A gothic church for the poor next to a canal

SPIRAL RAMPS LEAD up to the Ha’penny Bridge, which allows pedestrians to cross the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal, where it runs between Delamere Terrace on one bank and Blomfield Road on the opposite one. A few yards west of the bridge and south of the waterway, there is a Victorian gothic church with a tall tower decorated with layers of red brickwork separated by layers of white masonry and topped with a white spire. It is St Mary Magdalene’s church.

The church was designed by George Edmund Street (1824-1881) and completed in 1878. It was built in what was then an area with poor quality housing, where several hard-up families lived crowded together under one roof. The parish in which it is located began life as an offshoot of All Saints in Margaret Street (near Oxford Circus). Like All Saints, St Mary Magdalene’s was established as an Anglo-Catholic church. Its website, grandjunction.org.uk, revealed that Anglo-Catholicism:

“… emphasises the Catholic heritage and identity of the Church of England. In the mid-nineteenth century Anglo-Catholicism was very controversial and provoked riots. Anglo-Catholic churches were often built in very poor areas, and their clergy believed that their services, full of light, colour, music and ritual, were likely to appeal to the poor.”

Like All Saints Margaret Street, the interior of St Mary Magdalene’s is a masterpiece of Victorian gothic extravaganza, a riot of colour. The nave has a magnificent painted ceiling which includes faces of various saints. This was painted by Daniel Bell, a Victorian artist. Sculptures of saints carved by Thomas Earp (1823-1893) look down on the nave. The floor of the vast nave is decoratively tiled. Street did not believe in fixed pews such as are found in many other Victorian churches and were rented out to parishioners to raise money. He believed in ‘free seating’, especially in a church like St Mary Magdelene’s that was built to serve the poor. The apse is unusual in that it is polygonal, reminiscent of apses that the widely travelled Street had seen in French and Flemish churches.

An unusual feature of this out of the ordinary church is that although the nave is flanked by a south and a north aisle, the latter is barely wide enough to accommodate one person, whereas the south one is almost as wide as the nave. The reason for the narrow north aisle was related to building regulations in force when the church was being constructed.

If it is open, and it was when I visited the church, it is worth entering the undercroft. This area beneath the church is flanked on its south side by a chapel that was undergoing restoration in February 2022. This is the chapel of the Holy Sepulchre created to commemorate the church’s founder and first vicar Fr Richard Temple West (1827-1893). Containing much decorative artwork and resembling a mediaeval chantry chapel, it was created by the architect Ninian Comper (1864-1960).

Outside the church, there is a WW1 memorial, added by Martin Travers in 1929. It is a gold-coloured crucifixion with a stone base on which are inscribed the Latin words “Infinitum est”, which is neither classical nor biblical; it means ‘It is not finished’, which are ominous words on a war memorial and are most portentous on a memorial to the first of (so far) two world wars.

Added on to the west end of the church, there is a modern extension, which houses a pleasant refreshment outlet called the Grand Junction Café. This is a good place to rest for a while after the excitement of seeing inside the spectacular church.

Piling it on along the canal

NEEDING BREAKFAST ON our way from Warwick to visit Baddesley Clinton House, we chose to stop at the Hatton Locks Café, which we had noticed on our road map. What we did not know is that the café is located next to the uppermost of a flight (or series) of 21 canal locks. The locks are situated on a stretch of the Grand Union Canal that was, when it opened in 1799, the Warwick and Birmingham Canal, which was built to carry locally mined coal for use in power stations and nearby factories (https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/enjoy-the-waterways/canal-history/history-features-and-articles/the-history-of-hatton-locks). It became an important transportation link between London and The Midlands.

 The 21 locks are spread along an almost 2 mile stretch of the canal and the towpath along this section of the waterway is popular with cyclists, walkers, and their dogs. Some of the locks are narrow. They were built when the canal was first constructed. Other locks on the flight are far wider. They were built in 1932 and allow two craft to use the lock simultaneously. The newer locks were built at a time when the canal system began to have to compete with motorised road and rail transport.

The café is about 310 yards northwest of a small car park and is reached by walking along the towpath. Near the café, there are some unusual looking tables and benches made of old timber. Most of the timber pieces are planks with a short semi-circular projection at one end. These wooden piles used to be driven into the floor of the canal between parallel wooden blocks that held them straight upright against the walls of the waterway. Their purpose was to prevent the banks of the canal from being eroded by the water flowing past them. Nowadays, they have been replaced by coir matting that serves the same purpose because it is considered to be more eco-friendly that timber. The wooden piles were driven into place by a mechanised hammer system aboard a motorised boat that plied along the canal. One of these boats, now disused, has been preserved near the café.

The locks on the Hatton Flight looked different from the many other canal locks we have seen on our travels around the country. Each lock is flanked by what looks like a pair of tall, stout candles. These things house the mechanisms that control the flow of water into the locks and are operated by canal users equipped with a special handle or windlass that fits onto a projection that is linked to the gearing that operates the valve.

The Hatton Locks Café is a real treat, both visually and gastronomically. Both inside and outside, it is decorated with a profusion of objects, some folkloric, some whimsical, and others related to the life and traditions on the canal. A team of friendly workers produce simple but excellently prepared English breakfast items as well as very acceptable coffees. So good was our breakfast that we made a detour to return to this place on the following morning. Most of the clientele seemed to be locals, many of whom were on friendly terms with the staff. Although we had only been once before on a busy morning, the staff remembered exactly what we ate and drank on the day before. When we are next nearby, we shall certainly visit this wonderful establishment again. On our next visit, we will join the other walkers and stroll past all the 21 locks.

A bridge near Regents Park

PARKWAY LEADS GENTLY uphill from Camden Town Underground station to a short road called Gloucester Gate, which leads to the Outer Circle that runs around Regents Park. Much of Gloucester Terrace runs along what looks like a bridge, which is lined on its north side by red-coloured, decorative stone parapet.

St Pancras, Regents Park, London

The bridge traverses a grassy dell that does not appear to contain any kind of watercourse. I wondered why such an elaborate bridge had been built to traverse what appears to be merely a grassy hollow. Well, when it was built, it did cross a waterway, the Cumberland Market Branch of the Regent’s Canal  known as ‘The Cumberland Arm’ (www.londonslostrivers.com/cumberland-arm.html). This waterway, built in 1816, ran for about half a mile from the Regents Canal to a basin near Euston Station, running for most of its length parallel to Albany Street. During WW2, the Cumberland Arm, which had up until then been used to transport freight, was used to supply water to firefighting appliances. By the end of the war, the canal had been filled with rubble from buildings destroyed by bombing and then covered with topsoil. All that remains of the Cumberland Arm is a short blind-ending stretch of water near Regents Park Road, on which there is a large floating Chinese restaurant and a few moorings for narrow boats.

The Gloucester Gate bridge with its decorative parapet and elaborate cast-iron lampstands also includes two interesting memorials. One of these relates to the fact that the bridge was constructed by the St Pancras Vestry, the then local authority governing the area (www.andrewwhitehead.net/blog/the-most-pointless-bridge-in-london). There is a bronze bas-relief depicting the martyrdom of St Pancras. It was a gift of William Thornton and sculpted by the Italian Ceccardo Egidio Fucigna (c1836-1884), who died in London. St Pancras (c289-303/4) was born a Roman citizen. He converted to Christianity and was beheaded for his beliefs when he was 14 years old (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pancras_of_Rome). The bronze relief on Gloucester Gate bridge shows a young man being mauled by an animal, possibly a lion. Why this motif was chosen when the saint was beheaded puzzles me.

Near the St Pancras panel, also on the bridge, there is an old but elaborate drinking fountain. A metal plate attached to it has faded letters that read:

“Saint Pancras Middlesex.

This fountain and works connected therewith were presented to the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain Association on the (?) day of August 1878 by

Matilda

Richard Kent esq. Junior Churchwarden 1878.

The figure … cast in bronze was designed by Joseph Durham ARA.” (https://victorianweb.org/sculpture/durham/1c.html)

The fountain, known as ‘The Matilda Fountain’, is part of a miniature cave made with granite boulders. A sculpture of a milkmaid stands above the cave. At her feet, there is a wooden pail with two handles. The girl with a rich crop of hair on her head is depicted shielding her eyes from the sun with her right hand as she stares into the distance. Cast in bronze, the female figure and the pail were sculpted by Joseph Durham (1814-1877). Matilda might possibly have been Richard Kent’s wife, but the plaque does not specify this. The sculpture is not unique; several other copies of it, all by Durham, exist. One of these, dated 1867 and called “At the Spring/Early Morn”, can be seen in Blackburn’s Town Hall (https://victorianweb.org/sculpture/durham/1d.html).

Today, the bridge is redundant since the canal was filled-in long ago. However, it is used by many people walking to and from Regents Park and its zoo and a steady stream of vehicular traffic crosses it. Although it has outlived its original purpose, the bridge serves as a reminder of a once important element of London’s continuously evolving transportation system.

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