit and veg !!
Here, you can see a line of boats moored up just in front of the Feng Shang Floating Restaurant, so the canal takes a sharp left turn just here, and goes on up to Camden Lock.
Passing under Regent's Park Road Bridge...
CAMDEN LOCK - HAMPSTEAD ROAD
No locks at all so far, until now - and suddenly we had three of the blighters to contend with all in one go - yes, our first three locks in quick succession - Hampstead Road Lock, Hawley Lock, and Kentish Town Lock - and they were all surrounded with loads of tourists and sightseers, out in Camden Market for the day !!
The bridges are so pretty in Camden - I love the black and white design !!
Here's the first lock at Hampstead Road - all the London locks are wide enough to get two boats in side by side, unless your boat is a wide-beam one, so therefore we had to ease our narrowboat into this narrow space beside the first boat in. Luckily the people on this boat were charming and very friendly.
Fortunately for us, the three locks at Camden were being manned by enthusiastic volunteers, who operate the locks for you because they want to...hurrah for volunteers !!
Coming out at the new level, and ready for the next one just ahead !!
This was Hawley Lock, the one in the middle, also manned by volunteers !! The building above the lock used to be where TV-am had their studios, but now it's owned by MTV.
This is Hawley Lock from the other end - delightfully pretty isn't it ?!!
For those of you who are unaware of what locks are for, I feel I have to elaborate a bit - canals have no current like your average river as the water is still, and largely remains level. However, obviously the land often rises and falls, and where they can't take the canal under or over by means of aquaducts or tunnels, they have to install a lock to raise or lower the boats into the next level of the canal, depending on which way they are travelling !! Sometimes a short flight of locks is required to change the level of the water over a certain length of canal - the Camden Flight is only three, but the Devizes Flight in Wiltshire is 29 locks in quick succession, and the water rises up a total of 237 feet over 2 miles - this takes the best part of a day to navigate and you have to book it in advance !! So locks are a sort of watery elevator system...
KENTISH TOWN LOCK
The third lock at Camden is pretty too, and here you can see the quarter-circle of raised bricks in the pavement against which you brace your feet when pushing the lock-gate open or closed. Some locks have them complete and in good condition on both sides, but often they have been cemented over, or are only half there...
After all that effort, we decided to have a bit of a rest and practice our Piratey posing skills..
After Camden Lock, we passed many interesting bits of the canal frontage, including this amazing flight of steps covered in grass, in front of the building with the silver flash painted across it. Extraordinary stuff !!
Many new developements along this stretch of the canal - lots of old warehouses developed into restaurants, bars and cafes, and quite a few really amazing loft apartments !! Some interesting sculptures too...
Here's a fairly typical new developement, making the best possible use of the water's edge for cafes and bars...
Our next adventure was centred on the ridiculously long Islington Tunnel !
THE ISLINGTON TUNNEL INCIDENT
We approached this tunnel with extreme caution, for it's over half a mile long and takes around a quarter of an hour to get through - it seems like an eternity, and there are no lights !! You only have your boat headlight and whatever other lights you can muster !! It's scary...
As there is no towpath, in times gone by when the barges relied on horse-power to pull them along, barges originally had to be legged through the tunnel. This involved pairs of men strapped to boards, lying flat on their backs, with their legs overhanging the water - upon entering the tunnel, they would proceed to walk along the tunnel walls to propel the barge through - all 960 yards of it !! At first, the barge-men had to leg their own boats through, but soon there were specialist men you could hire to do the legwork for you - can you imagine how powerful their leg-muscles must have been after several years of doing this for a living ?!!
In 1826 it was upgraded with a steam tug attached to a continuous chain on the canal bed which would heave barges through. This system remained for over one hundred years until the 1930s, when it was replaced with a diesel engine. Today, of course, all the boats have their own engines which are perfectly fine for the job !!, so the canal diesel engine is no longer in use.
We knew that this tunnel is a one-way tunnel only and therefore you have to ensure that there are no other boats already in there coming towards you before you enter. We could see another boat's lights which were getting smaller and smaller, so it was clearly going away from us. Then it seemed to stop for about five minutes, and then it started getting smaller again. When we could see the other end's teensy spot of faint daylight, we deemed it safe to enter...
We were going through nicely until about two thirds of the way through - then we saw another boat coming towards us !! They insisted that the tunnel was wide enough for two-way traffic, and pushed our boat into the wall of the tunnel, resulting in some damage to the front doors which we had carelessly left open !! Finally, the boat managed to pass us - a real squeeze, with the arrogant git in the other boat showing a scandalous disregard for any damage done to our boat - and as a result, we were totally put off our delicate steering through this dark narrow damp hole, and managed to bump into the wall again several times before we finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel, literally... What a total tosser !!
The other boat was called 'Lock, Stock, & Barrel' so of course, we rang the Willow-tree Marina and reported what happened - they were very good about it and were mostly concerned that we were all OK. When we reached the next lock, the boat beside us was the one ahead of us in the tunnel that had appeared to pause for five minutes before proceeding - apparently, they encountered the same idiot, and forced him to back out of the tunnel before they could proceed - and it was them who gave us the name of the boat !!
Look - some nice tranquil waterway to calm us all down !!
Many beautiful old barges are people's floating homes and they often have a little garden somewhere on board - pots in the prow like this, or maybe all along the roof !!
Adam and I managed the next lock - we manned lots of locks by ourselves, and in the end it is quite easy, once you know what your doing !!
Interesting reflections !!
That evening, we moored up by Victoria Park in Hackney Wick, which was simply delightful...we met a family of moorhens, five tiny moorchicks with bald heads rimmed with bristley feathers - so funny !!
We decided to head into the park for an early evening stroll, and what a pretty park it is too !! There is a gorgeous little bridge across the boating lake, just as you enter from the canal side - it's all pale blue, red and gold to echo the Chinese Pagoda which is standing practically next to it...
You can see it here through the trrees !!
It's really interesting that this bridge and the Pagoda that goes with it are both new additions to the park, but replicating original features that were planned back in Queen Victoria's time.
In 1842 a pagoda was erected in London's Hyde Park as an entrance to its Chinese Exhibition, and when the exhibition finished the pagoda was moved to Victoria Park's island in the west boating lake for ornamental purposes. The original architect for the park, Sir James Pennethorne, designed a bridge to the island that matched the style of the pagoda - however this was never built, and during WW2 the pagoda suffered much damage.
The pagoda was eventually demolished in the 1950s and all but forgotten, while the water surrounding the island was filled in, shrinking the lake and making what was the island part of the park landscape. With the parks refurbishments that began in 2010, it was decided to restore the island to its former glory; the lake was extended back around the original area, the pagoda was replicated through the use of many photographs and eye-witness information and then, to complete Pennethorne's unfinished vision, the plans for his original bridge were discovered and the bridge built. It took over 100 years, but Pennethorne's vision was finally completed. As a finishing touch, pedallos and row boats were brought back on to the West lake, a feature which had been missing from the park for decades.
This family of swans, mum and dad and five half-grown cygnets, were gliding gracefully down the stream...
Adam and Russ emerging from the pagoda, which matches the footbridge perfectly, as you can see...the inside is just as ornate and goes up into a fabulous panelled roof inside !!
BONNER HALL BRIDGE
This is our beautiful bridge that we moored up next to - Bonner Hall Bridge, the main entrance road into Victoria Park, with its beautiful blue, newly restored ironwork railings !!
See how the sides of this bridge have the deepest grooves in them, where the horses' tow-ropes have worn away the stone. Quite a few bridges have similar deep grooves, as the tow-path has to curve out into the canal-space to allow the horses head-height to pass under the bridge. Asthe path curves back again, the tow-ropes cut into the stonework over many decades - unbelievable really !!
The other thing to note here is that the water of the canal, in the late afternoon of Day 2 was pale green and absolutely thick with pond-weed, presumably because of all the extra sunshine we've enjoyed this Summer...
Although this is where the first part of my Canal Travel Tales finishes, I must just post a photo taken first thing next morning - the same bridge in the early morning sun was breath-takingly beautiful - an early morning mist coupled with a few early rays shining through the arch...
What I immediately noticed, after taking in the sun's rays, was that the pond-weed had practically disappeared over night !! Save for a few remnants floating forlornly down the edge of the water, by and large, the water was as clear as a bell...
This is the end of Part 1 - Next post will cover the Limehouse Cut, the River Lea Navigation, and the Hertford Canal, as we go in a circle right out round the Olympic Park !!