Draining a canal

EVERY NOW AND THEN, a canal needs repairing. For example, it might have sprung a leak either in its retaining walls or in its clay bottom. In such circumstances and no doubt others, the repair work can only be carried out if the canal is emptied of water, a tall order in a canal that might be many miles in length. Recently, we were walking along the towpath of the Macclesfield Canal, which links Marples Lock on the Peak Forest Canal with Hardings Wood Junction on the Trent and Mersey Canal, when we spotted something that we had never noticed before whilst walking along a canal towpath.

What we saw was a pile of sturdy wooden planks, each with two metal handles attached to their narrowest edges. They looked quite modern. We asked a man, who was walking his dog, about the planks. He explained that they were used to block both ends of a section of canal between two consecutive bridges. When these barricades are lined with plastic sheeting, the water between the two barricades can be drained from the part of the canal between the two waterproofed wooden barriers, Then, work can be carried out on the drained stretch of the canal. The planks are known as ‘stop planks’

Our informant pointed out notches carved in the stonework near to a bridge. The notch is opposite another identical one across the canal. It is into these pairs of notches that the planks we had noticed ate inserted to create a dam, I regard myself as being quite observant, but I have never seen or noticed either this kind of notch or the wooden planks for inserting in them during many long walks along canals in other parts of England. Maybe, they are common, but until we walked beside the Macclesfield Canal, I had never seen them before, Maybe, this is because other methods of damming (see: https://www.rchs.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/OP-128.pdf) are also employed in addition to that which we spotted on the Macclesfield Canal at Bollington in Cheshire.

Arms and locks

THE GRAND UNION canal, constructed from the late 1790s onwards, is an important artery of England’s canal network. Beginning at Brentford on the River Thames, it winds its way to Braunston and Birmingham. Along its way it meets other canals, some of which are designated ‘arms’. For example, the Paddington Arm joins the main canal at Bulls Bridge in west London and from there it makes its way eastwards to Paddington. Recently, we visited friends, who live in Northamptonshire, and they took us on a walk along another arm of the Grand Union, the Northampton Arm. This branch of the main canal begins near Gayton and Blisworth and runs to nearby Northampton, where it enters the River Nene, which flows eastwards towards The Wash, an enormous inlet of the North Sea.

A swing bridge with a lock behind it

Much of the Northampton Arm is very narrow, just wide enough for passage of a single narrow boat. At regular intervals, the arm widens to allow vessels travelling in opposite directions to pass each other. Though short in length, only 4.6 miles, the Northampton Arm has seventeen separate, hand-operated locks for vessels to negotiate. The twelve of these, a flight of locks, is 1123 yards from the Gayton junction with the main canal. These twelve locks are along a stretch of canal only nine tenths of a mile long. The northernmost lock, that nearest towards Northampton, is a few yards north of a bridge carrying the M1 motorway. The locks carry the water from a bit over 300 feet above sea level nearest Gayton down to less than about 225 feet, each lock capable of lifting or lowering a vessel over 6 feet on average. Nearer Gayton, there is an old swing bridge, rather like a castle’s drawbridge. Looking at old maps, it appears that there were several more of these along the arm, but we only spotted one in the stretch between Gayton and the M1.

The canal and its associated towpath pass beneath the motorway through a giant concrete arch, paraboloid in shape and reinforced with horizontal concrete beams. Lined with graffiti, both conventional and anarchic artwork, walking under the motorway is an eery, rather science fictional experience. In contrast to this brutalist concrete arch, several lovely brick, hump-backed bridges carry minor roads over the Arm

The authorisation of the Northampton Arm was given in 1793, but it took another 18 years before it was ready for use. A brief hstory of the Arm (https://waterways.org.uk/waterways/discover-the-waterways/grand-union-canal-northampton-arm) relates:

“Almost immediately the Arm began to carry a large volume of merchandise and stayed busy for over 100 years through to after the First World War.  In the post war years coal, grain and timber were supplemented by goods needed for the show industry such as strawboards for packing as well as iron ingots for castings.  After World War II the carriage of goods ceased as road competition strengthened.”

Now, the Arm is used by intrepid canal boat owners, who are not averse to too much manipulation of lock gates. On the sunny Saturday afternoon that we visited the lock flight, we only saw one narrow boat attempting to negotiate the flight of twelve locks. In contrast, at Gayton Junction, the main Grand Union Canal, from which the Arm branches off, was full of pleasure-seekers’ narrow boats and other craft.

Though hardly used for freight these days, the canal system provides much pleasure to visitors both afloat and on shore. Wandering along the towpaths, one cannot fail to be amazed when considering the engineering ingenuity of the canal builders that we can still see today, as well as the work that is done to keep these waterways usable so many years after they were constructed.

A watery staircase for boats

UNLIKE IN HOLLAND, the landscape of England is often not flat. In the 18th century, a network of canals was constructed to carry freight between different places in England and its neighbouring countries. The routes of these canals almost always involved crossing hilly terrain. When a canal encounters a hill, it can sometimes be routed around it, or it can pass through a tunnel, or it can cross the incline by means of a lock or a series of locks. A series of locks can be separated by short stretches of the canal on level terrain, in which case it is called a ‘flight of locks’. A good example of this are the six locks on the Grand Union Canal at Hanwell in Middlesex. Alternatively, one lock can lead into the next in the series without an intermediate pool or stretch of water. When one lock leads into the next, and that leads into yet another one, this is called a ‘staircase’ of locks. A good example of this is on the Leicester Line (branch) of the Grand Union Canal at Foxton in Leicestershire.

Foxton lock staircase

The staircase at Foxton, which we visited recently, consists of two sets of five interconnecting locks separated by a pool where boats can queue whilst the staircase is occupied with other boats. Each of the ten locks are just broad enough to accommodate one traditional narrow boat. Locks work by raising or lowering boats by being filled or emptied of water respectively. When each of the locks at Foxton is emptied to lower a boat, the water released flows via a series of valves into a side pond. The water from a side pond is reused to fill the next lock down when a boat needs to be raised. This ingenious system means that little water is required to operate the staircases.

The staircase of locks at Foxton was constructed between 1810 and 1814. On average, if there are not queues of other boats, it takes about 45 minutes to ascend or descend the whole staircase of ten locks. In 1900, an alternative to the Foxton staircase was constructed. This was known as the Foxton Inclined Plane. The way this worked was as follows. A boat sailed into a water filled container, which was made watertight. This was then hauled up rails on an inclined ramp or lowered down it if it was descending. The motive power for this boat lift was provided by a mechanism powered by a steam engine, whose housing is now an interesting canal museum. This lift reduced to traverse time from 45 minutes to about ten minutes. There were two parallel lifts, so that when one boat was being hauled upward, another could be lowered simultaneously, rather like the counterweight in a lift in a building. This ingenious mechanism was abandoned in about 1911 and dismantled in 1926. Visitors to Foxton can see what remains of the inclined plane tracks.

A visit to Foxton Locks is highly worthwhile. It is not only fascinating from the viewpoint of the history of engineering. It is also an impressive visual treat. The volunteers who work at the locks helping both users of the canal and sightseers, like us, are both friendly and well-informed.

Afternoon by the canal

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.

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

He lost his head but left a river

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.

Morocco and Meanwhile

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.

The shrinking canal

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.

Western Pumping Station

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.