London Canal Museum visit and Regent’s Canal walk 27th July 2011
Many a time I have walked along the Regent’s Canal towpath with my young grandson
and had to restrain him from that inviting narrow slope down into the water! No,
it is not a way into the water but a way out for horses that had inadvertently fallen
off the tow path. That was just one of the snippets of history that our Guide, Roger
Squires, imparted during our two hour walk. Roger is a volunteer with the Canal Museum and
obviously has canals in his blood: there wasn’t a single question he could not answer.
There are about 12 locks between the start of the canal in Limehouse, on the Thames, and Camden,
rising 96 feet. Then the canal continues on the level for over 20 miles to where it joins the
Grand Union canal in Middlesex. Construction started in 1815 and the intervening years have seen
many changes of use and fortune. The early railways deprived it of much income but at the same
time brought in other freight such as coal. Just behind St Pancras station lie the remains of the
steel structures that supported the railway lines bringing coal from the Midland coalfields, below
which lay the canal barges waiting to receive their load from the bottom discharge hoppers of the coal trucks. The noise must have been horrendous. Then the barges distributed the coal right across London, east to west. Adjacent is the St Pancras gas works site and if you fancy an apartment with a difference, the plan is to build them within the frame of the giant gas holders! But there in the middle of this industrial dereliction was a Heron, happily perched on a canal barge.
During the war, the canal traffic increased considerably again because of the shortage of road haulage
and the Canal Company started to make profits again. The war also brought problems! Kings Cross Station lies below the canal level and it was realised that a well placed bomb breaching the canal would allow huge quantities of water to escape flooding the station. So, at intervals along the canal, ‘stop’ gates were fitted which were closed every night and the remains of those gates are still visible; if you know where to look as Roger clearly did.
Ice was a major commodity on the canal and there are several ice pits, one of which is located in the Canal Museum. The largest ice well in London is right next to the Holiday Inn hotel in the middle of Camden. It was constructed in 1839 and was still in use up to 1913. It is no less than 100 feet deep, 40 feet in diameter and held 2000 tons of ice. ‘Is’ because it is still there, capped below the surface and preserved thanks to English Heritage. Warehouses lined the canal and, just like the dockland warehouses, many have been converted to residential accommodation but perhaps the most spectacular ‘conversion’ is Camden market. Until as late as the 1950’s, this area was covered with timber but is now covered with this thriving sprawling market, a cosmopolitan riot of colour, smells, languages and nationalities. It has become a tourist attraction in its own right and my younger overseas visitors always make a bee line for it.
For most of the canal’s life, horses were used to tow the barges and it was not until after WW2 that a few tractors were employed. Anyone who walks the Regent Canal may well have noticed the gouges in the stonework supporting the bridges. I always blamed drunken cyclists but in fact they represent nearly 200 years of wear, created by the horse’s tow ropes as they laboured many yards ahead of the barge.
Water has always been a problem for the Regent’s Canal and until the two Companies merged in the 1920’s, the Grand Union canal jealously guarded the water that escaped when the connecting locks were opened. Water conservation is also one of the reasons for the twin lock system on the Regents canal so that as water in one lock was lowered half of it could be discharged into the adjacent lock to raise boats travelling in the opposite direction. There was also an extensive pumping system to return water back to the top of the canal from the lower reaches in Limehouse. At least one of those pumping stations has survived, albeit one now serving as a lock keepers cottage. Most people will be familiar with the traditional canal lock gates and their wedge shape to hold back the water whilst allowing the gates to be easily (?) opened when needed. Contrary to popular perceptions, they were not invented by early canal engineers but by Leonardo da Vinci; but then what didn’t he invent?
Whilst the canal has not changed in 200 years, the roads above it have and our guided pointed out the many changes of bridge construction such as widening or strengthening to carry trams. Perhaps the most bizarre was the new bridges that had been built near St Pancras that had been disguised by ‘planting’ on each side the girders from the old bridge as a facade. They served no useful purpose other than to maintain the historic appearance of the area. It was also good to see at various locations along the canal that some original foundation stones for the bridges had been preserved nearby, recording the various dignitaries at the time (genealogy at last!)
Perhaps the biggest surprise was to see a cormorant sitting on top of an egg in the middle of Camden. Egg? Well that’s another piece of history, albeit modern. One of the ‘converted’ canal side buildings was the original TV-AM television studios and they erected these huge egg cups all around their roof. TV-AM went long ago but the egg cups remain and now provide a handy perch for any passing cormorant. At least it proves there are fish in the canal and those rows fishermen along the tow path are not wasting their time.
After St Pancras the canal disappears into a 960 yard tunnel – but that is a different story and a
different tour that the Canal Museum offer – but by boat!
Barry Hepburn (group leader)