diamond geezer

 Monday, September 29, 2003

Famous places within 15 minutes walk of my house
Number 16 - the canals of East London

dirty Den was here?There are a number of canals in East London, and Bow is completely surrounded by them. To the West the Regents Canal, to the North the Hertford Canal, to the East the Lee Navigation and to the south the Limehouse Cut. All quite pretty in their own way, and a fine six mile circular walk is possible along the various towpaths.

Britain's first canals appeared in the late 18th century, the first successful method of transporting heavy cargo across the country. Four miles an hour may not have been fast, and numerous flights of locks slowed travel down even further, but for a few decades the canal was king. I could tell you more, but I'd rather not because I suffered canal overload while at primary school. My school was located less than half a mile from the Grand Union canal, and so we seemed to do a 'topic' on canals every single year. Duke of Bridgewater, coal, narrowboats, James Brindley, locks, bargemen, the coming of the railways... been there, done that, far too often.

In 1812 work began on the Regents Canal through North London, providing a link from Paddington Basin on the Grand Union direct to the Thames at Limehouse. This 8½ mile waterway became a landscape feature of the new Regents Park, designed by John Nash, who was one of the canal's major shareholders. The Regents Canal passes beside London Zoo, starts to drop 86 feet at Camden Locks, then dives underneath Islington through a towpath-less tunnel. Pickfords the removals company was originally based here at the City Road basin, complete with 120 barges and stables for 120 horses, able to deliver freight to Birmingham in 2½ days flat. The canal runs on through Hackney and through Victoria and Mile End Parks before finally reaching the old Regents Canal Docks, now the posh housing development of Limehouse Basin.

floating towpathThe River Lea has been an important navigable waterway into London for over 500 years, and during the 18th century the navigation was much improved with new cuts and locks. Barges travelling between the Lea and the Regents Canal were forced to negotiate the great loop of the River Thames round the Isle of Dogs, so two short canals were built later to link the two together and reduce journey times. The Hertford Canal runs along the bottom of Victoria Park and has one of the most picturesque flights of locks in the capital, but was never a commercial success. The Limehouse Cut is an arrow-straight channel direct from Bow Locks to Limehouse, less picturesque and eerily quiet. British Waterways installed the UK's first floating towpath here under the Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road earlier this summer, complete with kingfisher styling and green lights in the footpath.

One less well-documented feature of the canals of East London is their miraculous healing power. It's possible to fall into the water complete with fatal gunshot wound and bunch of daffodils, and then to reappear 14 years later seemingly none the worse for wear. The BBC are screening a documentary tonight (BBC1, 8pm) recounting the story of a middle-aged EastEnd publican whose gangland exploits saw him supposedly assassinated beside a local canal back in 1989. Despite the discovery of a headless body and a full family funeral, this lucky man apparently survived his underwater ordeal and has been recuperating in Spain ever since. The BBC filmed Mr Watts' miraculous return beside the Grand Union Canal in Alperton in West London, and alas not here in E3. However, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see sick pilgrims now queueing to visit the restorative canals in the Bow area to take the waters and heal themselves. We might even become the Lourdes of the EastEnd. After all, everyone's talking about it.

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