GUC Part I

Up at 6.30am for my canal walk with Karen & Nigel. Quite a muggy morn with clouds rather than sun. A few golfers about but only a handful of fellow travellers on the train.

It was always going to be a difficult connection. In the first place it was between two South West Trains trains; in the second the first train was coming from Alton. So my astonishment should not be unexpected as the Alton train arrived at Woking a minute early and the connecting fast train to Waterloo was a minute late! This gave me three magical minutes rather than the impossible but ever hopeful one.

I arrived at Waterloo an hour early. I called the flat but Karen was in the shower (“You caught her with her pants down…literally,” was how Nigel explained it) still she managed to convey the fact that they’d meet me at Angel as soon as they could get there. I figured I’d still be an hour on the tube as I had to change lines at Euston. And then, of all things, I had two tube trains that connected as well as the first one arriving as I stepped onto the platform. In all the entire trip from Alton took only an hour and 40 minutes! Unbelievable.

The odd thing was that I’d been talking to Nigel about this sort of magical connection thing and explaining that it only happens once to each person – it had just happened to him – so, according to my theory, that was a once in a lifetime experience. Anyway, it meant a wait at Angel which is preferable to standing on musty stuffy tube stations. It gave me time to people watch, something Islington is well suited for.

There was a homeless couple – they looked very familiar – sitting on the steps outside the tube with a German Shepherd. A dog, I mean, not a big gruff chap with a Bo Peep crook. And a noble looking dog at that, obviously unaware of his homeless status or of it’s stigma. As it contentedly surveyed it’s world a tiny fluff ball which although it actually was a dog, resembled a flopsy boot scraper, waddled past, being dragged faster than its legs could carry it, by it’s bald but trendy owner.

Naturally the little ball spotted the shepherd and didn’t like the way it looked so started yapping. The sort of yap that sounds like the dogs already had its throat cut but it’s determined to complete the sentence. The shepherd calmly looked this noise up and down then almost laughed. It had no lead but obviously considered the tiny creature beyond contempt.

Eventually Karen & Nigel turned up and, after we’d convinced Karen that we COULD reach the tunnel end via White Lion Street rather than Tolpuddle, we headed out of the busy streets of Islington into the unknown and dark regions of The Regent Canal. For this is its name at this point.

The reason it’s NOT called the Grand Union Canal is because the Grand Union is itself made up of at least eight separate canals. The most important being the Grand Junction Canal, constructed at the turn of the 18th century to provide a shortcut between Braunston and Brentford. It cut the original journey by 60 miles! The Regent Canal was started in 1812 and opened in 1820, almost being converted into a railway. Along with the rest of the Grand Union Canal, this was the spine of southern England’s transport system until the total dominance perpetrated by the railways. So THAT’S why they do such a rotten job now – no competition.

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Islington Tunnel, where we started our trek, was opened in 1816. It’s 960 yards long and these days unpowered boats are not allowed to use it. At first, canal boat crews had to ‘leg it’ through the tunnel (pushing with their feet along the walls) but in 1826, the Regent Canal Company realised it would be a lot nicer to tow boats through so they introduced a towing boat. This pulled itself to and fro along a chain laid on the canal bed. It’s no longer there but was still in use up until the 1930s.

But back to 2003. It was hot but overcast, the area around the tunnel liberally scattered with the usual London litter and the towpath inhabited by sullen, unfriendly fishermen. We actually only saw one fisherwoman – she was sitting some distance from, who we assumed was, her husband. We were unsure whether she was a fishwife or not, as she was very quiet.

At 10:50, having taken lots of photos of not much, we started our walk into the unknown. I should mention here that we had no destination in mind. It was more a case of walking till one (or all) of us dropped. I think Karen wanted to reach Oxford.

The first section of the canal is pretty ordinary with the grimy backs of office buildings and council flats. Actually it could be the front of the council flats as they tend to look the same whichever way you face them. Then, suddenly, we came upon a series of three locks (Kentish Town, Camden and Hawley) all very close to one another.

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This also signalled an increase in people, particularly as we reached Camden Market through which the towpath travels. The market was abuzz with life and added a lively diversion. Hawley Lock marks the beginning of 27 miles without a lock so needless to say, we saw no more today!

Rounding the bend at Primrose Hill we came across a Chinese Restaurant, it’s distinctive building style looking somewhat precarious perched atop a canal barge bottom. It is permanently moored and accessed from the street via a ramp. A lovely church loomed above the corner – I think it’s St Marks.

We were now walking beside London Zoo and the edge of Regent’s Park. On the one side we walked beside Lord Snowdon’s Aviary where an ibis caused Karen quite a lot of distress. Nigel inadvertently managed to include this bird in a photo he took but he placated Karen by saying he’d switch the bird for a picture of his head using PhotoShop when he got home. Naturally I felt great sadness, wanting to free them all!

Meanwhile, on the other side of the canal we passed a bunch of very bored looking mountain goats. I guess a leprechaun could maybe think a few boulders and a scrawny bit of tree constitute a mountain but I don’t think the goats were fooled for a moment. A crowd of equally bored looking humans stared back at them from the zoo path.

We passed under the oddly named Blow Up Bridge which Karen wondered if it HAD been blown up. I assumed it was inflatable. Actually on 2nd October 1874 a barge carrying gunpowder exploded at Macclesfield Bridge destroying it and three crew members. The rebuilt bridge is now called Blow Up Bridge because of this.

I’m going to have a grumble (anyone who’s read my other posts will NOT be surprised at this news) – when I’ve walked other canals all locks and bridges are marked with names (and sometimes dates) and there are regular signposts indicating where you actually are with distances. Apart from the three locks there were no names along the Grand Union Canal for our entire walk. I had a canal map which tells me the names but there are a lot and as a source of navigational aid, they are sorely deficient. Okay, grumble over.

At the end of Regent’s Park we passed the instantly recognisable top of a mosque then on to Maida Tunnel.

Maida Tunnel is one of three tunnels on the Regent’s Canal. There’s the Islington and one that is usually just thought of as another bridge. It has a towpath – very rare – and is called Eyre’s Tunnel. It is under Lisson Grove where Eliza comes from. Both of these latter tunnels were opened in 1816. They herald the approach of Little Venice.

At Maida Tunnel you leave the towpath and join a footpath that runs down beside a fenced in section of moored boats with little gardens of pot plants and all manner of fancy decoration. My favourite has to be the barge with the canoe on top of it which had a fountain burbling away. The billions of barges are like mobile trailer homes without wheels, with their little gardens and power supplies jutting up from the old towpath. Except, of course, they are all very pretty. This being Little Venice, I have to assume that if you aren’t pretty, you’re out!

At Little Venice there is a t-junction with the Paddington Basin disappearing to our left, an island in the middle and our route continuing to the right. The island is called Browning Island and is named for the poet who once lived nearby. The middle of the junction is wide enough for these big boats to turn comfortably. Jason’s Boat Trips is also situated here – the barge followed us all the way from Camden Lock.

This stretch of the canal is also quite close to Lord’s Cricket Ground and is an odd backdrop to the home of world cricket.

We had to cross a bridge and rejoin the towpath on the opposite bank. Here the homes along the path were a little smarter than had gone before and you got the feeling that they were more historic than ordinary…until we passed the Coogie Princess. This was a barge which had had it’s name painted over with cheap grey paint and ‘Coogie Princess’ and ‘Just Married’ added instead. There was a little Aussie flag stuck in the back. I have to say it’s an original way to spend your honeymoon but have no idea how they managed to get it around the Cape of Good Hope.

I had announced at Little Venice that we should have a stop and announced it would be either a pub or a bench, whichever came first. Nigel’s disappointment was all too obvious as just beyond Half Penny Bridge, an empty bench beckoned.

From our bench, looking back beneath the arch of the bridge, it was possible to see a mural on the wall opposite. It is constructed completely with litter collected from the canal. Most people would say ‘Oh, how clever to make such a pretty sculpture using other people’s rubbish!’ I, on the other hand, think it’s disgusting that such a lovely part of London has enough litter to make such a big mural.

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Actually, from where we sat there was enough litter to make murals on every wall lining the canal.

It was during our stop here that Nigel proved the theory that bread dropped from your lap will always land butterwards down. When he retrieved it, it looked like a victim of toxic spread – he threw it away. He had to, there was more gunk than bread. It’s amazing how fast it all adhered to it. Perhaps the gunk wanted to get away from the ground it was so littered. At least the bin was empty and thankful for the half sandwich which Nigel fed it. A group of kids looked on, awed as he did so. One turned to another and said ‘Is that what that thing’s for?’

After a ten minute rest we set off again under the massive concrete bottom of the A40 Westway which swings precariously out over the canal and back, just enough to cast a shadow. In the distance we could hear the beginnings of the Notting Hill Carnival.

On the bridge was a float, in the beer garden near the bridge was a DJ. In an insane version of Duelling Banjos, these two cranked up the music to inhuman levels that threatened to evaporate the water. The noise continued after this for another mile as we passed parks and roads full of mad people with no hearing. It’s a little known fact that the Notting Hill Festival is a celebration of deafness. Along this stretch there was also a lot more people on the towpath in search of fun and earplugs.

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A very pleasant carnival goer threw a can of Fosters away, aiming for the canal but hitting me on the calves. I was about to throw him in after it but realised I’d just be littering as well, so desisted. He DID mumble an apology, roughly in English, and walked off like a demented zombie.

As we approached Kensal Green Bridge, the towpath stopped for repairs and we had to fight our way up the hill through the parade, police and organisers – kids dressed in African tribal outfits that looked excellent. Everyone was very happy and in a carnival mood; even the police were smiling. We managed to reach the top of the hill unscathed and once more rejoined the relative quiet of the towpath.

Lovely Kensal Green Cemetery was on the opposite bank as well as a number of more or less permanent moorings. Karen was disappointed the towpath was on the same side as the gas works, railway sidings and Wormwood Scrubs. Not exactly picturesque given the whole stretch of the canal was lined by a tall flint wall that defied any attempt to see over.

I sent a silent hi over to the cemetery to my dead relatives who, hopefully, sleep soundly by the lapping water. They are in good company. Also buried here are John Waterhouse (painter), Fanny Kemble (actress), Wilkie Collins (writer) and quipper of all things Basingstoke, George Grossmith (he also wrote Diary of a Nobody which some people still hail as the funniest book ever written – there’s an online version here and it’s well worth a read).

The cemetery was the first public cemetery in London. Established in 1827, it’s a 79 acre site with two chapels, one for the Anglicans and the other for the Dissenters. Dad tells me it was very creepy walking through it at night when he was a bit younger (and obviously INSANE!!!).

As Kensal Green disappeared so we grew closer to Wormwood Scrubs. A group of lads, clearly on day release, passed us asking whether they could get any drugs at the carnival. We laughed politely as they all chortled themselves stupid. Not sure they needed any more drugs, myself.

Wormwood Scrubs is situated in Wormwood Scrubs Park which is decidedly bigger than the prison, neither of which can be seen from the canal, unless you have 30 foot legs. The prison was built by the Royal Engineers between 1875 and 1891.

George Blake, a notorious double agent who sold our secrets to the Russians while working for MI6, was ‘busted out’ of the Scrubs by Sean Bourke, Michael Randle and Pat Pootle. Randle and Pootle then wrote a book called ‘The Blake Escape, How We Did It’ in which they explained how they just threw a rope ladder over the wall and he climbed over. On publication of the book the two were seized and prosecuted but the jury, creating a furore, acquitted them! Also, Wormwood Scrubs is, apparently, the only prison with its own Masonic Lodge within its walls. At least that’s what VOMIT (Victims Of Masonic Ill Treatment) claim.

The scenery was pretty bleak and the large amount of other people had significantly dropped to less than none. Even the fisher folk had dwindled. Then at Acton’s Bridge backyards appeared beside us and it looked just like the Basingstoke Canal just before you come into Woking only a lot wider.

We crossed the North Circular Aqueduct which has two lanes so boats can pass without bumping. The original aqueduct was built in the 1930s and when they replaced it with a newer one in 1990, they retained the two plaques showing the Arms of Middlesex. These have been placed on big brick structures in the centre. The rebuild was necessary when they widened the road to the now six very full lanes. It’s always odd to stand on a bridge looking down at a multi-lane highway with water running behind you.

We had decided to stop at Piggery Bridge but the appeal of the Pleasure Boat’s signage and desire for beer was all too much (I’m, naturally, not speaking for Karen here) so we stopped a bridge early.

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Outside in the beer garden we sat alone and illegally ate our sandwiches over very very cold Stellas. According to Karen, they are called McCartneys by those that know. Nigel and I just scream out Marlon Brando versions and make ourselves giggle.

We were in Alperton. Mum tells me this is where Uncle Jerry lived. We had walked nine miles (actually I’d walked eleven if you count the two to the station) and I decided (as captain) we’d had enough. We took the short stroll to Alperton Tube after deciding we had no idea what bus to catch in which direction and took the Piccadilly line to Green Park where Karen and Nigel went in search of a bus and I transferred to the Jubilee Line for the short trip to Waterloo.

Had a relatively short wait for a train to Alton and slept most of the way. Mirinda picked me up around 6pm. One of the highlights of the day was the shower I had at 6:15pm.

We will, hopefully, tackle the next section of the Grand Union Canal in the not too distant future.

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