Before I moved to London, I would ride along the Regents Canal every Saturday to rehearse with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. It was a route I discovered by chance – studying my well-thumbed A-Z, I noticed the straggly blue line that looped northwards from Kings Cross through Camden and Regents Park until it descended towards Marylebone and Lisson Grove, exactly where I needed to be.
I had been nervous about riding in London, not knowing what the convention was for riding in bus lanes, put off by the mad car-honking rush of the Euston Road, so finding this haven was a revelation. A route uninterrupted by traffic lights, undisturbed by lorries, sunk into a gully where no road noise could reach, a flat, tranquil, wildlife-filled waterway.
Riding the canal
Every week I took the train to Kings Cross then joined the canal, passing beneath railway tracks and roads, each bridge labelled so I could orientate myself in reference to the world above, a hidden world of coots and kayaks and narrowboats. Through the tourist-crowded Camden locks the water steps up to Camden Market, the towpath flanked with eateries and bars. Through the market itself I would dismount, carefully negotiating bike and bag through throngs of tourists, the square stuffed to the brim with food stalls from which sizzled with the scent of Jamaican jerk, falafel and spices. The path then reaches Regents Park, tyres rumbling over paving slabs as the huge aviary of London Zoo comes into view. I would marvel at the regal Regency houses with their expansive and immaculate lawns and gardens, with private walkways marking the steep banks above. With the Maida Vale tunnel ahead, the towpath ended: it would be up the ramp, through the estate, and off down the road to rehearsals. I felt I’d witnessed a private part of London, something removed from the sirens and the congestion and the traffic noise, something peaceful and calm and special, a glimpse of another life.
Now I myself live that life – three years ago (foolishly or bravely, in the depths of winter) I bought myself a narrowboat and have lived on it ever since, cruising the waterways of London. I occasionally motor down the stretch that first introduced me to London By Canal. I adore the waterways, fascinated by the history of their development, seduced the peace and quiet they provide in an otherwise hectic city.
When I began riding the canals, I felt as though I was one of the few who had discovered the secret. In this blog series I’ll be exploring some of the hidden havens and treasures that are to be found by the towpath, as well as longer routes. I’ll also be looking at the etiquette of using the canal: in the past six years there has been a boom in popularity of the towpaths, with more cyclists, more walkers and far more boaters using the space. More people inevitably leads to increased conflict. It’s a space that we need to be conscious of sharing – a few considerations will make it better for everyone.
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