A canal cruise and a cricket ground

BEFORE THE ADVENT of railways, transportation of goods across England (as well as Wales and Scotland) was heavily dependent on an extensive canal system constructed mostly in the 18th  and early 19th centuries. Freight was carried along these canals in the holds of long narrow barges, more correctly known known as ‘narrow boats’. They had to be narrow enough to negotiate some of the narrower canals that formed part of the canal network.  Prior to the development of steam and other kinds of engines, and even for some years after these became available, the narrow boats were towed by horses. These creatures walked along paths known as ‘towpaths’ that run along one or other side of a canal, except when a canal passed through a tunnel. In the tunnels there were no towpaths, and the boats were propelled by the feet of men lying either above the load on the boat or sometimes on planks projecting from the sides of the vessel, a process known as ‘legging’. The boatmen’s feet literally walked along the tunnel walls, thus moving the boat. Meanwhile, the towing horses walked over the hill through which the tunnel passed. All of this interesting but becomes even more so if you can experience a trip on a canal in a narrow boat.

Several companies offer canal trips between Little Venice (near London’s Paddington) and Camden Lock, east of it. We chose to travel on “Jason”, a narrow boat built in 1906 and one of the last of its era, which is still in use. “Jason” has been little modified compared to others that ply the route along the Regents Canal, a branch of the Grand Union Canal system. “Jason”, which was originally horse-drawn, has been fitted with a diesel engine that occupies part of the small rear located cabin that was once the home to a boatman and his family. Passengers sit in the long, narrow freight hold of the boat under an awning that was added when “Jason” was converted from a freight carrier to a tourist vessel, which has been doing the tours since 1951. Unlike most of the other tourist boats, there are no windows separating passengers from the exterior. This provides for great viewing along the route without the hindrance of sometimes not too clean glass, which might be encountered in other vessels.

The tour starts from a landing stage next to Blomfield Road, close to the cast-iron bridge that carries Westbourne Terrace Road over the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal. At the other end of the trip, passengers disembark or embark next to the popular (not with me) and rather ‘tacky’ Camden Lock Market. The cruise between the two landing stages takes 45 minutes and is highly enjoyable. Travelling eastwards from Little Venice, we were given an extremely clear and intelligent commentary by a lady called Sarah. Various things she told us made a strong impression on me.

The Regents Canal that links Paddington Basin to Limehouse Basin in east London, where it leads to other canals, used to carry a wide range of goods, from coal to cocoa. The waterway passes under both rail and road bridges. Many of the latter have curved arches over the canal; are made of stone; and look older than the rail bridges, most of which have rectangular arches with roofs consisting of metal plates screwed together. Over the years, the tow ropes drawing the narrow boats have cut grooves or notches in the corners of the bridges next to the towpath. Some of the bridges have been protected from this damage by iron brackets placed so that the ropes passed over these instead of the masonry of the bridge. These metal protectors, which were easily replaceable, can now be seen to be notched where the ropes have abraded them.

“Jason”, like most other narrow boats, has a flat bottom and a shallow draught. This is because the water most of the canal system is quite shallow, usually not more than 6 feet deep. The bottom of “Jason” is made of wood (probably elm) and iron, a combination known as a ‘composite’ construction. Few narrow boats with this kind of construction exist today.

The most fascinating thing that Sarah told us related to the history of Lord’s Cricket Ground. In 1787, Thomas Lord (1755-1832), a professional cricket player, opened his first cricket ground in what is now Dorset Square (close to Baker Street Underground station). In 1809, Lord shifted his cricket ground to another location because the rent at his Dorset Square site became too high. The new location was on some disused ground just south of the present Lord’s Cricket Ground. It was where today the Regents Canal emerges from the eastern end of the 272-yard-long Maida Hill Tunnel. Let me explain.

In 1813, Parliament altered the route of the proposed Regents Canal so that it passed right through Mr Lord’s recently relocated cricket ground (www.lords.org/lords/our-history/timeline). Mr Lord was unhappy about this and was not prepared to give up his ground without first going to court. According to our guide, Lord struck a deal with the government. He agreed to move to a new site providing he was given all the earth that was excavated during the construction of the Maida Hill Tunnel. He used the vast amount of excavated earth to lay out the ground on which the present Lord’s Cricket pitches are now located.

Concerning construction, Sarah told us that not only had the tunnels been dug by hand, but also the entire canal system. Most of the manual workers were Irish and were known as ‘navigational engineers’, or ‘navvies’ for short. The base of the Regents Canal is lined with compressed clay to make it watertight, a difficult process when the canal was built.

The cruise between Little Venice and Camden passes through a variety of landscapes, ranging from disused industrial to almost bucolic. The canal passes through the northern edge of Regents Park, where it is lined with trees and parkland. In this stretch of the canal, it is difficult to believe one is in the middle of a huge metropolis and not in the deep countryside.  The waterway also passes through the London Zoo. On one side, if you are lucky, you can catch glimpses of African hunting dogs and the occasional warthog in their cages overlooking the canal. Opposite them on the northern bank of the canal is Lord Snowdon’s aviary, now devoid of birds and awaiting a new purpose.

The 45-minute cruise provides an enchanting view of several districts of London. The commentary provided by Sarah and what she pointed out along the route helps recreate in one’s mind the golden age of canal transport. We enjoyed the cruise in both directions and hope that many others will take advantage of the special experience that it provides. For booking details and other practical information, consult “Jason’s” website: www.jasons.co.uk/the-tour

Plenty of bridges

LONDON IS BLESSED with an abundance of open spaces where one can exercise and enjoy reasonably fresh air. In addition to parks, woods, the banks of the Thames, and squares with gardens, the towpaths alongside canals provide visually fascinating places to walk, run, or cycle. These canals  used to be important routes along which freight could be transported right across England before they were rendered practically redundant by the advent of the railways. Despite this, they have been maintained and give great pleasure to many people including my wife and me.

Today, the 6th of November 2020, we walked along a branch of the Grand Union Canal from Golborne Road (near Portobello Road), where I practised dentistry from 1994 until about 2001, to Paddington Basin, which only became accessible to casual visitors in about 2000, when it was redeveloped. We began our walk in Meanwhile Park at the base of Trellick Tower, a tall block of flats designed in brutalist style by Ernő Goldfinger and opened in 1972. The pleasant community park, created in 1976, runs alongside a short stretch of the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal, which was opened for use in 1801. We walked across the narrow park and onto the towpath. Although we have walked along this often, what attracted me this time in addition to the variety of barges and waterfowl was the variety of bridges that cross the canal and its towpath. I shall concentrate on these in this essay.

The first bridge we walked beneath is that carrying the Great Western Road over the canal. This is a cast-iron, single-arched bridge with the Union Tavern at its northern end. It looks like a Victorian design. Heading east, after walking beneath the sweeping curve of the Westway, an elevated motorway (the A40), the first bridge we encountered was that which carries the Harrow Road over the canal. This iron bridge with brick abutments is shorter than the previous one because the canal narrows temporarily as it passes beneath it.  A few yards east of this, there is another bridge that crosses the canal to reach an old, derelict building that must have been a factory in the past. The bridge, known as the ‘Pipe Bridge’, has a roof and is completely enclosed with translucent panelling. It looks as if it was built in the last few decades and leads from the factory to a solid brick wall which serves as its abutment on the south bank of the canal.

Four hundred yards east of the Pipe Bridge, after passing the green space around the Church of  St Mary Magdalene, we pass beneath a concrete footbridge with iron railings and decorative lamp posts that links Delamere Terrace and Lords Hill Road with Blomfield Road across the canal. The approach to the bridge from Delamere Terrace is an elegant helical ramp.  This fairly modern crossing is known as the ‘Ha’Penny Bridge’ (i.e. half penny).

The towpath runs south east and alongside Delamere Terrace and reaches the building that houses the Canal and River Trust, the former Toll House. This is next to another bridge, a delicate-looking cast-iron structure with masonry abutments topped with distinctive lamp stands. This carries Westbourne Terrace Road (laid out in the early 1850s) over a constricted section of the canal. East of this the canal enters a vast triangular expanse of water, the junction of three waterways: the Paddington Branch from west London, its continuation towards Paddington Station, and the Regents Canal that leads to Camden Town and further east.

The poet Robert Browning, who lived near to this junction area, or possibly Lord Byron, is credited with christening this district as ‘Little Venice’, the name by which it is known today (https://londoncanals.uk/2010/01/17/the-history-of-the-place-name-known-as-little-venice-and-the-facts-that-are-ignored/). With its willow trees, colourful barges, a wealth of waterfowl, and some floating refreshment outlets, Little Venice is a popular place for tourists both local and from further afield. The small island in the middle of the watery space, inhabited only by birdlife, is called Browning’s Island.

We leave Little Venice by walking south east along the next section of the Paddington Branch canal. Soon, we reach another bridge, an undistinguished structure that carries the Harrow Road over us and another short, constricted section of the canal. The next 450 yards of the towpath on the west side of the canal has been redeveloped recently and is lined with eateries both on the shore and on boats moored  alongside the shore.

After walking beneath a concrete bridge, the Westway Viaduct, carrying the Westway high above us, we soon reach a fascinating footbridge over the canal. The span across the water is approached by both curving staircases and spiral ramps. This suspension bridge is supported by cables fanning out from a tall pole on the eastern side of the canal. It is known as the ‘Harrow Road’ footbridge. Despite an extensive search of the Internet, I have not yet discovered who designed this structure, which is a visual delight in comparison with the next bridge we reach, an inelegant concrete span, which carries Bishops Bridge Road.

Shortly before the direction of the canal turns from south east to due east, we need to cross it over a curious looking modern footbridge that runs beneath what looks like a double wall of glass panels. This, the Station Bridge (Paddington Basin), leads from the east side of Paddington Station to a footpath leading to North Wharf Road. It was completed in 2004 by the Langlands and Bell partnership (www.langlandsandbell.com/work/).

Having crossed this distinctive bridge, we are now on the final stretch of this blind ending branch of the Paddington Arm of the canal. Next, we encounter another suspension footbridge with perforated metal panels along both sides of its footway over the water. This bridge leads to a car park next to a twentieth century block, part of St Mary’s Hospital. This is the Paddington Basin Footbridge designed by Sidell Gibson Architects.

A few yards further east, we cross a short blind-ended inlet by means of a short bridge known as The Rolling Bridge. Designed by the Thomas Heatherwick Studio and completed in 2005, this bridge curls up into a circle to allow boats to enter or leave the inlet. Routinely, this pointlessly complex yet interesting bridge is opened briefly at noon on Wednesdays and Fridays and at 2pm on Saturdays.

On Fridays at noon, or when necessary, the last bridge over the Paddington Arm, a few feet away from its eastern terminus, can be seen in action. At rest, the Fan Bridge (aka Merchant Square Bridge) looks unexceptional. However, when it is raised to allow passage of vessels it is extraordinary. As the bridge rises, it splits into sections resembling five blades of a pen knife when they are all opened, or a lady’s fan.  The bridge is twenty feet long, was designed by Knight Architects, and completed in 2014. We were lucky enough to see this bridge open and then to watch it closing. You can watch this happening on my video at https://youtu.be/UGQERbGo_jU .

Beyond the Fan Bridge, the canal ends abruptly. Trellick Tower, where we began our perambulation was a landmark in modern architecture when it was built. The Fan Bridge, constructed 42 years later, is another exciting development in design. In between the tower block and the unusual bridge, we passed beneath or over several canal crossings representing various points in the history of bridge design, many of them adding beauty to a lovely waterway that provides pleasure for many people.