Posted on February 29th, 2016
Both tunnels on the canal go underneath Council Estates. That doesn’t feel like a coincidence. The canal wants to hide from the Big Bad Locals. The canal heads right under the estate, right under the Sainsburys car park that’s probably seen as a development opportunity by someone, right under the N1 Centre, Islington’s hub of mainstream commerce. I know this part of the journey all too well. I’m coming back onto my patch.
The entry back onto the canal at Colebrooke Row is hidden in the bushes, a mysterious gateway into a garden state. It leads to a precipitous drop, a downhill slope of a ramp (a safety hazard in the moist depths of autumn). It’s so green at this part of the canal right now – the opposite side acts as a mini-park with seating to enjoy the view is sprinkled with blooming trees, and the water itself is rife with duckweed, a veritable ooze, a radioactive sludge. You’d probably dissolve if you fell in, but you might develop superpowers, so swings and roundabouts.
This section of the path backs onto a series of houses, and only one of them has a door from the back garden on to the canal. I realise that down this end of the canal, there’s almost no interaction between house and canal, whereas the houses previous would often have access to the canal from the back gardens. This might be the first time that houses have backed onto the towpath for a long time.
Up next is one of my favourite spots in the whole world. There are times when I think that City Basin might be the most pretty, picturesque spot in London. More so when the sun is out to give everything a glaze of happiness, but it still maintains some charm even in these overcast conditions. It has the nicest kept lock on the canal with its overhanging trees that in Summer is a popular picnic spot. There’s a tasteful set of new and converted buildings opposite that I think are an architects, with the lowest floor having a view of the lock’s water run-off that always made me think it must be a quietly pretty place to work. Behind the quiet sheet of water that is the basin itself is a view of the City of London, an erratic mix of glass and concrete that has been rising up at an accelerated rate. Somewhere in the jumble is the distinctive Hawksmoor obelisk of St Lukes Church on Old Street, a dash of classical architecture that stands poking out in a mosaic of modern glass.
Apart from Camden Lock, it’s usually the busiest spot by the water. It also has the widest walkways and the most seating This is a spot of public appreciation, a place for people to just sit.
But we’ve long established on this walk that canal-side locales are prime real-estate, and at the far end of the basin two towering blocks of flats are being erected, imposing themselves on this view like an unwanted conversation. One of them is innocuous enough (in as much as a building twice the height of anything else nearby can be innocuous) but the other actually made me say “Oh no!” out loud when I walked past it on City Rd, a bizarre attempt at some kind of metallic angular brutalism, like someone thought it would be a good idea to regulate H.R. Giger. It’s odd, because I never really cared for the Natwest Tower or CityPoint, but it irritates me that these towers now obstruct the view of them. Those buildings worked in the view because they receded into the background – these new towers put themselves literally front and centre, not allowing anything else its time in the spotlight. It’s just rude.
The other side of Wharf Rd bridge is Wenlock basin, not quite as epic a vista as City Road Basin, but charming in its own right. It’s a lot more enclosed than City Road, but feels a lot more intimate for it. If the City Road Basin is a space for everyone, then Wenlock Basin is a space for those lucky enough to stumble upon it. The pub on the corner here has a small little al fresco section on the towpath. I once saw some nutcases dive into the canal here, presumably for refreshment. I haven’t seen them since. I assume they died of some kind of infectious disease. Wenlock Basin goes far back, and there’s a fuckload of boats here. I think the fact that there are so many drooping trees here blocking off the view of the new flats that line the right edge here means that it still feels untouched somehow, even though the whole thing is surrounded by new developments or converted warehouses. Still, the converted space still has its large walkways and spaces next to the canal. It’s not trying to shut it off, to be its own thing. It is embracing its position in the environment rather than trying to overrule it.
This whole little chunk of the canal is rather diverse. On the towpath side is an estate, but it’s not closed or fenced off like they usually are. Instead, there is clear, open access to the canal and footbridges over to Shepherdess Walk, a rare uniting disparate sides of the canal. There’s lots of converted warehouses on the opposite side of the canal too, and in the case of the Access Self Storage I guess still an actual warehouse. Here we can also find The Commissary, a restaurant boat. It strikes me as an odd place to have such a thing. I mean, I can understand having a floating restaurant in Little Venice – that place is picturesque as fuck. But this… this is a view of some warehouses (and not cool dilapidated ones, either). It’s not quite the same.
I guess this shows the everlasting universal appeal of doing stuff on water – for some reason it seems to elevate proceedings, to give it a layer of (false?) class. A few months before I was having a quiet drink with a friend on the waterfront at Richmond, and every hour or so a party boat would drift past, blurting out a veritable spectrum of colour and noise. As someone who likes the idea of being able to bail on a party without it needing to dock first (and pretty much all of these boats did, usually letting off one person at a time) it struck me as depressing, a floating purgatory rife with enforced jollity. You don’t really see floating parties on the canal – I guess it can’t handle the size of boat required to have an all-out extravaganza, and I’m not sure if after-dark boating is allowed – Lord knows it’s bad enough walking down the canal in the dark, never mind navigating the water.
t’s very noticeable how from the Islington Tunnel onwards how much more plentiful the number of cyclists has become, and also much more aggressive they have become. It’s like being attacked by a pack of raptors. The steep slope at the lock here really doesn’t help matters.
The number of joggers appears to have increased, too. I’m passed by several as I go under New North Road. When my body allows me to, I use this part of the canal as a jogging route as well, usually getting off the canal here. This part of the canal seems to be put to so much more practical use. So many different parties (pedestrians, joggers, cyclists) all crammed into this narrow route, the one car-free pathway in this built-up environment. With so much contact between each other, of course tensions are bound to arise.
On the other side of New North Road is the Gainsborough Studios development, a pioneer for the new build revolution in the area. It’s odd to think that this has pretty much been in this part of Hackney as long as I have. It’s an angular beast, wood-cladded balconies protruding in odd directions. The waterfront on the other side is decked to provide a nice environment. If you come on the right day, you can see people enjoying the canal-side view. Not today, though. There’s a gym here that’s had the same Special Offer sign for around seven years. It’s supposed to look shiny and welcoming, but instead looks dark and absent of life. You have to wonder if it was supposed to be a bar or restaurant, given that’s what every plot by the canal seems to be used for.
Next to the Gainsborough, yet more flats are being built, with dull grey metal covering alleviated with incongruously bright coloured transparency for the mandatory balconies. It’s odd how these building rub the the wrong way in a way that the much larger thing next door doesn’t? Is it just because that manages to maintain a sensible colour scheme? Or is it just because I’ve only ever known the Gainsborough to be the way that it is, and I still remember when these new blocks were a space occupied by council flats? I’m struggling to remember how that used to look. Sooner, rather than later, these new buildings will dissolve into the environment, taking their place as all we can ever remember being here.
Just in front of these new buildings is something you don’t see much of on this walk – a new wooden jetty. On it are several small wooden house-fronts. I’m not really sure what the end-game is supposed to be here. Is this some kind of art installation or something? Or is this going to be some provision for the expanded boat usage on the canal? It’s just such an odd place for such a thing.
Still, as you come into De Beauvoir, it becomes apparent that more space for boats might be a good idea. The towpath is completely lined with boats. There’s a narrowboat here named Canality Jane, which is by far the best named boat I’ve come across today. It’s another stretch of the canal where the water acts as a clear schism. On this near side is the De Beauvoir Estate, an intimidating collection of high-rises, low-rises and no-rises, a dark-bricked icon that because of its size and visibility has always felt like a homing beacon to me. On the other side is another new development, including just the most ugly grey angular mess of a building, like a sunken crumpled battleship, except without the charm. Seriously though, what ever happened to right angles? Did the building community vote to ban them outright or did they just use them all up? De Beauvoir Estate is all right-angles, all set in the rigidity of the block. There’s a nice little garden in the corner by the bridge here, an attempt to bring some calm to dual assault from urban decay and imposed regeneration.
Actually, when I said that City Road Basin was probably the busiest section of the canal, I wasn’t accounting for the time and day. The waterfront at Haggerston is relatively quiet right now, but as anyone who’s made the mistake of trying to jog down it on a Saturday afternoon will attest to it can be a very popular spot. It’s one of the few places on the towpath with actual businesses on it, canal-level shop fronts playing host to a plethora of cafes, bike-shops, and the cafe / bike-shop hybrid that has become east London’s default setting for commercial space. You have thought that would have reached saturation point a long time ago, yet you would be wrong. The restaurants and bars have developed the nickname the Haggerston Riviera.
One of the bars, The Proud Archivist, also corners onto Kingsland Basin, which is perhaps the only thing in this area that hasn’t changed beyond recognition in the last few years. Where the basin used to be surrounded by husks of decaying warehouses, it is now enclosed by looming apartment blocks, blocks which feel like they’re trying to claim the basin for themselves, as their own personal decorative water feature. The basin is home to several canal barges and has a canoe slalom run that I’m sure is fairly new. I love the metal bridge here that acts as the gateway to the basin from the canal. I don’t know why. Opposite the basin is the husk of a warehouse, it’s bricks stained with a lack of care and its roof now only a rotting frame. It looks so out of place here, surrounded by the shiny new blocks on one side and the smartly tided-up older buildings on the other. This building got left behind somehow. Not for long though – it’s being knocked down and turned into offices and flats. This is the fate of the husk here.
I’m nearing the end of my journey. Usually to get home I would get off the canal here at Kinglsand Road, but I decide to go slightly further. I pass Laburnum Boat Club, a local institution that’s been serving local kids for decades. I remember going there in Primary School. It’s not an uncommon sight to see little kids in canoes causing mayhem on this patch of water. To be honest, in this era of funding cuts and litigation, it’s a miracle that it’s still around. Long may it continue. Next door to it is The Bridge Academy, a new school with one of the most bizarre buildings around. It looks like an orifice, like something should either be stuck into it or be coming out of it. The sloping transparent roof is obviously supposed to make it feel more light and airy, but it really adds to the body-horror feel of the building. I bet it’s one of those buildings that’s nice to be inside, especially because that’s the best place to not see its outside.
I walk down to the next bridge, past some warehouses that still have actual people working in them, a minor miracle in this part of town. Some developer has his gluttonous eye on them, mark my words.
I go up the ramp at Queensbridge Road, finally pulling myself away from this waterway. Above me, clouds have begun to compress together. The sky is darkening, the first drops of moisture are starting to speck on my arms. In a few minutes I’ll start hearing the distant rumble of thunder. I can’t help but feel glad, both that I’ve done this walk, but also that I’ve timed it to perfection.