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.

A river and a canal

THE GREAT BED of Ware is eleven feet long and ten feet wide. Constructed at the end of the 16th century, this four-poster bed dwarfs the modern king size bed (six and a half feet by five feet). The Great Bed was housed in various inns in the town of Ware in Hertfordshire until the early 1930s when it was acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. A few days ago, we visited Ware, not expecting to see its Great Bed but for other reasons. One of these was that it is a small town not far from Perry Green where the Henry Moore Foundation is located. Another was to see the upper reaches of the River Lea and the point along it where water enters the New River.

 

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The Gauge House and the New River emerging from underneath it

The 42 mile long River Lea, a tributary of the River Thames, rises near Luton in the Chiltern Hills in Bedfordshire, flows through Hertfordshire, and then makes its way south through parts of  northeast then eastern Greater London, reaching the Thames at Bow Creek. The river flows through the centre of Ware. A short walk (1.3 miles) along the bank of the river westwards from Ware, brings one to the start of the New River, which is not actually a river. It a canal built to bring fresh water from the clean upper reaches of the Lea into London.

The history of the New River involves the London district of Islington, where the reservoir that used to collect water from the New River was located. To quote from something I wrote a couple of years ago (https://londonadam.travellerspoint.com/44/):

“At the triangular Islington Green, Essex Road branches off from Upper Street at an acute angle. At the apex of the triangle, there is a statue of Sir Hugh Myddelton (1560-1631) sculpted by John Thomas (1813–1862). He stands bare-footed, wearing a ruff and breeches, which stop short of his uncovered knees and lower legs. Below his plinth, two carved children sit or kneel with pitchers between their legs. Once, they issued water, but no longer. Myddelton, a Welsh entrepreneur, was the driving force behind the creation of the New River water supply project. The 38-mile-long canal, which he helped to finance, was constructed between 1608 and 1613 …”

Roseberry Avenue in London’s Islington is now best-known for the Saddlers Wells Theatre. However, one of its near neighbours was of great importance in connection with the New River. Quoting from my piece again:

“Across Roseberry Avenue, which flanks Spa Fields, there is a large brick building with white stone trimmings, now a block of flats. Completed in 1920, New River Head House was designed by Herbert Austen Hall (1881-1968) as the headquarters of the Metropolitan Water Board. Above two of its windows, there are carved inscriptions. One reads “Erected MDCXIII”, and the other “MDCCLXXXII”. These dates are 1623 and 1782 respectively, which are carved in archaic lettering. The inscribed stones must have been saved from an earlier building. The land on which the house stands was formerly the ‘New River Head’.

The New River, a canal constructed to bring fresh water from Hertfordshire into London ended at the reservoir called ‘New River Head’. It was high enough above what was the city of London in the 17th century to allow the flow of water from it to be ‘powered’ by gravity alone (see: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol47/pp165-184). The brick-lined reservoir was constructed in 1623, when the first building at the reservoir, the ‘Water House’, was also built. The architect Robert Mylne (1733-1811), surveyor to the New River Company, repaired, enlarged, and refaced it in the 18th century. The refacing was done in 1782 … The old building, which had been enlarged many times, was demolished by 1915.”

Having seen the site of the destination of water carried by the New River, I was keen to see the point of its origin. Hence, our visit to Ware.

We parked near the centre of Ware in a car park (Burgage Lane) next to a footbridge that crosses the Lea. Then, we followed the riverside path after traversing the river. At first the path runs sinuously beneath trees that line both banks the stream. Their different coloured leaves are reflected in the water that ripples as waterfowl swim past. We met many other people enjoying their morning walks, but the path was never crowded.

After a short distance, the river flows around and between a network of islands and the path loses its lining of trees. Soon, there is open country on one side and on the other a series of modern industrial buildings partially hidden from view by occasional trees including lovely weeping willows. We reached the impressive weir of Ware. To enable boats to pass this hazardous waterfall, a lock exists. Ware Lock was first built in 1855 but looks as if it has been modernised since then.  Continuing west from the weir, we became aware of traffic noise as we approached the concrete bridge that carries the busy A10 dual-carriageway road over the river.

A third of a mile upstream from the road bridge, there is a tall brick house. It is not attractive and can be seen from afar in the flat landscape surrounding it. This building, The Gauge House, was built in 1856 to the design of William Chadwell Mylne (1781-1863), a son of Robert Mylne, who was involved with the terminal reservoir at New River Head in Islington (see above).  The building is constructed on an arch, a bridge that straddles the start of the New River at the point where water enters the canal from the River Lea. The ground floor of the building houses a mechanism for regulating the flow of water from the Lea into the New River. This is explained on the historicengland.org.uk website as follows:

“… [The] ground floor contains the gauge which measures the intake of water from the River Lee; it consists of 2 iron boats 5m long floating at Lee level which are joined by a chordal segmental iron beam 9m long, and the rise and fall with the level of the Lee controls the flow of water over the sluice which can be further adjusted by weights hung from the gate, the daily intake from the Lee being 22 1/2 million gallons.”

Another website, engineering-timelines.com, gives details of the predecessors of the Gauge House:

“At first, the flow from the river was monitored by a wooden ‘balance engine’ – a rocking beam-and-float device. It was later replaced with the Marble Gauge, built by Robert Mylne inside a Portland stone chest. Though now empty, this is still visible a little downstream.”

We were able to see the exterior of the Gauge House including the grille through which water leaves the Lea to flow under the building and that from which it flows from the House into the first stretch of the New River. The canal flows about 300 yards south before making a right angle beyond which it begins flowing east.  Having visited the London terminus of the New River and walked along attractive stretches of the canal lined by parkland in Canonbury, near Islington, I was very satisfied seeing where this historic waterway commences. We retraced our steps along the riverbank to Ware before driving to visit the Henry Moore Foundation at Perry Green.

Returning to the subject of beds, which is associated with the town of Ware, my mind leaps a quarter of the way around the world to Ootacamund (‘Ooty’) in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. In January 1994, we spent part of our honeymoon at St Margarets in Ooty, a guesthouse belonging to the ITC company. The room we occupied in this typical colonial style bungalow was huge. And it needed to be to accommodate the enormous bed that we occupied. This bed, whose width rivalled that of the Great Bed of Ware was not so long as the latter. Its sheets must have been specially made to fit this enormous bed.  Although there were only two of us sleeping in it, I think that that it would have been wide enough for four or five couples to sleep in it without it becoming overcrowded.

Both Ooty and Ware have their charms, but the latter is far more accessible from London especially in these times of restricted travel caused by the wholly unwanted presence of the Covid-19 microbe.  

 

 

Along the canal

THE PADDINGTON ARM of the Grand Union Canal connects Paddington Basin to Bull’s Bridge at Hayes. It was opened in 1801 and was an important transport route before the growth of railway usage in England. Today, it is used mainly for leisure. People enjoy walking, running, and cycling along its well-maintained towpaths. Others keep long canal boats, known as ‘narrow boats, on the water. Some live in these vessels, others use them to move slowly through Britain’s antique but still usable canal network.

 

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During my teens, I used to explore London with three good friends and an excellent guidebook to London’s quirkier sights, “Nairn’s London” written by Ian Nairn. We walked along the banks of the River Thames, which were undeveloped and somewhat sinister in the late 1960s. In those days, there were stretches of riverside that had barely altered since the era of Charles Dickens.  Nowadays, there are few if any stretches of the Thames in London, which have not been made ‘visitor friendly’.

One day, the four of us decided to walk along the Grand Union Canal, starting our exploration at Camden Lock, now a crowded, popular tourist area. We followed the Regents Canal to the point where it enters the Maida Vale Tunnel, and then re-joined it where it emerged. From Little Venice, we continued westward along the Paddington Arm. For most of the way, we saw nobody else on the towpath. As we headed further west, the canal began running through a dreary semi-industrial neighbourhood. Just before we reached the road bridge that carries Ladbroke Grove over the canal, we saw a gang of young men in leather jackets, who looked at us menacingly. They were busy throwing a motorcycle into the canal. We did not like the look of them and decided that we had seen enough of the canal.

Years later, we joined other friends on a boat trip that began at Camden Lock and continued along the canal to Greenford, a suburb in the far west of London. The trip was very picturesque as far as Ladbroke Grove, but the remaining long stretch was less exciting. West of Ladbroke Grove, the canal winds past industrial buildings and the gardens at the back of residential houses. Later, we accompanied the same friends on a boat trip that took us east from Camden Lock. This was a far more interesting ride as its route includes many fascinating built-up urban areas of east London, which have a richer history than the suburbs of west London. It included a visit to the Olympic Games park that was being constructed at the time.

Today, my wife and I re-visited the Paddington Arm, walking the short stretch between the Harrow Road bridge and the point where, long ago, my friends and I saw the young men throwing a motorbike into the water. We did not see anything like that but had to contend with the almost continuous stream of cyclists sharing the towpath. Most of them were courteous, but a few inconsiderate wildly pedalling folk seemed to think that they were taking part in the Tour de France. Given that it was a Sunday afternoon, it was not too busy to make walking along the towpath anything but enjoyable.

An American in a gondola

When I was young, before I was about 17, I used to visit Venice annually with my parents. We used to stay in a pensione called ‘La Calcina’. As breakfast and one meal were included in the room price, we used to take lunch in the dining room of La Calcina. Every year, we sat with other regular visitors, whom we got to know gradually. One of them was a somewhat silent American gentleman…

 

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The Calcina’s neighbour, the Pensione Il Seguso, was located on a corner where a narrow side canal met the wide Giudecca Canal. One morning, we were waiting outside the Calcina, trying to decide what to do. It was a bit later than usual, which is possibly the reason that we spotted something we had never seen before. A gondola with green upholstery and other identically coloured cloth drapes appeared from along the side canal and drew to a standstill at the corner near where we were standing. The gondolier was dressed in a livery the same colour as the upholstery and the drapes. After a short delay, the American, who used to sit silently with us at lunch, left the main entrance of the Calcina and boarded the gondola. The gondolier set his vessel in motion. His American passenger sat reading his newspaper whilst he was rowed across the Giudecca Canal. We watched them disappearing along a canal that passed through the Giudecca Island towards the wide open lagoon beyond the island. Naturally, our curiosity was aroused.

That lunch time, the American sat down in his usual place. My mother could no longer contain herself. She asked the American about what we had witnessed that morning. He explained that the gondolier was the grandson of his late mother’s personal gondolier. Whenever he visited Venice, he would hire this same grandson for the duration of his visit. Every morning, he was picked up just as we had observed, and was rowed out into the midst of the lagoon. When they arrived there, he and his gondolier exchanged roles. The American had mastered the art of rowing a gondola, and took his daily exercise by ‘gondoling’ around the lagoon for an hour or so.

The American introduced himself. My father, a knowledgable amateur historian of art, was most excited to discover that our American lunch time companion was William Milliken, a former Director of the Cleveland Museum of Art in Cleveland, Ohio, and a famous historian of mediaeval art.

Later Miss Steiner, a humourless late middle-aged Austrian who managed the Pensione Calcina, told us that Mr Milliken stayed at the Calcina every year during the month in which his mother had died. He stayed in the room that she used to occupy during her visits to the Calcina. Whilst he stayed there, Miss Steiner informed us, the room was always filled with his mother’s favourite flowers, and furnished with the very same furniture that she used to use whilst she was a guest at the pensione.

 

Mr Milliken died in 1978, at least ten years after I last met him. About twenty years later, I bought a second-hand copy of his book, “Unfamiliar Venice”. This wonderfully illustrated and almost poetically written book, which was published in 1967, describes the magic of Venice beautifully, but makes no mention at all of any of the things we learnt about our solitary American neighbour in the dining room of the Pensione Calcina.