Passing the bridge
The swan swims serenely
Along the manmade channel
Passing the bridge
The swan swims serenely
Along the manmade channel
Train rushing past
The moor’d disus’d canal narrow boat
Such is progress
The advent of railways in the early 19th century rendered Britain’s canal system largely redundant
THE VILLAGE OF APSLEY, now a suburb of Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire, has no connection with Apsley House at London’s Hyde Park Corner. The house, once home to The Duke of Wellington, derives its name from Apsley in Sussex. The place in Hertfordshire, which we visited with friends today, derives its name from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘aspen’ (a kind of tree). We had lunch with our friends at a waterside pub called The Paper Mill.
Although the pub appears to be of recent construction, its name recalls the fact that it is built near the site of a once innovative paper making establishment. John Dickinson (1782-1869) was the inventor of a machine that made paper continuously as opposed to the previous manual methods that produced sheets of paper rather than rolls of it. He also invented a range of other practical products including security paper impregnated with silk threads, which was known as ‘penny post’, and, still in use today, the envelope with a gummed flap.
During the early part of the 19th century, Dickinson bought several mills in and around Apsley. He converted these for the manufacture of paper products. Only one of his three mills still stands today. The mills were located close to the then recently built Grand Junction Canal (now ‘Grand Union’). The canal provided a practical mode of transport for raw materials and finished products. The pub where we ate lunch is named to honour the memory of what was once a thriving industry in Apsley. It is located next to the canal and contains a framed family tree of John Dickinson’s family.
After a lazy lunch in the sun by the waterside, we took a leisurely stroll along the canal. Modern housing developments line parts of the stretch of water flowing through Apsley. Other parts are lined with shady trees and dense bushes, which hide modern office buildings that are served by a main road running parallel to the canal. Unlike other stretches of the canal, which we have walked along, there was a notable absence of waterfowl, except for a couple of swans with their four cygnets, and a pair of ducks. Other signs of life on the canal were the occasional slow moving narrow boat and the inhabitants of stationary craft moored along the banks and in a marina near the pub.
It was a hot afternoon and being beside the canal was pleasant. Occasional gentle gusts of cool air added to our enjoyment.
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
A GROUP OF AGITATED SWANS were on a stream beneath an iron bridge. A wire mesh stretched from one bank of the waterway to the other was the cause of their frustration because some of the birds were on one side of the barrier and the rest on the other, and they had not yet discovered a way to pass the obstruction. It was distressing to watch a swan on one side pecking at the mesh trying to reach the beak of another doing the same thing on its side. The purpose of the mesh was not clear to me.
The water beneath this bridge at the northwest corner of the Waterhouse Plantation in London’s Bushy Park is flowing along the man-made Longford River. It runs from the River Colne at Longford, which is on the western edge of Heathrow Airport, to the River Thames. After being diverted into several separate channels, its waters flow into the Thames at three points near Hampton Court and Bushy Park. On reaching the northern edge of Bushy Park it flows under the bridge where I saw the frustrated swans and then through woodland until it reaches a large triangular pool, the Waterhouse Pond. From there, its waters flow through outlets controlled by sluices into a maze of streams, which water the grounds of parts of Bushy Park. The river and the Waterhouse Pond are elevated several feet above the surrounding terrain. This allows water to escape from the river via small channels and from the pond through the sluices, which have mechanical devices with taps to control the flow. Near the Waterhouse Pond there is a tall wooden totem pole, which was designed by Norman Tait and constructed in 1992. The pole was:
“Installed to mark the connection between Canada and Bushy Park, which housed a large Canadian camp during World War l.” (www.royalparks.org.uk/media-centre/factsheets-on-the-royal-parks/monuments/monuments-in-bushy-park)
The Waterhouse Pond was a noisy place when we visited it early one morning recently. Most of the noise was being made by pairs of Canada Geese, which was rather appropriate given that they were in sight of the totem pole. The geese were craning their long necks forward and cackling loudly, their reddish tongues very visible. Nearby, occasional Egyptian Geese with their characteristic ‘eye make-up’ colouring, were furiously proclaiming something that seemed most important to them. Elsewhere in the vicinity, there was a veritable symphony of bird calls including plenty produced by green parakeets which were perched on camellia bushes, some of them pecking away at the flowers, dislodging petals one by one as they searched for something tasty. It was pleasant to be in a place that humans were completely outnumbered by birds … and squirrels.
The Longford River that supplies the water lovely features in Bushy Park did not exist prior to 1638. In that year, in accordance with the wishes of the ill-fated King Charles I, the river (really, a canal) was constructed to bring water to Hampton Court and its neighbour Bushy Park. Twelve miles in length, it took only nine months to complete. Before the twentieth century, when it acquired its present name, the waterway was known variously as: the ‘New River’, the ‘King’s River’, the ‘Queen’s River’, the ‘Cardinal’s River’, the ‘Hampton Court Cut’, and the ‘Hampton Court Canal’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Longford_River). There is another New River in Greater London, which, like the Longford, is man-made. The other New River, which retains its original name, was built in 1613 to carry drinking water from the River Lea at Ware in Hertfordshire to reservoirs in Islington.
The part of the Longford River, which I have been describing, runs through and irrigates the Waterhouse Plantation. This and its neighbour, another plantation, the Woodland Garden, where swamp cypresses with their curious aerial outcrops may be seen, were originally planted in the early 19th century (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000281). Both areas are surrounded by fences to prevent the ingress of deer that reside in Bushy Park. They were redeveloped extensively between 1948 and 1949, and now look well-established.
After having been introduced to it by friends, who live not far away from it in Richmond, we have visited Bushy Park several times and enjoyed its variety and wildlife every time. If you are planning a visit – something I recommend highly – try to reach it early, prefer well before 10am so that you will have no difficulty parking and because at that early hour the park is reasonably empty of other visitors, many of them are dogs, which are excluded from the plantations, with their owners; joggers in expensive gear; and ‘yummy mummies’ with infants in tow or in and out of upmarket push chairs.
It was unfortunate that Charles the First lost his head, but fortunate for us that he created a waterway that makes Bushy Park so delightful today.
FOR SEVEN YEARS, between 1994 and 2001, I treated dental problems at a dental practice in Golborne Road in North Kensington. The place was like a United Nations of bad teeth. My patients hailed from places including Brazil, the Caribbean, Spain, Zimbabwe, Ireland, England, Uganda, Portugal, St Helena, Italy, the USA, and North Africa. Most of the North Africans were from Morocco because many people from that country live in the housing estates that are close to Golborne Road. Although I used to make good use of the lovely shops and eateries on that road and nearby Portobello Road, I never bothered to walk northwest along Golborne beyond Trellick Tower (designed by Ernő Goldfinger and built in 1972), in whose shadow the road lies. Trellick Tower stands next to the Paddington Arm (branch) of the Grand Union Canal. At its base and running along about 450 yards of the west side of the canal, is the Meanwhile Gardens, which we visited for the first time last year, almost 20 years since I stopped working at Golborne Road.
Since the worsening of the covid19 pandemic in December 2020/January 2021, we have been on the lookout for shops where there are few other customers and there is plenty of space to avoid them. We have discovered that the Ladbroke Grove branch of Sainsburys, which is next to the canal towpath a few feet west of the bridge carrying Ladbroke Grove over the canal, is such a place. I have never been in a supermarket with such wide aisles; they are about 15 feet in width. It is also well-stocked, and the staff are helpful. The check-out area looks as if it has been designed with efficient ‘socialdistancing’ in mind. In addition, the large car park allows drivers to leave their vehicles free-of-charge for up to three hours. Do not worry, I do not have shares in Sainsburys.
After a spell of shopping, we tend to walk along the towpath that runs past the supermarket. Apart from joggers, who often feel (sometimes aggressively) that they have right of way over other pedestrians, and (usually considerate) cyclists, this path affords a pleasant and visually varied place to stretch one’s legs. Walking east from Sainsburys, soon the towpath runs alongside Meanwhile Gardens. There are several apertures through which one can enter the gardens from the towpath, and you can also gain access to the place from the streets that surround it.
The Meanwhile Gardens were conceived as a green space for the local, then generally low-income, mixed race community, in 1976 by Jamie McCollough, an artist and engineer (https://meanwhile-gardens.org.uk/history/16). They were laid out on a strip of derelict land, which once had terraced housing and other buildings before WW1, with financial assistance from the Gulbenkian Foundation and other organisations. They were, according to circular plaques embedded in the ground, “improved 2000”.
The gardens and the Sainsbury supermarket are in a part of London that used to be known as ‘Kensal Town’. Where the supermarket is now was part of an extensive gasworks, the remains of which can be seen nearby in the form of a disused gasometer. Residential buildings began appearing in the 1850s and many local people were employed in laundry work and at the gasworks of the Western Gas Company that was opened in 1845 (www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol37/pp333-339). In the 1860s and ‘70s, there was much housebuilding in and around the area now occupied by Meanwhile Gardens. Golborne Road was extended to reach this area in the 1880s. Many of its inhabitants were railway workers and migrants whose homes in central London had been demolished. The area was severely overcrowded and extremely poor. Few houses had gardens and the population density was high. After WW2, many of these dwellings were demolished and replaced by blocks of flats, including Trellick Tower, and smaller but salubrious shared dwellings. These residential streets contain the homes of many of my former dental patients.
A winding path links the various lovely parts of the garden including a sloping open space; a concrete skate park; a children’s play area; several sculptures; small, wooded areas; some interlinked ponds with a wooden viewing platform; plenty of bushes and shrubs; bridges; and a walled garden that acts as a suntrap. Near the latter, there is a tall brick chimney, the remains of a factory. The chimney was built in 1927 near to the former Severn Valley Pure Milk Company and the Meadowland Dairy. It was the last chimney of its kind to be built along the Paddington Arm canal and is completely dwarfed by the nearby Trellick Tower.
The Morroccan Garden, an exquisite part of the Meanwhile Gardens, was opened by Councillor Victoria Borwick on behalf of the local Moroccan community in 2007. It celebrates the achievements of that community and is open for all to enjoy. A straight path of patterned black and white tiling leads from the main path across a small lawn to a wall. A colourful mosaic with geometric patterning and a small fountain is attached to the wall, creating the illusion that a tiny part of Morocco has been transported into the Meanwhile Gardens. Nearby, there are a few seats for visitors to enjoy this tiny enclave in the gardens.
Words are insufficient to fully convey the charm of the Meanwhile Gardens, one of London’s many little gems. If you can, you should come to experience this leafy oasis so near the busy Harrow Road. In addition, a stroll along the canal tow path, where you can see an amazing variety of houseboats and plenty of waterfowl, is bound to be rewarding.
USUALLY, I LOOK out of the window whenever I am travelling by train. During the 1980s, I often visited London from Kent by train, usually arriving at Victoria Station. The train crosses the River Thames on the Grosvenor Railway Bridge just before it reaches the platforms of Victoria Station. If you are looking out of the left side of the train whilst it is on the bridge, you can spot a building with a curious roof and ornate mansard windows, features that might make you think of nineteenth century Paris (France). For many decades, I have been meaning to investigate this building and today, the 14th of December 2020, whilst walking along the Thames embankment between Chelsea and the Tate Britain, I decided to satisfy my curiosity.
The building with the convex curved roof, which has diagonally shaped tiling, overlapping like fish scales, and mansard windows, is the Western Pumping Station. This sewage pumping station was built in 1875 by William Webster (1819-1888) as part of London’s grand sewage system designed initially by Joseph Bazalgette (1819-1891), which was built mainly between 1865 and 1875. The tall square-based brick chimney next to the pumping station was once an outlet for the steam from the pumps. Now, it serves as a ‘stink pipe’ for exhausting fumes that build up in the sewer. It is 272 feet high. Writing in the 1880s, Edward Walford noted that the pumping station:
“… provides pumping power to lift the sewage and a part of the rainfall contributed by the district, together estimated at 38,000 gallons per minute, a height of eighteen feet in the Low Level Sewer, which extends from Pimlico to the Abbey Mills Pumping Station, near Barking in Essex, The requisite power is obtained from four high-pressure condensing beam-engines of an aggregate of 360-horse power.”
The pumping station and its tall chimney stand between the railway tracks, east of it, and an inlet from the Thames, west of it. A narrow waterway passes from the Thames under Grosvenor Road. Then it moves ‘inland’ via a series of lock gates. This waterway and the dock into which it flows, a watery cul-de-sac surrounded by modern buildings, a rather sterile looking precinct supposed to entice property owners, who want to live in a waterside location, is called ‘Grosvenor Waterside’. The watery appendix sprouting off the Thames is all that remains of the Grosvenor Canal.
The canal was opened in 1824. It was built along the course of a tidal creek that led to a tide mill that pumped water to the Serpentine in Hyde Park and the lake in St James Park. A tide mill works by collecting tide water behind a dam with a sluice, and then allowing the tidal water to escape from it via a watermill as the tide goes out. Modern tidal-barrage electricity generators work that way.
The conversion of the creek to a canal was conceived by Robert Grosvenor (1767-1845), 1st Marquess of Westminster. The short canal, about three quarters of a mile in length, was mainly used for the transportation of coal to the neighbourhood through which it ran. Gradually, the canal was shortened as parts of it were filled in. By 1860, Victoria Station had been built over the Grosvenor Canal Basin. More of the canal was filled in in about 1899 to build new railways tracks. This halved the remaining length of the canal. In 1925, even more of the waterway was covered over to allow the building of Westminster Council’s Ebury Bridge Estate. What remained of the canal was then used as a dock for loading barges with rubbish. The rump of the canal served this purpose until 1995. Five years later, the construction of the upmarket and rather sterile-looking Grosvenor Waterside housing development, which can bee seen today, began. This includes lock gates, mooring pontoons, and a working swing bridge, but boats are not seen within what remains of the former canal. It is a modern ‘folly’.
Most of the former Grosvenor Canal has disappeared for ever. This is quite unlike many of the so-called ‘Lost Rivers’ of London, which still exist but are hidden from view in underground conduits. One of these, the River Westbourne, flows out of its conduit and into the Thames 270 yards west of the former canal’s entrance, at the southern edge of the Ranelagh Gardens in which Sir Christopher Wren’s magnificent Royal Hospital Chelsea stands.
I hardly ever travel by train to or from Victoria anymore, especially as we now tend to use our car. However, whenever I see the interesting roof of the pumping station and its mansard windows, I remember the days back in the early 1980s when I used to travel between the Medway Towns, where I worked as a dentist, and London, where most of my friends and family resided.
THE GRAND UNION CANAL and its shorter branches link London with Birmingham and other places in the Midlands. For much of its course, it runs vaguely parallel to the route of the M1 motorway, possibly one of the least attractive highways in England. Unlike the motorway, the canal winds its way through picturesque countryside for much of its course. Starting at Brentford (Middlesex) on the River Thames, the canal and the River Brent follow the same course, but they part company at The Fox pub at Hanwell, about two miles (as the crow flies) from the old iron bridge, which carries Brentford High Street over the River Brent. Moving north along the canal from this bifurcation, we soon arrived at something that we did not know about until we walked there with our dear friends from Richmond, who have introduced us to many other fascinating places, which were also new to us.
The bifurcation is about 34 feet above sea-level. From that point, the canal’s route curves leftward changing its direction from northwest to southwest, and in so doing it reaches land that is 86 feet above sea level. This curve is about 700 yards in length. To be able to move vessels between these two altitudes, there is a series of six hand-operated locks, known collectively as the Hanwell Lock Flight, an impressive sight. Each of the six locks enables a craft to negotiate about nine feet of the change in altitude. This is slightly less than the deepest lock on the Grand Union Canal system, which is 11 feet and one inch at Denham Deep Lock.
An old wall, now a protected historical structure, to the east of much of this flight of locks separates the grounds of the former County Lunatic Asylum (‘Hanwell Asylum’) from the canal and its towpath. The wall, formerly that of the Lunatic Asylum, then that of St Bernard’s Hospital, and now that of Ealing Hospital, was probably built in the 1830s (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1001963). As for the locks, they must have been constructed at the same time as the canal, that is between 1793, when its construction was authorised and 1805, when the section between Brentford and Braunston (in Oxfordshire) was completed. The work on the canal was supervised by William Jessup (1745-1814), who was the Chief Engineer, and James Barnes (c1740-1819), the Resident Engineer. Each lock is separated by a widened part of the canal, a pool where boats could wait before using the next lock on their journey. The pools have small ramps that were used to lead towing horses from the water if they fell into it accidentally as often happened, when they tripped on the towing ropes of barges awaiting the locks.
The wall of the former asylum has small blocked up rectangular openings a few inches above the towpath. These were designed to be opened if the asylum caught fire. Water taken from the canal could then be pumped through these holes and into the asylum precincts. Between Locks numbers 94 and 95, the pool widens slightly next to the wall of the former asylum. The wall has a blocked-up archway, which used to be an entrance to the asylum. Old maps show that this archway led to a small quare dock within the walls of the asylum. The north and east sides of this dock were flanked with the asylum’s mortuary building. To the west of this, there was a burial ground. The dock was used to unload supplies, mainly coal, to the asylum. The asylum grew most of its own food, and any surplus that it produced was loaded on to barges at the dock.
Hanwell Asylum was the first such county establishment to be opened in the county of Middlesex. The second was the better-known one at Colney Hatch (at Friern Barnet), which was opened in 1850. Writing in 1876 in his “Handbook to the Environs of London”, James Thorne describes that the inmates of the asylum were treated in ways far better than they might have been in other such places then and earlier. He wrote that the 1100 women and 650 men confined there ‘enjoyed’ a:
“…a system of entire ‘freedom from restraint on the part of the patients, ample occupation, amusement, and absence of seclusion; with constant kindness of manner and sleepless vigilance on the part of the attendants, and unceasing watchfulness by the superiors’, a system now happily established in all our larger asylums.”
These improvements were introduced under the management of the psychiatrist Dr John Conolly (1794-1866), who qualified in medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1821. In 1828, he was appointed Professor of medical practice at the recently established University College in London (now ‘UCL’). Two years later, he published a book, “Indications of Insanity”, and in 1839 he became Resident Physician at the Hanwell Asylum. There, he introduced the practice of not restraining patients suffering with what was then known as ‘insanity’. Although he was not the first to do this, his actions ensured that humane methods of treatment including ‘non-restraint’ became accepted practice all over the country. In 1856, Conolly published a book on this subject, “The Treatment of the Insane without Mechanical Restraints”. Despite this, the patients were locked into the asylum beside the locks.
In 1929, the asylum was renamed as ‘St Bernard’s Hospital’, which it remained until the mid-1970s, when the government redeveloped the site to become part of Ealing Hospital. The former Victorian asylum buildings have become the Ealing Hospital, St. Bernard’s Wing, for psychiatric patients.
We walked along the Grand Union Canal/River Brent towpath from Brentford to the Hanwell Lock Flight, just over three miles. At times, the waterway passes so close to the M4 motorway that you can almost touch the traffic roaring past, yet even when this and modern buildings are nearby, the canal runs along a lovely corridor of greenery, where the occasional water fowl such as ducks, coots, cormorants, swans, and heron can be spotted. As you walk along, it is sometimes difficult to believe that you are winding your way through the sea of suburbia that spreads in all directions from the edges of central London. Once again, I am indebted to our friends from Richmond for opening our eyes to yet more of London’s delightful surprises.
We made our walk during the last week of the November 2020 covid19 ‘lockdown’. On reflection, it seems appropriate that our perambulation took us past locks and a place where unfortunates with mental disorders were once locked-up, or should one say ‘locked-down’?
LITTLE VENICE, near Paddington in London, is a picturesque spot with a large body of water where three waterways meet. The waterways are the part of the Grand Union canal system that links London with Birmingham. Two of the canals that meet at Little Venice are the two sections of the Grand Union Paddington Branch that links Paddington with Brentford. The third is the Regent’s Canal that links Little Venice with Limehouse Basin next to the Thames, 1.6 miles east of Tower Bridge. The body of water where these three waterways meet is triangular with an island in it. The waterways enter the large expanse of water at each of its three corners.
While the area hardly resembles the Italian island of Venice apart from the presence of water, some believe it might have been given its name, Little Venice, by a former local resident, the poet Robert Browning (1812-1889). Others question this, and believe that it was Lord Byron (1788-1824), who associated the name ‘Venice’ with the area (https://hydeparknow.uk/2017/11/11/browning-never-dreamt-up-little-venice/). Apparently, Byron compared the dirtiness of the canals in Venice with those in Paddington:
“There would be nothing to make the canal of Venice more poetical than that of Paddington, were it not for its artificial adjuncts.”
Whatever the origin of its name, Little Venice is now a lovely oasis, favoured by tourists, locals, and waterfowl.
The Regent’s Canal leaves the Little Venice triangle of water by passing beneath the bridge carrying Warwick Road and heads northeast for 475 yards. It is flanked by Blomfield Road, lined with fabulous mansions, on its north side, and Maida Avenue on its south side. Then it enters a 243-yard-long tunnel that begins beneath a café on the Maida Vale section of Edgeware Road, which follows the route of the Roman road, Watling Street. The canal emerges from the tunnel a few yards north east of the eastern end of Aberdeen Street. This street, which has few if any outstanding architectural features, was once the home of the bomber pilot Guy Gibson (1918-1944) who was awarded a Victoria Cross; he was the Leader of the Dambusters Raid in 1943.
The tunnel through which the Regent’s Canal flows is called the ‘Maida Hill Tunnel’. The tunnel was constructed between 1812 and 1816. There are no towpaths in the tunnel, which is narrower than the open-air sections of the canal at either end of it. Therefore, horses could not be used to drag the barges through this subterranean section of the canal. Instead, the barges had to be ‘legged’. Men lay on their backs on planks on top of the barge, and using their raised legs, they pressed their feet against the roof of the tunnel, ‘walked’ them along it, and thus propelled the vessel through the tunnel. This was not without its dangers. For example, in 1825 the planks supporting three men, who were working their way along the roof of the tunnel, accidentally slipped off the top of the barge. One man was seriously injured and the other two were killed.
Much water has flowed through the tunnel since then. Today, pleasure barges, powered by engines, still pass through it. One day, when the pandemic eases up and the weather is better, we hope to take one of the popular cruises from Little Venice to Camden Lock via the Maida Hill Tunnel.
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.