diamond geezer

 Sunday, August 02, 2020

The Regent's Canal, 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]
"The canal, which has been nearly seven years incomplete, unites all the principal canals in the kingdom with the river Thames. From its commencement, to the termination at Limehouse, it extends nearly 9 miles, and within that space are comprised 12 locks and 37 bridges. The construction of the former is on so excellent a principle, that only 3 minutes and a half are occupied in passing each of them. The work was projected by J.Nash Esq., the Royal architect, under whose superintendence it has been completed. The tunnel under Islington hill is about three quarters of a mile in length and passes beneath the bed of the New River." [The Times, 2nd August 1820]

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 End Canal 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.
"Yesterday being the day appointed for the formal opening of the new branch of the Regents Canal, the managing committee, with the chairman, Mr Morgan, the head engineer, Mr Nash, the head surveyor, together with the principal proprietors and a number of other persons of rank and respectability connected with the undertaking assembled near Maiden lane at about eleven o’clock and took water at that part of the canal which is contiguous. The committee embarked on board one of the city state barges, which had been borrowed for the occasion, and they were accompanied by several other barges, having on board bands of music, and decorated with flags and streamers in profusion."

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.
"The day being favourable, the crowds assembled to witness the ceremony were immense, particularly at the grand basin in the City-road. The procession went under the great tunnel through Islington, where bands of music played several national airs, and the effect produced by the reverberation of the sound was grand beyond description. The party then proceeded to the grand basin in City road, where a salute was fired, and they were hailed with the loudest acclamations from the numerous crowds stationed on the shore."

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.
"After having gone round the basin, the party proceeded down the canal to Limehouse, and in their course met with the same reception from the well-dressed persons who lined the sides of the canal the whole distance. At Limehouse the party stopped, and partook of a magnificent dinner."

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.
"Soon after the opening procession had gone through the locks there was a great competition amongst several of the Paddington barges for the honour of being the first to land produce on the wharf at the grand basin. A desperate struggle ensued between two of them but, after a well-contested race the honour was won by a barge, the name of which we believe was “The William” from which was landed the first produce, and a cask of ale, which was immediately drank up on the spot by the navigators, with loud huzza to the prosperity of the undertaking."

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.
"Numerous barges, laded with respectable passengers, principally consisting of well dressed females, followed, accompanied by music, etc. The boatmen, in their Sunday clothes were particularly numerous and formed a most picturesque assemblage in their blue and white frocks, and their hats decorate with ribands. In short, the spot, from the noise, bustle, and jollity, had every appearance of a fair until a late hour."

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.
"At 7 o'clock nearly a hundred gentlemen sat down to an elegant dinner, the Earl of Macclesfield in the chair. After the removal of the cloth, and when the usual loyal and patriotic toasts had been drunk, the noble Chairman proposed “Success to the Regents Canal”, which was drank with great cordiality."

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.

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