Posted on February 4th, 2016
When you part ways with the canal at the Maida Tunnel, you’re dumped away from the water and back out into the city. It’s only a brief interlude back into the built-up world, and it’s incredible again how once you cross the elegant facade of Edgware Road, you’re quickly taken back into the perfunctory brick rectangles that are swept behind it.
A sickly yellow Regents Canal sign peeks through an alleyway into a council estate, indicating the way back to water. With the large metal fences and barb wire toppings, suddenly the canal feels a lot less romantic and a lot more menacing. There’s still no actual access to the canal again yet as the footpath follows up top whilst the canal itself creates a ravine through the estate. It seems notable that the estate is refused access to the canal, the prestige waterfront, although the college opposite seems to have a private garden overlooking the canal. I remember someone once talking about how poor the access points on the canal were, and how poorly thought out the access from the estate onto the main streets seemed to be here. “It’s almost as if the the Westminster Councillors who live nearby didn’t want people from the estate mixing with them”. Indeed.
It’s the most depressing and intimidating stretch of the canal, the water suddenly seeming alien and distant, unwelcoming. Different. Other. From this high up, from behind the fence, you get a greater sense of the scope of the place. I’m intrigued by it up here, so much so that I don’t take the first chance to get back onto the towpath, a bobsleigh track of a ramp by Lisson Grove. Instead I stay at the higher level next to Lisson Grove Estate and look down at the moorings.
Truth be told I’d been on this stretch of the canal not that long prior to this, and walking though this particular mooring felt more invasive, more like I was on somebody else’s property. It is far a more enclosed and private space. From up above, you get a sense of how densely pack this mooring is (it’s the only canal-side mooring where the boats have to be moored perpendicular to the towpath). People have made efforts to brighten up the place with paintings and pot plants and the like, but there’s simply not enough room for everyone down there. Not like up here, where you also get to see the juxtaposition of a series of well-kempt narrowboats in vivid primary colours, with the unaesthetic grey-brown dirge of industry. It’s weird to think that one of the most pristine and elitist places in London, Lords Cricket Ground, is itself just the other side of this collection of rectangular ugly.
I cross the footbridge from the estate back down onto the towpath. The embarking point is by three railway bridges that I know surprisingly well. When I used to get the train back from University, the line from Leamington Spa travelled over those railway bridges and over this stretch of canal into Marylebone. The sight of the canal out of the train window was a sign that it was time to get ready, a token link to Hackney somehow making its way this far west. I’d crossed by train this stretch of canal numerous times, yet I’d almost never been under these bridges. The three separate railway bridges almost-but-not-quite connecting makes it feel like a long tunnel, a dark passageway spiked with the occasional slice of sunlight. With the amount of graffiti under the bridges it was clear that this was some kind of secret meeting ground, a place to escape to, a place for hide in overwhelming darkness.
But power through it and you end up at a wall of green. The side of Regents Park approaches, and peeking through the trees is the crescent atop of Regent’s Park Mosque. Everything here is now so lush, so nutritious, so lively compared with the elements of decay just a minute or so behind me.
The incongruity between the two sides of the bridge is ridiculous. The houses here are mansions. Actual mansions. The jump from Little Venice was extreme, no doubt, but the building in Little Venice at least felt plausible. The buildings here are a real-life cartoon, an ostentatious free-for-all, an architectural dick-swinging contest.
When you think of mansions in London, you think of large houses out in the suburbs, footballers’ palaces in Hadley Wood. You don’t think of ludicrous near-sized facsimiles of Downton Abbey by the canal, of would-be stately homes lacking the requisite weathering to be truly exquisite plonked right in the heart of central London. But here we are, and here they are, all with crews of workmen doing a sterling job of maintaining them. I’ve walked down this pathway a few times and seen these houses before, and I’ve usually seen ground staff and security on their premises, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone who could plausibly be considered a resident. Maybe it’s a ghost town, or a spectacular art installation. People must have spent tens of millions of pounds on these. You’re so distracted by these buildings opposite that the exquisite garden fenced-off on the side of the footpath, apparently the largest garden in London outside of Buckingham Palace, is barely noticeable.
A little further down and the houses recede into memory, but the gardens remain. The overwhelming colour is green. So much green. So many variations. Even the water is green, both in its aquatic shade and also in the swarms of algae congealing within. It’s the least urbane stretch of the canal. Even Willesden and Kensal had the odd warehouse and brutal metal fences – here there’s nothing but trees, bushes, and elegant metalwork. Only the omnipresent white noise of traffic reminds you that you’re actually in the centre of one of the greatest cities in the world. Forget being in the city – it’s practically another country. With all the green murk, it’s the stretch of the canal most reminiscent of one of the most famous river journeys. I’m Marlow drifting down the Congo, looking for my own Kurtz, a fat, balding mumbling actor who’s gone insane. The horror, the horror. (I know I’m conflating Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now here, but I don’t give a shit so deal with it.)
This otherly atmosphere is dampened somewhat when a group of drunk men in suits pass in the opposite direction on a narrowboat, loud and boisterous, taking us right back into the City state of mind. This is turning into a surprisingly literary stretch of the canal, because it immediately brings to mind a completely different late Nineteenth Century novel with its own famous boat trip. But I see four men on this boat, and I can’t see any sign of a dog. Still, this is the absolutely most appropriate stretch of the canal for such a sojourn.
There’s a place in France called Marais Poitevin which also goes by the nickname of Green Venice, a series of canals in the countryside cutting through fields that people are free to row along to their hearts content. I once went there as a child and I remember being struck by how odd it felt, this clearly artificial implantation of the natural. Here, the canal has become its own Green Venice in London, a curious oasis of plant life and nature slicing though the urban landscape. Only the harsh strip of paving that makes up the footpath detracts from the agrarian feel, a grey scar.
It stays so green as we snake along the perimeter of Regent’s Park. If it was darker or less populated it might even be scary. But there are lots of people both coming and going, and a confusing number of tourists on this patch. Why are they here? Do they have a strong affinity for plant life? It’s easy to forget that this sector of waterway leads right into one of London’s major tourist destinations.
A weird little London fact that I keep forgetting (unless I’m on this path): the canal cuts right through London Zoo. It’s entirely possible to see large swathes of one of the city’s largest tourist attractions for free, though in a rather abstract manner: sans-animals, defeating any illicit cheap-skating joy one might derive. The only thing you can see unending herds of from the water are tourists. Oh, and some exotic looking birds. But you do get a greater sense of the architecture of the place, and how unashamedly brutalist it is. There are dystopian levels of concrete. For a place that’s teeming with such life, it feels so, well, dead.
There are a few footbridges that jut out and across, linking the two halves of the zoo. The main one, the widest, is also the ugliest. The best you can say is that it’s perfunctory, a slab of concrete that will get you from A to B. There are a few sets of stairs behind the bridge, leading down to a path that I assume is for the maintenance staff because there is no improved view to be had. This stairway, from canal level to bridge level, makes me wonder how hard it would be to sneak into the zoo.
The centrepiece of the zoo, from the view of the canal at least, is the Aviary. For something that essentially consists of some poles and a net it is truly spectacular, raising high into the sky, a doomed attempt to give the birds inside a facsimile of vertical freedom. The way it pokes out so angularly, worshipping at the altar of the triangle, makes it feel oddly futuristic. It looks like a video game level, a GoldenEye multiplayer map. To think that for some creatures this is home, it feels oddly impressive and depressing at the same time.
At the end of the zoo is Cumberland Basin. It has one of the most eclectic perimeters of the whole canal. In one corner is the edge of the Zoo, a concrete and brick collection of boxes that could not be more mundane if it tried. There’s a collection of parked barges who are obviously looking to get penguins as neighbours. And in the far corner, away from the canal path, is the Feng Shang Princess, a floating restaurant in a mock-Chinese fashion. It’s eye-catching to say the least, a shining red beacon of foreignness in a sea of green.
You turn under the Prince Albert Bridge perpendicular to the basin and you realise that it’s been hiding yet another one of those instant shifts in canal decor. All of a sudden, everything is built up again. Churches! Houses! Civilization! Graffiti! It’s all back. Suddenly, it feels like London again, though admittedly a part of London that’s had some care and attention given to it. There’s a beautiful house standing sentinel over the canal, a tall, symmetrical white box that probably costs more money then I’ll ever see and stare down on me saying “you’re not good enough for this place”. I start to feel bad. I need to escape its mocking gaze.
Under another bridge and the houses drop down a level, from intimidating to merely way above my level. A lot of them seem to have access to the canal. One has a jetty with a very small narrowboat. How nuts must that be, to have a boat at the end of your garden? The water-skiing Buckingham Palace guard that’s painted onto the wall here shows that people here want to think it’s all fun. Banksy has a lot to answer for.
The last time I walked down this stretch I could’ve sworn that there was a life-size model cow on one of these balconies. There isn’t one now. Did I imagine that? And if so, why?
On this stretch, I pass another boat heading in the opposite direction. Some people are being punted down the canal. At the bow of the boat, a man in a wide-rimmed hat is playing ‘Here Comes The Sun’ on a guitar. Doo-do-do-do-doo. It’s the most bizarre, serene, ridiculous sight I’ve seen on the whole walk. On the one hand, it feels so fucking stupid – exactly the kind of hipster bullshit that people love to rail against in inner London. But man, it sure does look relaxing. Everyone sure looks like they’re enjoying themselves. And I’ve been walking for a few hours at this point, so the thought of someone doing the moving for me whilst I laze about on my fat arse sure has some appeal right about now.
Things start to turn a little grotty again as I pass under the railway bridges out of Euston, the West Coast mainline thundering overhead as I walk through the darkness. On the other side of the canal is a painting of a woman being carried into heaven by two cherubs. The woman is Amy Winehouse, a sure sign that I’m entering Camden territory. It seems such an odd place to put a memorial to the area’s adopted daughter, this dark, intimidating, inaccessible underpass, like she’s some kind of troll. Maybe she’s supposed to be Camden’s guardian angel.
The Pirate Castle comes into view. A multi-purpose club that’s mainly used as a kid’s venue as far as I can tell, it is distinguishable in that it’s an actual castle – or at least as much as much of a castle as you can get in inner London, replete with turrets and battlements. The sheer size of the thing is surprising, though the whimsical effect is undermined somewhat by the spread of graffiti. This fortress has been claimed by the local environment. It even extends the battlements over the bridge. Some kids are canoeing in front of the castle.
It seems that the Castle has been fortifying the local area against something. As I walk under the Castle bridge, past yet more new blocks of canal side flats on the opposite side (they’re never on the side by the footpath, are they? I suppose people like the security of having a de-facto moat on one side of their home) I start to see more and more people sitting down on the lip of the path, their feet dangling over the edge and their hands full of food. People seem to be becoming younger, cooler. I’m about to hit the Canal’s urban nexus.