Regent’s Canal offers picturesque views of London’s north side

Regent's Canal is a greenway, a walkway designated by the queen and a look at London’s colourful past.

  • Nov. 9, 2012 6:00 a.m.

The Regent’s Canal in London is home to narrowboats

The Regent’s Canal towpath is a tough trail.

It is narrow, crowded, bumpy with cobblestones in places, and bicyclists often end up in the canal. There are narrow passageways under bridges, wide enough for one person, who must duck.

As an American, I never did figure out if one should walk or pedal on the right or left. From what I could see, traffic on the towpath was pretty much a free-for-all that could not be blamed on one puzzled tourist.

But the canal is a hidden gem that stretches across London’s north side. It is a greenway, a walkway designated by the queen and a look at London’s colourful past.

A narrow ribbon of water is tucked between rows of warehouses and other buildings in a picturesque urban landscape. It is used by walkers, runners and bicyclists, some of whom are commuting to work at London’s high-rise Canary Wharf area near the eastern terminus.

The canal runs 8.6 miles, from Little Venice in Maida Vale in the west, to the Limehouse Basin, London’s docks and the River Thames in the east. Its western terminus is the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal that ran from the Midlands.

Part of the appeal of the Regent’s Canal is the hundreds of colourful houseboats that ply its waters. They are known simply as narrowboats, because the maximum width of boats on the canal is 14 feet, 6 inches. Some are active homes. Others appear to be mothballed in basins that adjoin the canal.

The canal has 13 locks and three tunnels. It can handle narrowboats up to 74 feet long with a draft of 4 feet, 10 inches. The maximum headroom is 8 feet, 2 inches.

It is quiet today, surrounded by parks, apartments, commercial office space and warehouses. Cafes are popping up. It has a festive outdoorsy feel. The towpath also provides a link to the Broadway market, with more than 100 food stalls and some of London’s tastiest street food.

Canal locks like City Road Lock and Sturts Lock near Islington are popular spots for locals to picnic and hang out.

The Regent’s Canal retains elements of its industrial heritage and planners want to combine that with its recreational uses. Elements along the canal include locks, lock cottages, wharves, lay-bys, bridges, bridge guards, horse ramps and boundary markers. (Horse ramps were built to allow teams that had fallen into the canal to get back onto the towpath.)

An estimated 35,000 boats ply Great Britain’s canal system that stretches 2,200 miles. That includes about 6,000 narrowboats.

The canal was proposed by Thomas Homer in 1802. It was developed by John Nash, who hired James Morgan to be the engineer. It opened in 1820, named after the Prince Regent (later King Edward IV).

In the northwest, the canal runs adjacent to 489-acre Regent’s Park, which was being developed at the same time. The land was acquired by King Henry VIII in the 16th century as royal hunting grounds. That park includes an outdoor Shakespeare theater, the 36-acre London Zoo, Queen Mary’s Gardens, a boating lake and excellent sports facilities. Nearby is Primrose Hill, London’s one-time dueling venue.

In the east, it runs by 218-acre Victorian Park, which was opened to the public by Queen Victoria in 1845.

Boat tours and water taxis are available between Little Venice and Camden Lock through private companies. For details, check with the Jenny Wren (www.walkersquay.com), London Waterbus Co. (http://londonwaterbus.com), Regent’s Canal Pleasure Boats (http://floatingboater.co.uk) or Jason’s Canal Boat Trips (http://jasons.co.uk). The Waterbus company has three boats on the National Register of Historic Ships.

The canal where it joins with the Grand Union Canal was originally dubbed Browning’s Pool after poet Robert Browning, who lived there from 1862 to 1887. Browning later named the area Little Venice.

The Regent’s Canal quickly became England’s busiest, and wharves quickly sprang up along it and adjoining basins. The basins—some of which survive today—became home to industrial operations.

Items being shipped from across England arrived via canal, and cargoes from seagoing vessels were transferred to horse-drawn canal barges. Those shipments were transferred at the Regent’s Canal Dock (the Limehouse Basin) at the East End docks.

Coal and building materials were the most-shipped commodities.

In 1830, the 1.3-mile Hertford Union Canal opened with three locks off the Regent’s Canal.

After the first railroad was built in London in 1837, the canal continued to do well. The rail and canal seemed to work together to transport goods including coal, stone, ice and manure.

There were two proposals in the 19th century to turn the canal into a railroad. But that never happened.

The British government nationalized the rail, road and canal systems in 1948 under the British Transport Commission.

The use of the canal as a shipping hub continued into the 1960s when rail and roads surpassed the canal system.

In 1963, the canals were taken over by British Waterways London. The Regent’s Canal Dock was shut down in 1969.

The Jubilee Greenway starts at Buckingham Palace and links Green and Hyde parks and Kensington Gardens Royal Park with Paddington Station and the Grand Union Canal at Little Venice. It then follows the Regent’s Canal through Camden.

The greenway connects to East London through Victoria Park to the River Thames where the Woolwich Foot Tunnel connects Greenwich and the South Bank at Tower Bridge and back to St. James via Westminster.

The project is managed by the Jubilee Walkway Trust. Get information at www.walklondon.org.uk/jubileewalkwaytrust.

For canal information, contact the Canal and River Trust at http://canalrivertrust.org.uk. For London tourist information, check out www.visitlondon.com.

Bob Downing is a reporter with the Akron Beacon Journal.

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