4♠ Hayes & Harlington/Southall Yet another 'borough that never happened', Hayes and Harlington Urban District ended up in Hillingdon whereas the Municipal Borough of Southall found itself in Ealing. The boundary between the two followed the Grand Union Canal, and a fair amount of Southall's southern border did too, so that's where I chose to head for today's journey.... first the towpath along the main canal from Hanwell to Hayes, then doglegging back up the Paddington Arm towards Greenford. This is the section skipped by the Capital Ring, hence six miles of London canalside I'd never walked before, with a couple of proper treats to marvel at along the way.
The Grand Union Canal (Hanwell to Hayes)(3 miles)
Hanwell Locks are something you'd more likely expect to find in the middle of the countryside, not hidden round the back of Ealing Hospital. A flight of six locks raises the height of the canal by 50ft in the space of half a mile, deemed necessary to rise up out of the valley of the river Brent, and remarkablypicturesque. The canal curves as it rises, past the retentive brick wall of what was once the Middlesex County Asylum, and a lockkeeper's cottage accessible only by stepping carefully across the gates. Hidden opposite behind a fringe of vegetation are five 'side ponds' dug to prevent the system passing too much water. Recent repairs and restoration make passage through the flight a little easier, but there's a mobile number to ring for assistance from volunteers if the whole winding and shoving malarkey gets too much.
That's one engineering miracle, and very soon comes another... ThreeBridges. Isambard Kingdom Brunel's last ever project was the challenge of getting the Great Western and Brentford Railway across the Grand Union Canal. His solution was to dig a deep cutting at precisely the point where Windmill Lane crossed the canal, creating a unique multi-modal triple-decker structure with road above canalabove rail. The single span iron bridge provides one vantage point, and the cast iron trough of the central aqueduct another, although the single track railway is only ever used for freight, reserving the lowest perspective for train drivers only. I was struck by the compactness and verticality of Brunel's construction, with each constituent crossing only a few yards wide, and how well it had survived a century and a half of use.
(You can end your walk there if you like, that's the incredible bit over)
The towpath continues past a pocket park and a larger green segment, the water above the canal alive with dancing dragonflies. The final lock hereabouts is at Glade Lane, where an old cottage has been badly echoed in the design of two modern flats to either side. Beyond this lies the Havelock - a councilestate undergoing sequential demolition to become 'SouthallVillage', whose first phase of full-price incomers will get the canalside views so that existing residents can be decanted behind. At this early stage, how malignantly twee the marketing suite looks.
It's cygnet season, so I was immediately cautious when I spotted a large swan preening on the towpath ahead. Thankfully a local resident slipped out in front of me from an alleyway, allowing me to walk a few steps behind to assist in determining levels of jeopardy. The man walked nonchalantly up to the swan, which ignored him, then past... at which point it stopped preening and jabbed out viciously towards the man's dangling fingers with its beak. No contact was made, not quite, but I immediately decided to divert through the neighbouring recreation ground rather than risk avian attack by the waterside.
Wolf Bridge provides a road connection to the heart of Southall, whose golden domes are easily seen from a hump bridge over a dredger-filled inlet at Adelaide Dock. Beyond this are terraced streets built before canalside living got trendy, including one the Victorians called Industrious Cottages, once served by pubs like the Grand Junction Arms (now teetered over the cliff edge of financial viability). But there are still several peacefully green stretches to enjoy, swans permitting, because no London canal walk is ever devoid of character for long.
Eventually Bulls Bridge marks the point where the Grand Union is joined by its Paddington Arm. A string of functional houseboats are moored diagonally at the marina, whose owner offers a boatbuilding and maintenance service, while the space opposite the T-junction is covered by an unwieldy Tesco's. The arched bridge is a popular place to stop and scan the scene, and perhaps to consider where to walk next. Hayes and Harlington station is only a mile ahead, past the former Nestle factory (whose fate is prophesied by the website formernestlefactory.co.uk, which confirms, obviously, 1400 Barratt flats and no factory). Instead I'm turning off.
The Grand Union Canal (Paddington Arm) (Hayes to Northolt)(3 miles)
At the turn of the 18th century a second canal link was opened to join west/central London to the original Midlands superhighway. At its Southall end it follows the route of the Yeading Brook, and initially, sorry, it's not as interesting as the previous three miles. One bank's green and wooded but the other is sealed off - a former gas works later converted to Heathrow overspill parking and currently being levelled for yet more flats. SouthallWaterside will have one kilometre of canal frontage and 3750 flats in the usual brick vernacular, the only heritage building being the unmissable pastel-blue gasholder by the side of the Great Western Railway.
More typical Southall terraces briefly intervene before the canal crosses The Broadway (where I spotted a towpath experiment confirming that pigeons much prefer white sliced bread to stacks of chapatis). Things only really perk up beyond Spike's Bridge, where a partially hidden marina heralds a raised grassy bank for canalside recreation and you could almost be back in the country again. Ruislip Road is as far as my whistlestop description extends, just past Grand Union Village, a former brickworks and wharf that's been hundreds of flats for the last ten years. Developers simply adore canalside land, is I think what the last hour and a half of my walk has taught me, even in increasingly well-connected Southall.
» 12 photos (half of which are of the Three Bridges)