Posted on February 10th, 2016
Pick your poison at Camden Lock. The canal path is subsumed into the local environs, and the wanderer has a choice of route. On the one hand you can turn into Camden Market, which at lunchtime is a semi-permeable mesh of people and smells, a heaving mass. On the other hand you can cross the narrow footbridge over to the recent commercial development, its Holiday Inns, Starbucks and Wetherspoons seemingly at odds with what people think Camden is about, yet judging by the footfall clearly not rejected by visitors. In wet weather, it’s no choice at all – that footbridge is a slippery deathtrap – but it’s bone-dry for now.
I go through the Market. I’m actually a little hungry at this point but too overwhelmed (both by the options available and the number of people) to make a decision. Unfortunately, lunchtime is the worst time to go to a food market. Still, the smells, various meats being cooked with various spices, are intoxicating. My nose is salivating. One stall is selling artisanal cheese toasties, which might be the dumbest fucking thing I’ve ever heard but I’m so tempted to give in to stupidity. In the end I don’t. I head upstairs with the intention of making another pit-stop but find that the Gents is currently being cleaned. You can’t even piss in Camden anymore.
Walking through the market and converging once more with the tow-path, I come to the eponymous Camden Lock. Is this the first lock I’ve come across on this walk? That seems crazy. I suppose the only other change in level was back at Maida Hill, and the canal required a big fuck-off tunnel to deal with it, didn’t it? Such odd things, locks. These days, they seem to mostly serve as a fun place for people to have a picnic, instead of being wondrous engineering mechanisms to negotiate the vertical.
Under the Chalk Farm Road bridge, and I’m hit by a sight that bums me out more than I thought it would. Where until recently stood the Camden Lock Village Market now stands a pile of rubble, boarded up and hidden behind pale green fencing. It’s been shut down and is being redeveloped into the gleaming new Hawley Wharf, a miscellany of housing, a primary school and apparently a new market space. I can’t think of a better metaphor for an area that’s under assault from forces who want to make it better for themselves.
In truth, the concept of the Camden counterculture has long seen its heyday recede into the distance. The area, for so long the goth mecca, has branched out into a true tourist destination. The days of Britpop cool and goth chic are long gone. Camden is cliche.
But Camden still has some cultural cachet. It’s still a place where teenagers (from all over the world) go to assert their independence,. It’s still a rite-of-passage for the upcoming band to play in one of its many pub venues (the Dublin Castle still being the king). You might be able to tell from the clues of leather and zips that abound the place that it’s still the the Goth and Emo capital of the UK. When friends would come down from Uni to visit London, they often wanted to go to Camden. Just because something is cliche, it doesn’t mean that it’s not important.
But it’s a losing battle, because cachet means very little in the face of cold, hard cash.
There are still posters from one of the market stalls pinned to the wall, images of the mainstream alternative, Bob Marley, John Lennon, Kurt Cobain. Mainstream alternative – that’s what Camden has become. The logical next step is to just become mainstream. It’s an inevitable cultural erosion. Soon this wreck will be washed away by a wave of glass, metal and acceptability.
A few steps away from the rubbled ruins of an iconic counter-culture, an appropriate whiff of weed glides into the nostrils. This particular section seems to be a tried-and-trusted hangout for the local ne’er-do-well chapter. Still, nobody’s bothering me, so they can do what they want. It seems odd how few day-drunks I’ve seen on the canal, considering how isolated from ‘good’ society it is, but it’s only really here and in the shadow of Trellick Tower that I’ve seen any elements of a ‘rough’ / ‘urban’ / pick-your-own-tabloid-euphemism environment. I see a white bridge ahead. To paint any public expanse of wall white in inner London is to declare it a blank canvas, and many signatories have taken advantage of the opportunity to scar it with their graffiti. I always come and go on this sort of thing – graffiti can be beautiful, but this is is just artless scribble, a marking of the the territory (the smell makes me wonder if anyone had tried another method…). The pathway narrows dramatically, a tightrope, a narrow ledge.
In fact, there are a lot of bridges in this region of the canal, and each of them acts as a dividing line, a transformation. On one side is a bizarre metal-cladded building looking like a set from a Gerry Anderson live-action TV show, a bulging grey battleship docked in central London. Go under the next bridge and you’re faced with a more traditional newish block of flats, with a multi-storey Costa Coffee in its lower reaches. There appears to be a door to the Costa from the towpath, a clear sign of the gentrification of the canal. The large bridge underneath has a nice mural from local schoolchildren on the opposite side, a splash of colour standing out from a plethora of dull. A nice attempt to claim back some local identity.
The canal soon settles into its most mundane stretch for quite some time. New blocks of flats and offices on one side, old blocks of houses and warehouses on my side. The odd eccentricity sticks out like a sore thumb, be it the turquoise mews housing set back from the canal or the odd brick wall thing that blocks off a small inlet. When I think of the canal, this is the sort of thing I imagine it to be. The number of people also on the canal has dropped dramatically. I’m a lot more lonely.
After another mammoth bridge, though (carrying trains in and out of St Pancras) and suddenly everything happens at once. Right by the towpath is one of the iconic Kings Cross gas-holders, their presence a traditional beacon of imminent arrival into London for the passing trains. There’s only one of the gas-holders left now, the others having been dismantled to be repaired and relocated. At least this one remains. Up close, even though it is now nothing but a metallic frame, it’s a breathtaking sight. Up close, you get a sense of the scale of the thing – it towers over everything nearby, dominating the eye in a way that the larger new blocks of flats that surround it never could. Apparently this gas-holder is being turned into a park. Some things are too important to get rid of.
On the opposite side of the canal is St Pancras Basin. It’s the largest collection of boats I’ve seen on the canal, certainly since Lisson Grove. There’s a shed which appears to be a maintenance booth of some sort, with a boat inside getting work done on it. It occurs to me that this must be an important place on the canal, the only point I’ve seen where boats could be repaired. It’s a boating hub. With the St Pancras Lock and the St Pancras Cruising Club also on-site, it feels like the centre of something, a nexus. With the view over the basin cut off by the railway line to the right and the Natural Park to the left, with the dainty brick water tower in the far corner, it could not look more calm, more gloriously backward, more old-school. It could not be more different to the onslaught of development directly behind me. Its refusal to concede ground in the name of progress feeling feels more admirable when juxtaposed with the complete capitulation to it opposite.
This area is under attack from development, so much so that there’s no way to walk on the land here. Instead, temporary walkways are floating in the canal, allowing people to pass along and cyclists to completely ignore calls for them to dismount. Walking along these unstable jetties, being made to feel that I’m not welcome on their land anymore.
Apart from the Olympic Park, this might just be the stretch of London that has changed the most in the last ten years. It always amazed me that there was this vast swath right in the heart of central London, next to two of the main train terminals no less, that was such a relative ghost town. I remember going to a club really not far from here several years ago and being struck by how isolated it felt. I suppose the railway lines tattooing the ground at all angles make it difficult. But the lure of prime real estate is too great to ignore, its pull too magnetic. The sheer size of the redevelopment of Kings Cross is absurd. Pretty much the whole southern side of the canal from here onwards to Islington is adjacent to some kind of redevelopment project, be it a new behemoth block of flats and offices or a smartened up wharf.
I end up passing Word on the Water, a floating bookshop on a barge that tries to reclaim some eccentric flavour from the ongoing smoothing out that’s going on all around. The second hand bookshop is a force that cannot be defeated. Like a moth to flame, of course I have to have a browse. Now here’s a repurposing that I can enjoy! I show just enough restraint to avoid buying anything.
Just up ahead I come across the grand master of the refurbishment projects, Granary Square and the new Central St Martins campus. A former grain warehouse (the clue is in the name), the building has been smartened up and given the odd large glass-fronted atrium. It’s not flashy, but it has plenty of old-timey charm to it. It’s perfectly complimented by the vast square in front, a smooth open space that people seem to enjoy relaxing in – it’s a shame that the fountains are turned off today, because they’re a burst of character. The building doesn’t impose itself on the area, instead making the effort to integrate itself – there’s a large set of green steps from the canal to the square, practically inviting foot traffic up to the the space. I’ve been here a few times (Comica have held their fair here, and the House of Illustration is also on-site) and I’ve always thought that it would be a pretty kick-ass place to study.
It’s a good thing that Granary Square is so large and so open, because on the other side of the canal are several towering developments that feel like somebody is walling off the square from the rest of central London. Sooner rather than later it is going to become a lot more claustrophobic around here. Wall of mammon, closing off the artisanal landscape from central London. When I was on the Overground heading out to Willesden, I lamented the way that these gigantic structures have ruined one of my favourite views of the city, looking south between Caledonian Rd & Barnsbury and Camden Road. St Pancras in the foreground, St Pauls and the BT Tower either side of the background. Now these lumpen blocks can’t help but monopolize the eye’s attention.
Still, this section of the canal, just before it turns back into the styx and runs into the Islington Tunnel, is awash with converted warehouses and new developments living tastefully side by side. On the other side of the canal is Battlebridge Basin, perhaps the most dramatically named section of the canal. It’s not quite as epic as you would hope, but it’s still a vast expanse of water. A lot of narrowboats are moored here, and the Canal Museum’s location here brings it some importance.
Under Caledonian Road, and the Canal begins to disappear again. Here is the entry for the Islington Tunnel, and it’s a large mooring point – plenty of boats line either side of the water. Though unlike the Maida Hill tunnel there’s no Little Venice here to brighten the murk. It’s noticeable how much more run-down and unkempt the boats are here. Up by the tunnel entrance is a load of guys drinking cans, a temporary kind of waterfront boozer.
I walk up the ramp, away from and above the canal, back into the city.