diamond geezer

 Saturday, May 28, 2005

 Walking the Regent's Canal
 Stage 6: Victoria Park to Limehouse
 (1½ miles)


Victoria Park: The final stretch of the Regent's Canal heads south through Tower Hamlets to the Thames. Victoria Park comes as a welcome green respite after the long grey haul through Hackney. You can either yomp parkside along the towpath or slip in through the Canal Gate for a stroll beside the lake terrace or a sprawl on the fresh-mown turf. Victoria Park was laid out in the 1840s as a philanthrophic gift for the East End's rundown masses, although what the local urchins made of the lamplit carriage drive is anyone's guess. It's still packed out, but with joggers, sleeping grandads, trainee footballers, multi-racial couples and kids queueing for melting ice creams. The Regent's skirts the ornamental west end of the park, while the rather quieter Hertford Canal runs along the southern edge. The two meet just south of Old Ford Lock at Duckett's Junction, so be careful to carry straight on at the humpback bridge or you'll end up (eventually) at the old Big Breakfast House.

Mile End Park: And then, almost immediately, a rather more modern park. Mile End Park is a thin strip of politically correct open space, divided up into well-meaning zones for "play, art, ecology, sport and fun". It's rather nice, but it's no surprise that Victoria Park is always busier. You can drop into Bow Wharf for a giggle and a pint at Jongleurs, although the Palm Tree in the ecology park is a much better bet if you want a traditional East End boozer. Just past this traditional warehouse on the western side (pictured), students at Queen Mary University are stacked high in tiny (but architecturally impressive) flats. Shame that crippling debts mean they'll never be able to afford any of the other canalside apartments along here, of which more and more are gradually being built along this section. The famous Green Bridge carries grass and trees over the Mile End Road, although I was more impressed by the steely resolve of a pair of swans nesting amongst discarded litter in the bullrushes a little further on. The sound of bhangra blared from an upstairs window, and Little Venice suddenly felt a very very long way away.

Local attraction 6: Ragged School Museum
Life was no fun round here in the 1870s, which is why Dr Barnardo bought up two canalside warehouses and opened them as the Copperfield Road Ragged School. He offered the very poorest local children a free education, and threw in breakfast, dinner and a roaring log fire for good measure. By 1896 there were more than 1000 children on roll (and 2500 on Sundays), but government inspectors shut the place down for health and safety reasons a decade later. The building is now a unique museum, aimed particularly at school visits but also opened to the public on the first Sunday of each month. I visited earlier this month and snuck around the local history exhibit, the racial equality display and the pre-war kitchen. Highlight of my visit, however, was attendance at a lesson given by oh-so-strict Victorian teacher Miss Perkins. She gave us slates to write on, made us chant some Empire geography facts, ordered us to sit up straight and swished her cane around with aplomb. I'm not sure that I could have coped with that level of strict discipline on a daily basis, nor even that I'd have learnt very much (apart from how to cope with backache). You might fare better.
by bus: 309

Limehouse Basin: After a quiet half mile plagued only by flies and cyclists, the Regent's Canal approaches its final destination in London's Docklands. There's one last lock beneath a Grade II listed DLR viaduct and then, assuming they ever reopen the towpath, you walk out into the luxury enclave of Limehouse Basin. This was one of London's first riverside docks, linking traffic on the Thames to the inland waterway system and built large enough to accommodate sea-going vessels. It used to be packed solid, such that (so they say) you could walk from one side to the other by jumping from one boat to the next. Today the basin has been reborn as a 90 berth marina surrounded by glass and steel apartment blocks - all yachts and yuppies. The rich may come here to play with their floating toys, but the tied-up narrowboats bring the place back down to earth. There's one last lock between the basin and the river, with flashy electronic gates and a swing bridge operated by two uniformed blokes wearing what looks like Arsenal kit. I watched them in operation as a sleek white yacht sped out of the basin, past the bistro pub on the corner and out into the Thames. This canal terminates here.
by train or DLR: Limehouse;  by bus: 15


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