This week I needed to travel to Northamptonshire for work. This meant a rail journey via London, including crossing London from Paddington Station to St Pancras Station. I’ve done this many times before. If I’m pressed for time, I take the tube – a quick, easy trip. But whenever possible I try to allow enough time to be able walk or cycle it. There’s a well-signed and mainly back street cycle route, which I have cycled many times, and I’ve walked even often.
But this week I did something different. I don’t know why it never occurred to me before, but it occurred to me that just behind Paddington Station is Paddington Basin, part of the Regents Canal. And just behind St Pancras Station is…. Regents Canal. An obvious and pleasant walking route. I’ve actually walked it many times before in bits and pieces, but never as a route from A to B.
For those who aren’t familiar with it, Regents Canal is the name given to part of the Grand Union Canal as it goes through London towards the Thames. This stretch has an excellent towpath all the way along, goes through some lovely parts of London (Little Venice, Regents Park), and has some treats and surprises along the way. It always feels safe, and I’ve never had a moment’s anxiety walking it alone. In fact, I’ve never been alone there. It is well used by walkers, cyclists, commuters, strollers, tourists, children on their way to and from school, runners, you name it they’re there.
You may know it without realising it, if you’ve ever visited Camden Lock (a well-know tourist haunt, busy all week but especially at weekends). The Lock in question is the lock on the Regents Canal.
This is one of London’s green lungs.
Some interesting canal facts I learnt en route. The chunky bridge below is apparently called the Blow Up Bridge, because it replaced an earlier bridge which was destroyed when a barge carrying dynamite exploded (or blew up) underneath it.
I passed a sign drawing my attention to a ramp from the canal onto the towpath, and the sign explained it was one of two such ramps provided to help horses that had fallen in to the canal – apparently this sometimes happened when horses (which in those days were towing the barges – hence towpath – were frightened by the noise of nearby trains. There are several rail bridges over the canal at this point.
On its way through Regents Park, the canal goes through London Zoo, right past the famous aviary.
There are the usual London contrasts between beauty and and dereliction (though not much left of the latter, sadly); new and old; poverty and wealth (I didn’t photograph the beds and shelters made of cardboard, some with people sleeping – it felt intrusive and wrong. But they were there).
Along the way I saw a floating Chinese restaurant. A cow on a balcony. A shop that used to be a ladies hairdresser. Some interesting buildings. Art work and graffiti (or maybe I shouldn’t make the distinction). Parties and punting. A shark (don’t panic, just a lost balloon floating away; but it amused me).
I also came across a tribute to Robert Browning. With an explanation.
If you’re doing this particular walk, one end of the canal walk is the new Central St Martins Art School building, part of the much bigger Kings Cross ‘regeneration’ scheme. Though the cynic in my resents that this kind of ‘regeneration’ seems to be about bringing in more rich people and excluding the traditional (poorer) residents of the area. I can’t help noticing that most of the people sitting around as I walk through on a Tuesday afternoon look well-heeled, wealthy, white, and child-less.
On the other hand, when I return on Wednesday afternoon at a later time and sit with a friend and a cup of tea in the delightful square (Granary Square) in front of Central St Martins, the place has a much more diverse mix of people, including quite a number of young children dressed for water play, splashing around in the lovely playful fountains.
We go to look at the Kings Cross Swimming Pond, which I am puzzled by – who is it for? why is it there? I know that it is temporary, until the whole area has yet another glass fronted block built on it. I later learn it is described as ‘an art installation’. I wonder who will use it?
Next door is the latest home of the Kings Cross Skip Garden, which again I wonder about – it feels like a ‘pretend’ garden, playing at growing food in an area where there is no permanent home for food growing. There was a group of young people there who certainly looked like they were learning and having fun, which is great, but I won’t be convinced until I hear that there is a permanent space for food growing in this and other major redevelopments where these young people and others will be able to practice what they’ve learnt – as well as public planting that includes fruit trees, herb gardens where people are invited to help themselves, allotments.
All these temporary ‘installation’ type things seem to me a way of avoiding addressing the issue that there simply aren’t enough food growing spaces in London (and many of our cities, including my home city of Bath). Of course the contrary view is possible – maybe they draw attention to the lack of anything permanent?
As I know from my visits to Germany, it could all be so different. But that’s another story, and doesn’t alter the fact that this was a delightful walk, and one I shan’t hesitate to repeat.
Practical note: the walk was about 4 miles in all, and took me just under an hour and a half. Though second time around when I had plenty of time to spare I took longer, to enjoy and ponder and explore a little more.