diamond geezer

 Wednesday, May 25, 2005

 Walking the Regent's Canal
 Stage 3: Camden
 (1 mile)

On leaving behind the roar of London Zoo, the Regent's Canal glides gracefully into the London borough of Camden. There's a sharp left turn out of Regent's Park, so canal cruisers have to be careful not to carry straight on and smash into the Feng Shang Chinese restaurant. Of all the eateries along the canal this is certainly the most striking, a multi-storey red junk imported from the far east, although hopefully the crispy duck isn't locally caught. Round the corner you'll see a smart Victorian terrace, each tiny well-kept garden full of rustic benches and pot plants backing down to the water's edge. Make the most of the view, because it's the last decent scenery for quite some time. Yes that really is a pirate castle ahead. A nasty brown brick castle, which is the perfect disguise for the 1960s youth club that lurks within. Here disillusioned kids gather to be shaped into useful members of society with a particular talent for messing about on the water. Mind the canoeists, please.

Local attraction 3: Camden Lock
Suddenly the towpath rises up along the side of an old warehouse into a busy courtyard. There is no escape, you're going to have to walk past stalls dripping with ethnic jewellery, steaming stir fries, pseudo-Wiccan paperbacks, whiffy candles and t-shirts emblazoned with hemp leaves. Don't worry, it's only a very short detour round the basin where the Waterbus turns, you don't have to wander off into the maze of henna tattooists, rug sellers, palmists and windchime merchants. There's no obligation to buy a homemade pendant, a flimsy lampshade, a leather handbag or a tray of falafel, not if you don't want to. And this is the upmarket section of the market. The mass-produced pirate video games, Che Guevara posters and cheap PVC belts are all further on. Venture out onto the teeming high street if you dare and the true nature of Camden will be revealed. This is where all the alternative teenagers in London are drawn to 'express themselves', which tends to mean buying stack-heeled boots, or some gothic bracelet, or a vat of hairdye, or getting some other fleshy lobe pierced. It's all harmless fun, they'll grow out of it eventually... by the looks of the crowd in about 10 years time. In the meantime you can sneak back onto the towpath, head under the bridge and continue safely on your way. (Unless you really do want to have a look round, that is. Oh go on, I'll hang around and wait...)
by tube: Camden Town

Hawley Lock: It takes a few hundred yards for the influence of Camden Lock to wear off. Slouching on the grass beside the next canal basin you'll find a motley assortment of the human species clutching either a tray of noodles or a can of lager, or maybe both. A long gabled building stretches out along the opposite bank, a series of telltale eggcups perched on the roof revealing that this used to be the headquarters of pioneering breakfast broadcaster TV-am. Here the Famous Five attempted to keep us entertained, Mad Lizzie chivvied us into fitmess, Greg Dyke cut his teeth, Roland Rat waggled his rubber ears, and Anne and Nick beamed from the famous beige sofa. For the best part of a decade at least, before Maggie's greedy 1991 franchise frenzy saw fledgling GMTV grab the breakfast crown with a massive overbid. Read the full eggsasperating story here. The former HQ in Hawley Crescent is now owned by MTV Europe, who are probably still busy getting bimbos to link together godawful R&B tracks and shaggy rock numbers on channels I can't receive, for all I care.

And then the tourists disappear, apart from a few stragglers who don't realise there's nothing more to see. The canal snakes off beneath the busy streets of central Camden, rather narrower now and somehow cut off from world above. Every bridge bears the name of the road above but there's no way up, no stairway back to civilisation. Children from a local primary school have drawn some delightfully simple murals to illuminate the space beneath each bridge, safely secured on the opposite side of the towpath out of the reach of passing vandals and grafitti artists. There's another mural on the wall of the Constitution pub on St Pancras Way, but the beer garden was locked when I walked by and the route to alcohol inaccessible. There are a few shiny (and less shiny) apartment blocks, but the landscape is mutating now to drab light industrial, most notably the huge post and parcel sorting depots on the southern bank. Keep your eyes open though and you might see the odd lonely swan, or a dead eel rotting by the water's edge, or even say hello to a passing blogger. You never know your luck.

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