Five miles from Brentford, the Paddington Arm departs from the main line and runs, via Little Venice where it connects with the Regent’s Canal, for 13½ lock free miles to Paddington Basin. It was opened in July 1801 to give boats access to central London rather than via the Thames. The narrow towpath, with only the noise of passing trains spoiling the quietness of Bull’s Bridge moorings, is hemmed in by a high wall hiding factories, warehouses and a huge airport car park. Swans gather along Bankside but so do plastic bags, cigarette packets and beer cans. Someone clearly drinks a lot of Holsten Pils around here and doesn’t feel the need to recycle the cans.
Bridge 20 has a mural rather than graffiti and this sets a trend for further bridges. A residential development then juxtaposes with shoddy semis and houseboats lead to bridge 19 after which you could be out in the country approaching Willowtree Marina. This former wharf was used to transport bricks made from the local clay but during the Great War was involved in the movement of explosives. The towpath improves nearing Engineer’s Wharf with its ‘urban village’ and pricey moorings. Further on, cutting through parkland, the Hoover Building comes into view. A wooden footbridge is followed by the less so 17b carrying the A40 and there is so much pigeon guano you expect to bump into David Attenborough on an expedition.
After High Line Yachting at bridge 16A there is a row of residential boats overlooked initially by the impressive Dawoodi Bohra mosque and then bordered by factories. You pass under the Central Line bridge, the old Lyons Dock and a line of boats at Greenford Moorings before the Black Horse at bridge 15. The Paddington Arm isn’t overburdened with pubs and this is a good one. The rumble and buzz of adjoining factories disappears, playing fields and anglers take over, and there’s Perivale Wood Nature Reserve. Skirting Horsenden Hill, you head straight through Terry and June country with neat semis on one side and Sudbury golf course opposite. However, near Alperton Visitor Moorings litter and factories increase, Budweiser and Polish lager seem to be cans of choice to chuck into the undergrowth while bottles of vodka bobble in the water.
Alperton isn’t pretty and it doesn’t get better. After the Piccadilly Line, industrial estates are followed by a crossing over the River Brent and then the North Circular Aqueduct which is a bleak experience. The canal is covered with green algae, and the adjacent recycling centre teams up with graffiti to maximise the unpleasantness. After the Grand Junction Arms there are 4½ miles to go, which is more than on the previous sign which is odd. Nature isn’t entirely absent as passing Acton Lane power station you can pick blackberries on your way through Harlesden to Old Oak Wharf, where there is a recycling centre financed by British Waterways and Transport for London to encourage local businesses to use the canal to move freight.
The canal’s aspect now opens up, marshalling yards are below on the right with Wormwood Scrubbs in the distance, factories remain on the other side up to Mitre Wharf where new long term moorings are planned. The urban feel dissipates, notwithstanding the two gasometers at Kensington Gas Works standing guard over Kensal Green moorings. Opposite is the cemetery where Brunel is buried. The canal swings to filled-in wharfs at Ladbroke Grove dominated by Sainsburys. There are now houses and apartments backing onto the water and the rubbish has disappeared for this is Kensington and Chelsea / Westminster borders and it is a pleasant walk to the Union Tavern beer garden.
Moving on, the Westway looms above, concretely graceful. From bridge 3 and St Mary Magdelene church there is a double line of boats all the way to the old Toll House at Little Venice. Now an expensive and celebrity riddled suburb, at the time of the canal’s construction it was a small village on the outskirts. The benches along Delamere Terrace offer the opportunity to rest your feet and watch the people go by. At the far side of the willow clad island the Regent’s Canal departs to London Zoo, Camden Lock and the Thames at Limehouse. This area has been referred to as ‘Browning’s Pool’ after the poet who lived locally but it is a myth he coined the phrase ‘Little Venice’ which has really only been in use post 1945.
The Grand Union disappears under bridge 2 passing an organic ice cream shop, one or two bars on the towpath full of tourists, Paddington Station and St Mary’s Hospital on its way to the 400 yard long, 30 yards wide Paddington Basin where there were once wharves, warehouses, livestock pens and tons of manure which was transported through the basin from the capital’s streets. All this has now been replaced by shops, apartments and underused moorings.
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The IRA tried to blow the original aqueduct up in 1933, this is a replacement built in 1993
On the way the arm served Lyons at Greenford, Heinz at Harlesden, Willesden Power Station and Kensal Green Gasworks
The opening of Paddington Basin in 1801 was attended by 20,000 people and accompanied by the ringing of bells and volleys of cannon fire
Little Venice and the start of the Regent's Canal
Harrow Road houses backing onto the canal
Kensal Green moorings and Kensington Gas Works
North Circular Road aqueduct covered in algae
Engineer's Wharf Moorings