There’s nothing like insider, local knowledge, so that’s why we asked local blogger and regular contributor Cecilia Cran, or @mileendmoments to pull together a guide to London’s beloved waterway, the Regent’s Canal
There are so many reasons Mile End and its surrounds are the best place to live in London. Yes, I know, I know, I’m totally biased… One of the key reasons I love it, is that I have the Regents Canal virtually on my doorstep.
This summer I’ve spent endless hours lounging, walking and (even sometimes when I can muster the energy) running by the beautiful canal, enjoying the cygnets swimming obediently in formation behind their parents, the coots peacefully building their nests and people making the most of their barges, sunbathing atop them, drink in hand.
For those who aren’t familiar with Regents Canal, it’s almost nine miles long and forms a link between East and West London. Stretching from Little Venice, near the Paddington Basin in West London all the way East, across London to the Limehouse Basin where it meets the Limehouse Cut. From here, it eventually ends up joining the River Thames.
The history of The Regent’s Canal
Having read up on the history of it, we should be grateful we still have it – at one point there was a move to turn it into a railway. Building and maintaining it certainly isn’t a story of plain sailing…
Originally, it was planned that The Regent’s Canal would connect Birmingham, the Midlands and the North Junction via the Grand Canal with the River Thames. This early idea was scrapped and replaced with a London-centric route.
In 1812, esteemed architect and town planner John Nash first suggested the Regents Canal be used to transport goods from one side of London to the other.
It was eventually finished eight years later, in 1820. Along the way, the canal faced a number of setbacks including the introduction of a not fully tested, innovative new lock system (which resulted in money being wasted and locks needing to be rebuilt) and also embezzlement of funds by the senior management of its construction.
All in all, the project ran massively over budget at £772,000 – almost double the intended amount.
The project continued to be costly to run and by the 1840s the railways were beginning to take a lot of the business from canals. Some senior figures attempted to turn the canal into a railway, but this was abandoned due to lack of funds.
Towards the 1930s talks were held between the Regent’s Canal, the Grand Junction Canal, and the Warwick Canals. As a result, in 1929, a merger between the two was agreed and the canal was saved.
Things have changed significantly along the canal in the last hundred years. What was once a vehicle for the transportation of coal and other goods, today is used purely for travel and pleasure. There is so much to see along the waterway, whether on foot, on a bike, or on the water itself.
Here are a few of my favourites:
Victoria Park, Regents Canal
Coming down the canal from Broadway Market, you’ll pass an impressive amount of street art which leads you to Victoria Park. From here, catch a glimpse of the gorgeous Chinese Pagoda and grab a coffee and some Sri Lankan inspired goodness from the Pavilion Café.
Victoria Park Market, Regent’s Canal
Or, on a Sunday stop at the Victoria Park Market, which starts at the Bonner Gate entrance, just a few metres from the Regent’s Canal. There are heaps of brilliant delicious small food stalls offering everything from vegan burgers, cheese toasties, pulled pork, fresh juices, pies, cakes, cheese, bread and vegetables.
Lock Keeper’s Cottage on the Regent’s Canal
Continue down along the towpath and you’ll pass the beautiful early 19th Century Grade Two listed property, the former Lock Keepers house, which sits right on the towpath and is simply beautiful, a real chocolate box cottage.
There are only two surviving Lock Keepers cottages along the canal: Salmon Lane and Mile End date and they date back as early as the 1860s. When these Lock-Keepers cottages were built, each had an attached single-storey boiler house with a steam pump maintaining the water level in the pound above the locks. According to the Regents Canal Conservation Area information, a new system for keeping parts of the Locks at this end of the canal supplied with water was introduced in 1898. A 3-foot diameter back-pumping pipe was laid from a new pumping station on the River Thames to the pound above Mile End Locks. The massive pipe is still seen crossing the canal by Commercial Road Bridge where it continues under the towpath to the Mile End pound.
The Palm Tree, Regent’s Canal
Continue your journey east and you’ll pass the iconic pub The Palm Tree, built in 1935 and one of the few buildings to survive the heavy bombing of the area in World War Two. Also along this stretch you’ll often find barges moored up alongside the banks of the canal. These can offer anything from second-hand records and a new hairdo (yes, really), to tea and cake or a floating bar experience.
For those more active, there is the Mile End Indoor Climbing Wall and for the creative types, there is always something worth checking out at the Mile End Art Pavilion.
The Ragged School Museum, Regent’s Canal
The canal hugs Mile End Park, where you pass the Ragged School Museum, opened in 1990, in the premises of the former Dr Barnados Copperfield Road Ragged School, which was set up in 1877 to serve poor and malnourished children, providing basic education and a roof over their heads.
Industrial heritage near Mile End Park
Along the way, you’ll see some relics from the past, including the beautiful lone chimney, harking back to the more industrial times of the area and some of the beautiful old locks, which have been in use since the canal opened.
Limehouse Marina, Regent’s Canal
As you continue along the towpath, you’ll end up at the picturesque Limehouse Marina. The Marina is flanked by Canary Wharf on one side and The City on the other, with brilliant views of both. There is a lot to see and do in the marina, whether you want to relax and enjoy the tranquil spot to watch boats come and go, or get out onto the water yourself – with a Moo Canoe.
Or try your hand at bronze casting with the Bronze Age gallery. Established in 1989, Bronze Age is one of London’s largest bronze foundries and holds a host of classes for beginners, right up to the experts.
Although the canal never fully lived up to its original purpose and didn’t perhaps achieve the titan of industry status it was expected to, it’s lovely to see it being used and enjoyed by so many people today. For me, it really is the beating heart of East London.