The London Canals, running along busy throughways and meandering around some of the capital’s best-known locations, are still somewhat of a secret spot – if you overlook the occasional cyclist and a handful of joggers, walking along the waterways may leave you with an impression that you’ve claimed the city for yourself; it also gives you a thrilling opportunity to rediscover places you’ve passed by countless times. So instead of following the crowds to Winter Wonderland, put on a comfortable pair of shoes, and be on your way. (Warning: this trail is suitable for intrepid, tireless walkers only.)
Built in the 19th century to transport timber, coal and building materials as well as food supplies in and out of the city, the canals could not compete with railway transport and were largely abandoned until the late 1960s and 1970s, when England’s waterways experienced a revival. Although their original purpose has been forgone, barges still continue to travel up and down the canals, and you can see quite a few moored along the banks, many of them betraying signs of habitation: wisps of smoke coming out of a chimney, an array of artfully arranged flowerpots, or a cat sprawled on a rooftop, eyeing you curiously. Don’t let the humble appearances mislead you, though; apart from peace and quiet, you’ll also find cutting-edge contemporary architecture, a buzzing cultural scene and ample opportunity to fritter away your money.
Located between Paddington and Edgware Road underground stations, Paddington Basin forms a part of the Grand Union Canal and is an extraordinary example of how a disused industrial space can be transformed into a striking vision of modernity – its imposing glass buildings and two extraordinary bridges will definitely catch the eye of both the architecture-savvy and those who simply enjoy a good design. It is well worth visiting Paddington Basin at noon on either Wednesday or Friday, or alternatively at 2 pm on Saturday, to witness seemingly inconspicuous bridges transformed into a remarkable architectural spectacle. The Fan Bridge, designed by Knight Architects, separates into individual blades like a traditional hand-held fan, while Heatherwick Studio’s Rolling Bridge curls into a round shape, which, at different stages of its movement, resembles the shell of a mollusc or an intricate hamster wheel.
If you follow the Canal towards the North-West, you’ll discover Little Venice, where the Grand Union Canal meets the Regent’s Canal. The urban legend has it that the name was coined by the writer Robert Browning, who lived in the vicinity, and if this is indeed true, then his poetic fancy clearly got the better of him. London’s Little Venice doesn’t have much to do with its Italian counterpart; if a comparison is necessary at all, Amsterdam seems like a more accurate choice – and indeed, a Dutch element is present in the Rembrandt Gardens, a charming small patch of green adjacent to the Grand Union Canal. If Paddington Basin epitomises modernity, Little Venice is a window into the past – it doesn’t seem implausible to imagine that Browning and his contemporaries would have stolen a furtive glance into the very same narrowboats which are still there today.
Camden Lock Market
Past Regent’s Park, the Canal goes through Camden Lock Market, which has all the merits of the Stables Market – the vibrant atmosphere and this inexpressible quality of hip – on a smaller, less overwhelming scale. If the walking hasn’t given you an appetite, the smells coming from Kerb’s thirty-five food stalls most certainly will. Once you’ve satisfied both your hunger and your cravings, make sure to have a look around the rest of the market, where you can get the most unusual, eccentric items, ranging from vintage games to tree leaf accessories by Thamon London.
Further East, the Canal snakes around the back of King’s Cross. The station itself is a landmark location you’re undoubtedly familiar with. Approaching it from the other side, however, makes you look at it with a fresh pair of eyes. Home to UAL Central Saint Martins and the House of Illustration, the austere brick buildings in Granary Square are understatedly cool and have a distinct air of artistry about them. King’s Cross is also becoming an important cultural hub – this autumn Donmar Warehouse constructed a temporary theatre space in King’s Cross to stage Phyllida Lloyd’s Shakespeare Trilogy, an all-female production of Julius Caesar, Henry IV and The Tempest.
If you continue North along Central Saint Martins, you’ll stumble upon Skip Garden and Kitchen, a portable garden created by young people, business volunteers and local residents, which grows plants that are then used as a basis for meals served in the Kitchen. Because it was put together using scraps of materials retrieved from the building site at King’s Cross, the place has a haphazard, slapdash feeling, and this devil-may-care eclectism accounts for its relaxed, friendly atmosphere. The garden also features Rachel Taylor’s Glass House Lantern, the exterior of which is made up entirely of sash windows, a stunning space which holds twilight gardening sessions.
With plenty to see and do, the London Canals offer an exciting opportunity to wander off the beaten track and discover something new - give them a try and you might just end up coming back time and time again.