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.
The Regent's Canal quickly became England's busiest, and wharves quickly sprang up along it and adjoining basins. The basins — some of which survive today — became home to industrial operations.
Items being shipped from across England arrived via canal, and cargoes from seagoing vessels were transferred to horse-drawn canal barges. Those shipments were transferred at the Regent's Canal Dock (the Limehouse Basin) at the East End docks.
Coal and building materials were the most-shipped commodities.
In 1830, the 1.3-mile Hertford Union Canal opened with three locks off the Regent's Canal.
After the first railroad was built in London in 1837, the canal continued to do well. The rail and canal seemed to work together to transport goods including coal, stone, ice and manure.
There were two proposals in the 19th century to turn the canal into a railroad. But that never happened.
The British government nationalized the rail, road and canal systems in 1948 under the British Transport Commission. The use of the canal as a shipping hub continued into the 1960s when rail and roads surpassed the canal system.
In 1963, the canals were taken over by British Waterways London. The Regent's Canal Dock was shut down in 1969.
Today the Islington Boat Club offers boating and instruction on the four-acre City Road Basin where wharves and warehouses once boomed. Nearby is the Wenlock Basin.
The City Road Basin was the home of flour and timber wharves operated by such companies as Fellows, Morton and Clayton.
In the early 1900s, it was home to operations of British Drug Houses and Pickfords, the well-known removals company.
Near City Basin Lock was a stable where canal horses were housed. It was one of three along the Regent's Canal. The others were at Hampstead Road Lock in Camden and at the Old Ford Lock in Victoria Park, Tome Hamlets.
The canal includes three tunnels. The longest is at Islington and it stretches 960 yards. Shorter tunnels run 272 yards and 53 yards.
In the old days, the boats were powered through the tunnels by what was known as legging. Boatmen would lie on planks aboard the canalboat and move the vessel by walking on the side walls of the tunnel.
In 1826, a steam-powered chain tug was built to speed up getting boats through the tunnels.
Boats can go through the tunnels but walkers, joggers and bicyclists must detour because the towpath doesn't go through the tunnels.
Part of the Regent's Canal towpath is also part of the Jubilee Greenway, a 37-mile walking path through London.
The Jubilee Greenway starts at Buckingham Palace and links Green and Hyde parks and Kensington Gardens Royal Park with Paddington Station and the Grand Union Canal at Little Venice. It then follows the Regent's Canal through Camden.
The greenway connects to East London through Victoria Park to the River Thames where the Woolwich Foot Tunnel connects Greenwich and the South Bank at Tower Bridge and back to St. James via Westminster.
The walkway was launched in 2009. It is 60 kilometers long, one kilometer for each year that Elizabeth II has been queen of England. The trail is continuous and makes use of existing walking and cycling routes wherever possible.
The Jubilee Greenway is part of the Inspire program run by the London Organizing Committee of the 2012 Summer Olympics and the 2012 Summer Paralympics.
The project is being managed by the Jubilee Walkway Trust.
You can get information at www.walklondon.org.uk/jubileewalkwaytrust.