diamond geezer

 Monday, May 23, 2005

 Walking the Regent's Canal
 Stage 1: Little Venice to St John's Wood
 (1 mile)

Little Venice: The Regent's Canal starts (or finishes, depending) at Little Venice. I'd never been before this year, and I was expecting if not gondolas then at least fairy-tale bridges and ice cream. I was only partially disappointed. If anything the open water and grand stucco townhouses reminded me more of Amsterdam. Little Venice is a triangular canal basin, a sort of watery roundabout with exits for Paddington, Limehouse and the West Midlands. The green central island is inhabited by ducks, cormorants, Canada geese and other territorial waterfowl. Three barges moored to the towpath host a floating cafe, a floating art gallery and even a floating puppet theatre, but there's not really a lot here for tourists apart from a reflective oasis of peace and quiet. Unless you turn up over the May bank holiday, that is, which is when the three-day Canal Cavalcade takes place. The basin fills up with colourful narrowboats from far and wide, and the banks are packed out with canalfolk, localfolk and the usual kebabvanfolk who congregate at events such as this. It's busy, it's friendly and it's recommended - although you have 11 months to wait for the next one.
by tube: Warwick Avenue

From Little Venice the Regent's Canal heads northeast beneath a canopy of trees, sandwiched immediately between Blomfield Road and Maida Avenue. If you wanted to live anywhere along the canal you'd probably want to live here, it's gorgeous (and somehow very Dutch). Well-tended houseboats line the towpath, berthed at permanent moorings complete with mini-gardens and bankside electricity supply. In fact so proud are the boat owners of their residential 'street' that the public are locked out and forced to use the pavement instead.

The Maida Hill tunnel: At 248 metres long this is the second longest canal tunnel in London. It's dark, relatively wide and it takes a narrowboat a full three minutes to pass from one portal to the other. The interior of the tunnel is mostly bricked, with a few recently-repaired patches, and tiny lengths of chalky deposit hang down like trainee stalactites. On foot, however, you have to take a detour up and across the top of the tunnel, past the Cafe Laville over the tunnel mouth, across the Edgware Road and into Aberdeen Place. No large buildings could be constructed on top of the tunnel itself, just on either side, so this quiet backstreet feels unnaturally wide. One of those large buildings is The Crown Hotel (or Crocker's Folly), most recently a pub, but now sadly boarded up. This oversized watering hole was built speculatively in readiness for the arrival of a railway terminus that never came, and the owner later threw himself from the upper window in despair. On the other side of the tunnel the canal emerges into a deep manmade chasm, although pedestrian access is barred at the moment while the Electricity Board construct something mysterious along the towpath.

There's another (very short) tunnel beneath Lisson Grove, just round the corner from Lord's cricket ground, although from outside you'd swear it's only a bridge. To the east lies Lisson Wide, a broad section of canal where scores of narrowboats are tethered end-on across the channel. It's quite attractive, so long as you don't look up and see the huge National Grid substation immediately to the north or the council estate spread out along the south bank. The next stretch of towpath is anything but attractive, sunk beneath broad grey bridges sprayed with graffiti where the Metropolitan line and railway into Marylebone pass low overhead. Hang on in there, the London Central Mosque and Regent's Park are directly ahead, it gets better...
by bus: 13, 82, 113, 274

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