Thursday, February 28, 2008

Canal Walk: Limehouse to Islington ~ 4 miles

Last time I was in London we walked from the western entrance of Islington tunnel on the Regent’s Canal to Camden Lock and then back to the Canal Museum. This time I planned to walk from Limehouse Basin, formerly Regents Canal Dock, to eastern side of the Islington Tunnel and then over the top to the other side.

To get to Limehouse I had planned to take the DLR from Bank underground station to Limehouse station. But due to engineering work the DLR wasn’t running so we followed a trail of signs to find and catch the rail replacement bus. After a short bus ride past the Tower of London we guessed we were at Limehouse and got off the bus.
There are signs to the Regent’s Canal towpath and Limehouse Basin on Commercial Road. The towpath can be easily accessed from Commercial Road. Commercial Road Lock is the start of the Regents Canal; it locks the canal into the dock. Next to the lock is an information board. There are information boards along the canal giving history and explanation. These boards are very good despite the fact that quite a few have been defaced. The board by Commercial Road has something else; if you turn a handle you can hear a barge woman talking about her life on the canal.

We walked around the dock. It was quiet, just one boat was on the move, a street cleaner flicked dog turds into the water and a couple of live-aboards were doing the usual chores. The dock was once packed with working boats and alive with industry and trade. Now it is surrounded by luxury apartments, new buildings rather than converted warehouses. As with other places on the canal the modern apartment blocks look deserted. There must be hundreds of flats but no sign of a community.

On the eastern side of the basin is the rather anonymous start of the Limehouse or Lee Cut. This canal is older than the Regents and links the Thames (via Limehouse basin since 1968) to the River Lee.
On the opposite side of the basin to the Commercial Road Lock is Limehouse Ship Lock. This lock links the dock to the River Thames. There are plenty of walks around here with the Thames Path passing by.

Back at Commercial Road Lock. The lock, like the others, is duel. There are two locks side by side with one having been weir-ed. The weir-ed lock has its gates removed and means that the canal will regulate its level. The weirs mean there is no need for lock keepers to monitor the water levels. Luckily the lock keepers houses remain.

With the dock and the lock behind us we set off for Islington. Salmon Lane Lock is not far from Commercial Road Lock. There is handsome set of lockside houses besides Salmon Lane Lock. Its windows are barred but the loud music coming from inside suggests it’s somebody’s home.

There is little left of the industry that once surrounded this canal. There is a lone chimney with no mill or factory to go with it. On the right is an old warehouse once rented by Doctor Barnardo to be used as a home for his ragged boys. Opposite are blocks of new apartments, some still under construction besides Johnson’s Lock.

At Mile End there are two brick bridges before Mile End Lock. The lock keepers cottage has a very modern extension. It is one of those things that will divide opinion. It means the lock keepers house is well maintained and still in use which has t be a good thing but how will it look in 10 or 20 years? I can’t see it lasting as well as the original building.

The area was once known for its slums but now has Mile End Park instead. The park area reminded me of the Garden Festival Site in Liverpool. It must have looked good when it was opened and new but now, in February 2008, it was looking a bit run down. On the offside of the canal there are large blocks of new apartments or offices. Once again there is no sign of the people who live and work there. The old film of a horse drawn barge taking coal up the canal shows people waving at the camera from their back gardens, or stood on bridges. Where is this community now?

Next I spotted a pair of boundary posts. One has been broken off near its base. The other is leaning forward a bit and has some spray paint on it. It is possible to make out a few letters but I couldn’t tell what it said.

Had the weather been better and my shoes more comfortable we would have walked along the Hertford Union Canal which joins the Regents Canal just before Victoria Park. The canal is only a mile and a quarter long, linking up with the Lee Navigation. It was never successful as a commercial waterway. Note the stop lock at the junction to control the trade and water.

The towpath is popular with runners and cyclists. Not all the bikers have taken on board the Two Tings message so keep your wits about you.

At Old Ford Lock there are some canal buildings that could be stables. A police horse was patrolling Victoria Park and as I ducked under the next bridge I realised the canal horses must have been short as well as strong.

Approaching Bethnal Green the canals surroundings become a bit more urban. There is a large gas holder and an interesting archway on the offside. Coming into town and the shopping centre there are signs that the area has seen some of the regeneration that the rest of the canal has. It’s not long before there are more luxury apartment blocks. Who lives in them?! The brand new buildings make the old brick bridges look out of place. There is a new railway bridge over the canal before Kingsland Basin. The bridges on this section have sign posts telling you not only the names of the bridges but the walking time in between them. This canal has very good signage and a lot is done to promote the use of the towpath.
After Sturts Lock there are two large basins, Wenlock Basin and City Road Basin. While passers-by took photos of a narrow boat going through the next lock I was more impressed by the 1960s Norman moored opposite City Road Basin. At first I thought it was a Norman 25 but it had a sun deck at the back which would make it longer. It was in a bit of a sorry state but it was nice to see a Norman on the Regent’s Canal. Next to the Norman was another information board with a handle to wind. This time it was a lock keeper’s voice telling us about his life on the canal.
Past the lock and through a bridge and we were at the eastern portal of the Islington Tunnel. It’s tempting to try to see down the tunnel but I just held my camera out to see if I could photo the light at the other end.
There is no towpath through the tunnel so horses were taken over the top.
We left the canal and headed up hill into Islington. We stopped off at an antiques market where I bought some postcards of Southport and Liverpool. The postcard of the Pierhead might show the wall that was recently uncovered by the canal link excavations. On top of the tunnel there are shops, bars, restaurants as some very nice houses. There are some blue signposts showing the way to the other side of the tunnel but these signs seem to stop around Sainsbury’s. While we were stood looking at the A-Z wondering where to go next a passing local asked if we were looking for the canal! How did he guess? He complained about the lack of signs and pointed us in the right direction. Through a housing estate and down Muriel Street and there was the canal again, emerging from beneath us. It’s easy to get back onto the towpath at the tunnel. With weary feet and legs we walked to the next bridge and left the canal to walk back to Kings Cross to buy sandwiches which we ate at the British Library.

I enjoyed this walk. I wish I had worn my trainers rather than my Royal Mail boots. The towpath is good throughout and busy with runners and cyclists. The Regents Canal has excellent information boards and the audio feature is a great idea. It is a bit of a shame that there are few historical buildings along the route. Unlike Blackburn or Burnley all trace of the past has been replaced by new buildings. The canal has retained its lock keeper cottages and the one at Mile End Lock has been brought into the 21st Century.
Given the choice I would pick to walk through Regents Park rather than Bethnal Green. Limehouse Basin would be worth visiting as part of a River Thames walk. The Regents Canal is a good example of how canals can bring wealth and regeneration to areas but could also be a warning about soul-less developments.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Canal Walk: Johnson’s Hillock to Withnell Fold ~ 4 miles

A cold and frosty February morning is perfect for a towpath trek. It has been a while since I had a decent walk by the canal so this sunny Sunday it was off to Johnson’s Hillock locks to stretch the legs and refresh the lungs. The area around Johnsons Hillock and Withnell Fold is the George Birtill country. In the 1960s George Birtill wrote lots of books about walking around Lancashire and the history of the towns and lanes around Chorley.
We parked on the road opposite the Top Lock pub; there is a large car park for patrons of the pub and, if you are early, ample parking on the road alongside the canal. The pub hadn’t yet opened when we arrived and there were only a couple of cars parked on the road.
Besides the Top Lock is the lock keepers house, a solid stone 2 storey house. The house is for sale, a perfect place to live if you like canals. And not only is it just a few steps from the pub it has a milepost in the garden!
This stretch of canal is one of my favourite bits of the Leeds & Liverpool. The canal is built on the hillside; on one side there is a steep slope down to the valley bottom on the other side is a high cutting. The 7 Locks at Johnsons Hillock are the work of the great John Rennie. The bridges here look to be the work of Rennie too. They are angled up the hillside. These bridges have a chunkier look than other bridges, their arches are higher, you don’t have to duck as much to walk underneath them. A group of shaggy ponies stood on bridge #84 and watched us pass beneath them.
Between Brown House Bridge #86 and Jacksons Bridge #87 is a tall viaduct linking two fields separated by gorge. It’s certainly picturesque though one wonders why those two fields needed such an expensive structure to link them.
The towpath would have been muddy if it hadn’t been frozen, the frost was melting in the sunshine but there was still enough ice on the canal for the ducks to walk on.
At bridge #88 is Withnell Fold an industrial town. This was once the site of a paper mill and now a nature reserve. The sludge ponds are home to all sorts of wildlife. Even though they were frozen over and it is winter we still spotted lots of tiny fish swimming about. The town of Withnell Fold doesn’t look very inviting from the towpath so rather regrettably we didn’t explore it. Birtll informs us that there is a pretty village square surrounded by workers houses. Maybe next time I will find them.
Near to bridge #88 is a half mile post and a milestone with a bench mark carved on top.
We turned around here and headed back to the locks. We just about spotted milepost 49 covered in ivy behind a fence near to Brown House Bridge.
On the walk back to the lock there were more walkers and a couple of cyclists. Back at the pub there were a lot more cars and the tables outside the pub were taken by drinkers and their dogs. We had lunch in the car and then walked down the locks to lock four. Once again I tried to work out the rope marks on the bridge its hook. We left the canal at Fourth Lock Bridge. The farm building is dated 1727 and has the letters P, H and I. I would guess the date and initials mark a marriage. The date is 43 years before the canal was started. I wonder if the couple saw the canal being built.
Further on down the road is the former Navigation Inn, now a private house. The Navigation was once frequented by bargemen working on the Walton Summit branch which came past here. The branch is now filled in and its hard to see where it ran from the road but you can trace its course on google earth. Over the road from the ex-pub is a car park and the surviving quarter of mile of the Summit Branch, complete with quarter mile post.
We walked up to the junction with the mainline. By now the sun was warm so we had a nice sit down on a bench then walked back up the locks to the car.