The Regent'sCanal, London's inner waterway arc, is now 200 years old.
It's also 204 or 208 years old, depending on when you start counting, indeed I wrote a 200th birthday post way back in 2012. But the final section from Camden to Limehouse was officially opened on Tuesday 1st August 1820 which means the Regent's Canal was properly 200 years old yesterday. [6 photos]
All sorts of events and celebrations were planned for the bicentenary, boosted by the fortunate coincidence that the actual anniversary was a midsummer Saturday. A procession of boats was due to make its way from King's Cross to Mile End where the East EndCanal Festival would have taken place featuring boat trips, pond dipping, a heritage exhibition, film shows, story-telling and tea served by the East End Women's Institute. But all of that's now been kicked into 2021 instead, so the best you could do in 2020 was go for a walk/jog/cycle/voyage along the Regent's Canal instead.
For my bicentenary walk I only walked the Tower Hamlets section - the last two miles. This runs down one side of Victoria Park then heads south towards the Thames, as was its commercial destiny. Along the way it threads through five locks, passes one end of the Hertford Canal and bends to dodge a giant chimney. It's also a wildfowl haven, so a great place to see geese lazing on the towpath, swans swooping down onto the water and ducklings making patterns in the algae. I also spotted a squirrel, several pigeons and a ginger cat wondering whether it was time to hop back aboard.
Much of the towpath is lined by narrowboats taking advantage of a mooring in the almost-heart of the city. Some have travelled far, while others have tried not to go anywhere for months lest some other boater steal in and nick their space. The prettier craft are brightly painted with tubs of flowers on top, maybe even a traditional jug, but the majority have prioritised making things cosier inside. I passed one owner busy scrubbing the outside of his windows, one fixing a wicker basket to the front of his bike and several simply relaxing with a drink. No 200th birthday balloons were apparent.
The towpath is probably busier today than it was 200 years ago, although no longer with horses hauling heavy cargoes. These days it's a short-cut, a footpath, a superhighway, even part of National Cycle Route 1 in places. Making progress can be a bit of a battle, particularly in these days of social distancing, be that stepping out of the way of a passing bike or pausing just before a bridge for a jogger to pant through. But everyone seems to get along, and it's great to see a Georgian thoroughfare thriving in the 21st century.
One of the joys of walking the canal should be the chance to enjoy the architecture along its banks. Lockkeepers' cottages date right back to the early days, the Ragged School Museum almost does, and closer to central London some of the older warehouses survive. But out east the majority of the banks are now shadowed by flats and student accommodation, in a variety of styles (and colours), so for much of my walk I experienced regular scrutiny from sun-facing balconies.
Although it would have been better to walk the entire 8½ miles, weekend footfall is heavy, the towpath narrow and Little Venice a long way from home. As it is I passed an average of one jogger every 30 seconds, innumerable bikes and just one narrowboat on the move. The Flying Kipper was making its way through Old Ford Lock, its pilot dangling his tattooed legs from the top gate as the chamber filled... confirming that the waterway provides the optimum way to keep one's distance.
I finished my journey at Limehouse Basin, as did the bargemen, shareholders and their guests exactly two centuries previously. I tried to work out where their grand banquet might have taken place, but it was nigh impossible now the marina is surrounded by luxury apartments. The Regent's Canal is no longer what was originally planned, a conduit for trade, but instead an invaluable watery corridor open to all.