Every time we walk along the canal, we conclude that we simply don’t do it enough. More often we go east, towards the Saturday crowds in Broadway Market, or the calm of Victoria Park; but a route that’s just as varied, and in fact far more verdant, is west.
Paddington Basin is somewhere that no-one has any real need to visit. All the more reason to do so, then, especially on an overcast bank holiday (it beat watching an elderly lady on telly, anyway). Yet it’s also the oldest stretch of canal, opened in 1816, with architect John Nash at the helm.
So the other morning we risked the ongoing drizzle down an idle Kentish Town Road – delightfully traffic-free on non-school days – to pick the canal up at Camden Lock. Within minutes we had passed kooky Pirate’s Castle, the aviary structure on London Zoo’s northern outskirts, and those exhaustingly expensive Nash mansions, whose gardens descend in steep gradients down to the water.
‘This is where I would live.’ So said Mrs Kentishtowner – not as we gazed at palatial splendour – but at the charming enclave of narrowboats just before the Lisson Grove tunnel. And dear God, she was practically googling boat prices as we admired each vessel, its own section of ‘garden’ on the towpath artfully strewn with rusty furniture, bikes, found sculptures and flower pots. An idyllic scene at only £40K a pop? Bargain.
And on to Little Venice, originally intended as a humorous name (coined by Lord Bryon) for what is the merging of the Grand Union and Regent’s Canals. The poet Browning lived here in the late 19th Century and lends his name to the pool, where now chattering tourists queue for a waterbus, or mix with affluent locals sipping a milky latte outside the narrowboat cafe by the bridge. At least the sun shone briefly.
It’s undeniably picture-postcard lovely and, less than an hour’s stroll from Kentish Town, almost a minibreak. But the cuteness faded fast as we followed the Grand Union towards Paddington Basin, where contemporary architecture (and obligatory branches of Strada, Zizzi, Starbucks) lines the waterfront, in a kind of mini Docklands. With the winds and threat of rain, all was deserted, except two men standing imposingly under the Westway. And even they were statues.
As we approached the basin, which originally opened in 1801, the towerblocks took a futuristic twist, the juxtaposition with the canalboats, with their veneer of timeless living, more acute. The piazza was deserted, the shops and bars closed. ‘City-itis,’ said Mrs KT, shaking her head. ‘You wouldn’t want to live round here.’ Except, of course, on a boat.
But we were in the mood to walk further, and headed south down to the bustle of Edgware Road, where men lined pavement cafes smoking hookah, and shops with names like Al-Mustafa heaved with fresh fruit and vegetables.
To make an agreeable circle back to the manor, a left turn down George Street takes you back towards Marylebone High Street, Regent’s Park, and the craziness of Camden Lock market.
The loop took about three hours, but old habits die hard. After passing dozens of boozers and restaurants guess where we refuelled?
Why, none other than the Colonel Fawcett of course, surely the nicest pub-near-canal – and currently doing a damn fine asparagus and duck egg combo.
Words & Pictures: Stephen Emms