Regent's Canal: Waterway offers picturesque views of London's north side
Bob Downing, MCT
LONDON (MCT) — The Regent's Canal towpath is a tough trail.
It is narrow, crowded, bumpy with cobblestones in places, and bicyclists often end up in the canal. There are narrow passageways under bridges, wide enough for one person, who must duck.
As an American, I never figured out if one should walk or pedal on the right or left. From what I could see, traffic on the towpath was pretty much a free-for-all that could not be blamed on one puzzled tourist.
But the canal is a hidden gem that stretches across London's north side. It is a greenway, a walkway designated by the queen and a look at London's colorful past.
A narrow ribbon of water is tucked between rows of warehouses and other buildings in a picturesque urban landscape. It is used by walkers, runners and bicyclists, some of whom are commuting to work at London's high-rise Canary Wharf area near the eastern terminus.
The canal runs 8.6 miles, from Little Venice in Maida Vale in the west, to the Limehouse Basin, London's docks and the River Thames in the east. Its western terminus is the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal that ran from the Midlands.
Part of the appeal of the Regent's Canal is the hundreds of colorful houseboats that ply its waters. They are known simply as narrowboats, because the maximum width of boats on the canal is 14 feet, 6 inches. Some are active homes. Others appear to be mothballed in basins that adjoin the canal.
The canal has 13 locks and three tunnels. It can handle narrowboats up to 74 feet long with a draft of 4 feet, 10 inches. The maximum headroom is 8 feet, 2 inches.
It was quiet today, surrounded by parks, apartments, commercial office space and warehouses. Cafes popped up. It has a festive outdoorsy feel. The towpath also provides a link to the Broadway market, with more than 100 food stalls and some of London's tastiest street food.
Canal locks like City Road Lock and Sturts Lock near Islington are popular spots for locals to picnic and hang out.
Regent's Canal retains elements of its industrial heritage, and planners want to combine that with its recreational uses. Elements along the canal include locks, lock cottages, wharves, lay-bys, bridges, bridge guards, horse ramps and boundary markers. (Horse ramps were built to allow teams that had fallen into the canal to get back onto the towpath.)
An estimated 35,000 boats ply Great Britain's canal system that stretches 2,200 miles. That includes about 6,000 narrowboats.
The canal was proposed by Thomas Homer in 1802. It was developed by John Nash, who hired James Morgan to be the engineer. It opened in 1820, named after the Prince Regent (later King Edward IV).
In the northwest, the canal runs adjacent to 489-acre Regent's Park, which was being developed at the same time. The land was acquired by King Henry VIII in the 16th century as royal hunting grounds. That park includes an outdoor Shakespeare theater, the 36-acre London Zoo, Queen Mary's Gardens, a boating lake and excellent sports facilities. Nearby is Primrose Hill, London's one-time dueling venue.
In the east, it runs by 218-acre Victorian Park, which was opened to the public by Queen Victoria in 1845.
Boat tours and water taxis are available between Little Venice and Camden Lock through private companies. For details, check with the Jenny Wren ( www.walkersquay.com), London Waterbus Co. (londonwaterbus.com), Regent's Canal Pleasure Boats (floatingboater.co.uk) or Jason's Canal Boat Trips (jasons.co.uk). The Waterbus company has three boats on the National Register of Historic Ships.
The canal where it joins with the Grand Union Canal was originally dubbed Browning's Pool after poet Robert Browning, who lived there from 1862 to 1887. Browning later named the area Little Venice.
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