diamond geezer

 Monday, March 13, 2023

A Nice Walk: Paddington Arm (13½ miles)

Sometimes you just want to go for a nice walk, a heck of a stroll, lots to see, pretty views, close to public transport, lots of history, lots of wildlife, all-weather-surfaced, widely contrasting, totally accessible, no gradients, several ducks. So here's a pleasant hike along the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal, thirteen and a half miles if you choose but I stopped after nine. Stop whenever you like, it's a nice walk all the same.

Hayes → Southall → Yeading → Northolt → Greenford → Perivale → Alperton → Park Royal → Harlesden → Old Oak Common → North Kensington → Westbourne Park → Little Venice

I walked from Hayes to Harlesden but I'm not going to write a chronological travelogue, instead a series of themed paragraphs to give you a flavour of different aspects of this canalside treat.

The Grand Union Canal weaves from Birmingham to Brentford but the Paddington Arm is separate, bearing off at Bull's Bridge near Hayes. This was once a full-on narrowboat hub, and I was about to say it no longer is but while I was standing on the hump-backed bridge a pair of boats delivering coal and gas pulled up by the dry dock outside Tesco and their dog hopped off and it was almost like the old days. The graffiti, piles of damp abandoned clothing, empty beer cans and roar of traffic alas suggested otherwise. For Paddington head under the arch and if you're steering the good news is there are no locks whatsoever between here and central London, this being why the arm bears off here and follows the route it does.

Wildlife of the Paddington Arm
Abundant moorhens, ducks and other wildfowl - too early in the season to have offspring trailing behind them, perhaps courting. Swans, particularly seated across the towpath at Bankside just before the Uxbridge Road, exactly where I remember stepping out of the way last time. One dead rat lying on its side beside the towpath. A cormorant diving. Two cats being taken for a walk by their owners on fine string leads. Just the one parakeet. A squirrel looking somewhat out of season. Intermittent flocks of seagulls. "Look mummy what's that white thing floating in the water?" ...at first glance probably a dead swan but no it's actually a dead dog, one of the small sturdy breeds, haunches aloft bobbing inert in the water, and therein hangs a tale.

As industrial and residential tastes change, a lot of London's canalside is transitioning from somewhere to manufacture to somewhere to live. The warehouses in Alperton are now a cluster of coloured towers. The Hovis factory in Greenford is now the Quays, a thrusting development. The gasworks in Southall have been painstakingly demolished and thus far only a tiny stripe of flats erected so a kilometre of waterfront awaits balconies, benches and well, anything at all. The sheds on the bend before the aqueduct are becoming Grand Union, a sheer brick flank with a narrowboat raised out of the water as a point of interest. But industry remains prominent in multiple locations which leaves plenty more scope for transformation as businesses fail and house prices rise, so come back in another decade and it'll all have changed again.

People of the towpath
A pair of stubbly men in bobble hats, a lit fag in one hand and a phone in the other. Shoppers heading home from the big Sainsbury's because (during daylight hours) the towpath's the quickest way. A focused bloke in a Haka t-shirt walking very very fast, and then back again ten minutes later. A family with a spaniel. Polite two-wheeled dingers of the bell. A lady wondering how you get to Tesco because the Victorians inexplicably didn't build a bridge. The inevitable joggers. Unhappy toddlers who didn't realise towpaths went on this far. Small chatty ladies just walking a short bit. Three suspicious youths rapidly concealing whatever they were handling. If you're trying to get away from people it's a lot quieter at the Hayes end.

Several large green spaces border the canal. Generally only those on the south side are accessible unless someone's built a bridge. Minet Country Park is visible but completely inaccessible. Spikes Bridge Park used to be a haymeadow. Willow Tree Open Space is nice but really ought to be easier to escape from. Marnham Fields is a delightful off-piste oasis close to Western Avenue. Paradise Fields is not well named. Horsenden Open Space feels like a large swathe of hilly Middlesex countryside has been preserved. Sudbury Golf Course just goes on and on and on. Perivale Wood is only opened when the bluebells are in bloom. But after Alperton any greenery beyond the towpath generally gives up until you reach the Trellick Tower, so get your appreciation in early.

Boaters on the Paddington Arm
I passed maybe six boats on the water, less than one a mile. I got a wave from the lady steering this boat underneath the Central line bridge. I passed 'Womble' on the approach to Alperton. Annoyingly I reached the aqueduct just after one boat chugged through otherwise you'd have seen a photo of that. Items spotted on top of moored boats included pots of hyacinths, a mop, a chain of coloured lightbulbs, multiple bikes, a mast, smoking chimneys, a puppet in a purple dress, a tub of Ronseal, a candelabra, a coconut and a stack of contaminated-looking cardboard boxes. Time's up on winter moorings so it's time to chug off.

Bull's Bridge is numbered (21) because there were once only 21 bridges between here and Paddington, and subsequent spans have had to be suffixed with a letter. For example Black Horse Bridge is an original so numbered (15), then the later-inserted Greenford Road Bridge and IBM footbridge are (15A) and (15B) respectively. But the footbridge at the newly-built Greenford Quays development slots inbetween (15) and (15A) so has had to be designated (15AA) as the whole nomenclature gets technically very complex. Starting from Paddington I think the sequential list is 1E 1D 1C 1B 1A 1 2B 2A 2 3C 3B 3 4C 4B 4AB 4A 5A 5 6 7D 7BA 7B 7A 7 8C 8A 8 9E 9D 9C 9B 9 10 11C 11B 11aa 11a 11 12 13A 13 15B 15A 15AA 15 16B 16C 16AA 16 16A 17B 17A 17 18 19AD 19AC 19 20 21A 21, but I might have got that wrong. The 16s are particularly odd. The longest gap between bridges is a mile between (12) at Alperton and (13A) at Horsenden Hill. I reckon the prettiest bridge is (19AC) at Willow Tree Open Space, pictured below.

Spring on the Paddington Arm
Catkins, obviously. Daffodils, snowdrops and celandines. A few of the willows are doing that green glowy thing just before they burst forth. The chance for a nice walk in mild temperatures before all the views get blocked by leaves. Blackthorn in bloom. Two purple flowers that might have been periwinkles outside a back gate on Empire Avenue, Perivale. Not much in the way of birdsong. The upbeat realisation that I might have worn one layer too many.

Of course if you're the tutting type a walk along a canal will merely bring out the worst in you. Look at all that litter, it's mostly cans, I never realised there were quite so many types of convenience store lager, it doesn't matter where you go there's always a McDonalds wrapper, who do these people think they are? The strangest litter I spotted was the letter B from a discarded floral tribute and the worst was two dozen syringes and assorted cotton pads in amongst the obligatory Stella Artois. But you hardly see any rubbish in the water, and certain nice people are definitely out trying to clear the towpath because I saw their bulging blue sacks and I hope someone carts away their piles sometime soon.

But mainly, whatever the weather and however far you go, a canal is always a nice walk.

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