Posted on January 26th, 2016
The thing that dominates the view as you make your way on to the Grand Union Canal at Willesden Junction is a block of flats in the midst of development. This will be a recurring feature during the course of this walk, so it’s appropriate for it to be there right up top. Better get used to this, the sight of scaffolding and boardings with CGI fantasy lands printed on them, visions out of reach of all but the select few.
But once you drop down from the road onto the canal and walk just a few hundred metres down the canal path away from the bridge the tower block quickly recedes into memory. There’s nothing particularly ‘urban’ about this area at all. It’s all so green, the path so wide, that you’re no longer in a London that chokes you with its density. There’s space to breathe here.
A few things give away the fact that you’re not in some rural dreamworld. There’s the odd creaking warehouse dotted along the opposite side of the canal, crowded with crude, fading graffiti. There’s a railway bridge carrying those distinctive white Overground trains. There’s the harsh rigid grey metal fencing, blocking the path away from the canal. But most noticeably, there’s the sound of industry, the white-noise drone of construction. Behind the rural facade of the brambles fencing off the canal, there’s a constant stream of work. There’s building development. There’s an endless ocean of railway lines reaching out to the horizon.
What there isn’t is anyone else. On the path, people are noticeable by their absence. I’m not passed by another person until I cross paths with a jogger about fifteen minutes into the walk. London is a place that often overwhelms people with its thronging masses, but here there’s fuck all, nothing but a vacuum. This is a stretch of London defined by its absence of London-ness.
It’s not entirely without evidence of life. The warehouses opposite often have their doors open, the sounds of people working and commercial radio escaping over to this side of the canal. The occasional smoker stepping out to get their fix.
Most curiously of all, there’s a white chair peeking out from behind the grey fence, centred in a clearing of the trees. Who put it there? Why? Who decided that this was the right place to have a recreational area? There doesn’t appear to be access to this tuft of woodland from this fence, so I have to assume that it’s some of the railway workers from the junction just the other side of the wood, you can practically hear their hi-vis jackets from the canal. It makes for a surreal CBBC-friendly-creature-that-the-adults-don’t-know-about style visual.
I start to hit buildings again, seemingly all part of the same complex. It’s a vast, completely utilitarian, unkempt monstrosity of a construction. It looks like the kind of building where cops who must die to become cyborgs go to meet their end at the hands (and guns) of the criminal underworld. However, this building is occupied by business. There’s a sign with a name I recognise only too well. Car Giant. Where London Buys Its Cars / Car Giant.
I go to a gym which almost constantly pumps in commercial radio, allowing us workout monkeys to absorb the motivating powers of Kiss FM (seriously though, Kisstory gets you pumped). Car Giant’s advert is ubiquitous. It’s a happy, upbeat, cheesy jingle, pretty much what you would expect from a used car warehouse advertising on commercial radio, played so often that you’re singing it to yourself as you slit your throat to avoid hearing it again. It’s hard to reconcile that song with the corporeal reality of their operation. It’s an ugly mess of a warehouse, clearly too big to maintain properly, seemingly more suited to its manifest destiny as the ultimate rave venue rather than to a retail operation. It almost feels like it’s abandoned, with only the odd visibly working lightbulb giving away the fact that anyone is there at all. There are no cars.
As I’m looking at this behemoth on the opposite side, I realise what this area is reminding me of – the pre-Olympics Hackney Wick. There’s a patch on the Lea Navigation that was once full of warehouses like these. They did end up as rave venues. One New Year’s Eve, I had one of the worst nights of my life in one of them. They’ve all been claimed by respectable society now, serving as bars and pizza places and fringe theatre venues now that they’re no longer of use as places of industry. That architectural recycling, that transfer from industry to the arts is positioned on a divergent timeline that’s probably inaccessible to these places out West. They are destined to live out their lives as workhouses.
All it takes is one bridge to change the mise-en-scene again, and the warehouses disappear. Now it seems so green and so lush on the other side of the canal. Almost too lush. Like it’s been properly manicured or something. A quick peek through the bushes indicates that is indeed the case, because it’s a cemetery, Kensal Green Cemetery. It’s a macabre reminder peppered into thoughtless gazing at the opposite side, seeing the gravestones peering through at you. They’ll come for you one day. Mark my words.
This patch is also noticeable because I’ve finally come across some canal barges moored on the path. Whereas I’ve only been passed by a few boats heading in the opposite direction during the walk, now I’ve stumbled across evidence of Canal life, of the canal community. Like London buses, I haven’t seen any for ages then they all turn up at once.
Anyone who has walked along the canal on a frequent basis in the last few years cannot but help to have noticed the increase in moored barges – at times, in the more populated stretches, it is not uncommon to see barges parked two deep next to the towpath. With London’s housing capacity at a critical point, and with rents pushing many young working professionals away from decent homes, there’s been a dramatic increase in the number of people using canal barges as their residence. I can certainly see the appeal – imagine being able to switch from living in Hoxton to Paddington overnight? But the practical issues overwhelm the romance for me. I mean, I don’t think a narrowboat is the best place for a person who can be a tad claustrophobic, and I can’t believe that a canal barge is the warmest place to live overnight (especially in the depths of winter).
Did you know that Chiwitel Edjiofor has a houseboat? It’s true. Look it up. Not a canal barge, I don’t think.
There are a few people here canal-side, tending to their boats, giving them a little touch-up of paint. There’s the charred remains of a camp-fire, no doubt somebody needing to come to land for a barbecue. There’s a surprising amount of patio furniture lying about on the towpath. Maybe that’s how boat-dwellers see the towpath. Their never-ending garden, full of trespassers.
There’s a few daubs of blinding orange in the distance. The railway workers have an access point onto the towpath from the railway sidings, and they are all enjoying lunch in a more scenic environment. It must be nice to have this little patch to get to.
I come across a raised part of the walkway that must be a bridge over something, but it’s impossible to tell. Descending it on the other side brings you back down into the city, into urban living. All of a sudden there’s houses, there’s a busy road. There’s goddamn access to a large Sainsbury’s, with toilets and everything! I make a quick pit-stop.
There’s a resting swarm of pigeons. I assume with the supermarket nearby that this must be a good place to pick crumbs if you’re a bird. There’s so many of the birds, by far the most I’ll see on the whole walk. It’s the first time I really think about the wildlife on this walk.
As I walk past Ladbroke Grove, I begin to realise that I actually know where I am. I’m an annual interloper into this area, one of several hundreds of thousands of people who gatecrash the area during Notting Hill Carnival and take over the area. The sound system I usually (always) end up at is just off the canal from here. I know this because I can see Trellick Tower looming over the canal, a concrete behemoth that bludgeons its way into the skyline.
This brutalist icon stands guard over its province, and this stretch of the canal is bookended by large concrete masses, with the Westway overpass just ahead in the distance, the whispers of speeding traffic building up to a roar as you approach. But in between these hulking points of grey, there are splashes of colour and life all around. The foot of Trellick Tower is a haven of green, the Meanwhile Gardens providing a scenic environment for the day-drunks to go about intoxicating themselves. A little further down, houses on the opposite side of the canal open right out of the back onto the tiniest slither of green, the bragging rights of exclusivity for having a canal-open garden seemingly overcoming the practicalities of the matter. No kickabout on a body-width sloping mound could possibly end well, unless. This garden will have to be a space for being, not a space for doing.
It’s noticeable from Ladbroke Grove onwards is where we begin to see the emergence of the Canal-side drinking establishment. The canalside is smartening up, becoming a prestige location. Instead of being a place to be shunned, it has become a place to be embraced.
There’s a canal barge right in the shadow of Westbourne Park bridge that illuminates all that go near it. A charmingly renovated retro-kitsch floating garden, the boat maintained with a care and dignity that’s hidden underneath a wanton garden, an impractical amount of potted plant life. It’s the kind of thing that can only be done to draw attention, and it works – I’m far from the only passer-by who feels the need to capture their discovery with their phone’s camera. The boat is moored near the bridge at Westbourne Park, where a charming mural decorates the gloomy underbelly of the bridge. These are the last glimmers of colour before the lifeless greys and browns that underscore the path to the Westway, a dominating presence over everything in this small patch of the city.
At some point I realise that I’ve been shadowed on the canal by a barge that I realise I saw being attended to by its crew at the Kensal moorings. It raced ahead of me, but I’ve managed to catch up with it even though I’m walking at a slow pace and stopping to take unnecessary photos every 30 seconds. It hits me just how plodding and lackadaisical the canal barge is as an actual mode of transport. As I walk past another estate, there’s a collection of metal engravings about the history of the canal that I stop to read. “Canals may become key transportation routes again” it over-ambitiously dares to proselytise, warning us of the need for an era of sustainability. It still strikes me as unlikely. Given the pace that the rest of the city feels the need to travel at, a mode of transport that’s not even above walking pace strikes me as an ill fit. Indeed, I’m sure that a great deal of the appeal of the canals for those on it is just how removed for traditional urban life it is, a postponement of engagement with the wearying hustle.
Just by the edge of the estate is a really nice, smart footbridge. It serves as a gateway to another world, a portal that once traversed under takes you to an alternate dimension full of mansions, where the wealth is blinding. It’s an entrance to Little Venice, and it’s attracting a different crowd – the sort who have rucksacks on their back and cameras draped around their neck.
Everything seems to get that little big bigger and smarter all of a sudden. The houses dotted along the canal seem to get another storey. The boats themselves definitely grow in size, becoming large enough to serve as banqueting suites. The trees become that little bit more kempt. Somehow, the shades of white that adorn the houses, fences and bridges in the area are actually white, not that faded off-grey that you’d expect. The area glows with the bleached care that only vast sums of money can buy (or, perhaps more pertinently, maintain).
In truth Little Venice is a misleading name, for several reasons. Firstly, it looks nothing like Venice – the neat, premeditated upkeep of the area is at odds with Venetian angularity and irregularity. Secondly, because there are only two canals here. Well, two canals and a basin. I suppose that because that’s the most artificial waterways you’re going to get in London, you automatically compare it to one of the grandest and most unique spectacles in all of global citydom. I mean, let’s just rename the Isle of Dogs as Little Manhattan while we’re at it, huh?
Still, it’s hard to not want to drink in the low-key spectacle of the area. Everything is so much… smarter than pretty much anything else in London. Since Ladbroke Grove, the canal shifts from grim sinkhole to prestige waterfront every few paces, and Little Venice is epitome of a prestige waterfront. It’s no coincidence that the Canal & Rivers Trust have a prominent office in the Toll House here.
Probably also not coincidentally it’s also the only point on the walk where I get kicked off the path. Snootiness here extends to canal barges too, and the moorings are the only stretch of canal path that are private property. As I’m forced onto the indignity of pavement I wonder if it’s the only stretch in London where the canals are actually at street level, barges and cars on the same horizontal plane. The narrowboats in the private moorings are beautiful creatures, too. With the houses nearby of such a spectacular ilk, those on the water clearly feel the need to compete, to keep up appearances. These boats are shiny with the gleam of new paint. The aura of care coming from the canal is unmistakeable. It’s a stable of thoroughbreds, overwhelmingly impressive in their dedication to an ideal.
The road slopes up slightly as the canal disappears. The Maida Tunnel is ahead, and the waterway recedes into a vast darkness. There’s a restaurant on top of the tunnel with the picturesque view of the moorings for the customers, the menacing insta-blackness of the mouth of the tunnel out of their field of view. An abrupt ending to the water, a full stop to the canal’s sentence. If you were coming out of the tunnel in the opposite direction, then the sight of the moorings would be a blissful surprise, but heading from West to East it’s like having beauty snatched from your grasp, a sudden blindfolding. It’s a culture shock.
I walk past the restaurant. Somewhere under my feet, the canal continues. And so do I.