Regent's Canal

The unassuming entrance on Colebrooke Row to the eastern portal of the Islington Tunnel can be found by following 'Towpath Link' pavement markers from the western portal. Descending to the leafy secluded towpath you'll find the graffiti covered tunnel entrance and then pass Islington Eco-mooring. You'll immediately notice how busy the towpath is with tourists, joggers and cyclists, on a weekend walking in a straight line is largely impossible as you are continually dodging other towpath users.

Quickly you reach City Road Lock and Basin. The lock had a forge and stables so that horses could be exchanged during the journey from the docks to Paddington Basin, and the many wharfs and warehouses constituted the main distribution centre for a huge range of goods including imported timber from the London docks, other building materials and coal. At the turn of the century Diespeker’s terrazzo and mosaic factory arrived next to the lock and from 1909 British Drug Houses had a notable presence in the basin, manufacturing penicillin for use in World War II along with aspirin, insulin and other medicinal products. Haulage was provided by well known carriers such as Pickfords, who alone had 120 boats, and Fellows, Morton & Clayton. All is quiet now and the basin is the perfect place for Islington residents to enjoy their caramel skinny latte and croissant.

However, but for the efforts of one woman the scene might be very different. With the canal on the other side of City Road already filled in, British Waterways wanted to do away with the whole basin in the 1970s. That's why there's a plaque now in place commemorating Crystal Hale, she galvanized local opinion, saved the basin from destruction and helped establish the Islington Boat Club.

After the Narrowboat pub is Wenlock Basin. In the 1840s, underwater telecommunications cable to connect Britain and France was manufactured here at the Gutta Percha Works. Saw mills, timber wharfs and engineering works proliferated along the canal, particularly the stretch through east London was once described as 'an extended dock rather than a waterway for through traffic'. You can sometimes see remnants of past industry, lock keeper's cottages, perhaps an incongruous chimney or old wharfs now occupied by boats, but almost all the old buildings have been swept away in favour of apartments and cafes.

Sturt's Lock is reached and then, after New North Road Bridge, on the far side of the canal, Gainsborough Studios transformed the Great Northern and City Railway power station in 1924 into 'Hollywood by the canal'. Alfred Hitchcock made several of his early films here including 'The Lady Vanishes' and he is remembered with an impressively large bust inside the new apartment block situated on the site of the demolished studios. Above Rosemary Branch bridge is the eponymous Tavern, a gastropub and theatre, and next to it, the attractively tiled Southgate Arms on which time has unfortunately been called.

There's no shortage of boats moored two abreast on the towpath side as you approach Whitmore Road Bridge and another canalside restaurant. Nearby Kingsland Basin might not have smelt so nice in the past as it catered for manure and refuse wharfs, it is now home to the Canals in Hackney User Group. Under the Shoreditch to Dalston Railway and past Laburnham Basin where you'll find the Laburnham Boat Club, you get to Haggerston Road Bridge and then the Talavera Residential Moorings.

Acton's Lock seems to be a favoured sunbathing spot on a hot day before reaching the brilliantly titled Cat and Mutton Bridge which shares its name with a pub at the London Fields end of Broadway Market. Further on, before disappearing under the Great Eastern Railway, the Imperial Gas Light and Coke Company's two remaining gasholders offer an eye-catching addition to the landscape. Built in 1866 and 1899, they are tamong the oldest in the world and were used to store gas from their Shoreditch works. Decommissioned in 1912. there are plans now to turn them into flats similat to those at King's Cross. Before getting to Mare Street, take note of the glass fronted old wharf and, just after the bridge, portraits of local people by photographer Jenny Lewis.

To meet the demands for open space in east London and following a petition to the Queen, Victoria Park was opened in 1845. It covers 218 acres and is the largest and most popular park in east London, transforming the next part of the canal from a post-industrial landscape to an almost rural tree lined vista. Old Ford Lock is particularly pleasantly located with a lock keeper's cottage and stables still intact before the junction with the Hertford Union canal. Only a mile long and also known as Duckett's Cut, the Hertford Union was opened in 1830 to connect the Thames with the Lee Navigation but was commercially unsuccessful and drained water from the Regent's Canal.

With Canary Wharf coming into view, impressively large modern apartment blocks now begin to dominate the canal but they are balanced on the towpath side by Mile End Park which has a different vibe to Victoria Park. Its linear 90 acres replaced densely packed houses devastated by World War II bombing and its ethos is to promote art, ecology, play and sport.

You'll notice the Palm Tree pub standing in splendid isolation, untouched by the luftwaffe or gentrification, before passing the representation of a horse and handlers that make reference to the canal's history. An old chimney has also been left standing that offers a striking contrast to the Canary Wharf skyscrapers on the horizon. Adjacent to Mile End Lock and the former Globe Bridge was the New Globe Tavern Pleasure Ground (and before that the West Ham Water Works Reservoir) and then the park then disappears from view when passing Johnson's Lock, Ben Jonson the playwright was famously tried for murder after killing an actor during a duel in Hoxton in 1598. The adjacent buildings include Thomas Barnado's largest 'ragged school' which is now a museum, and the park re-emerges for another 250 yards up to a railway bridge.

The number of people on the towpath noticeably decreases as you make your way through east London, passing further new apartments designed to fit into the most cramped space, Salmon Lane Lock is reached with its attractive cottage. It's not far then to Commercial Road Lock and onward under the DLR to Limehouse Basin which on a beautiful sunny day is pretty much deserted.

Formerly known as Regent's Canal Dock, it was once bustling with all manner of working boats. In 1865, 1500 ships entered through the huge ship lock and there were ten times that number of barges. However, the increasing use of containerised cargo, better suited to docks such as Tilbury, heralded its demise leading to closure in 1969. But, by 2001 it had been transformed into the gleaming Limehouse Basin, filled by pleasure craft, surrounded by smart apartments, and with the high rise buildings of Canary Wharf looming above in the distance.

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Part 2: Islington Tunnel to Limehouse Basin
regents canal 1
Old Ford Lock with cottage and stables
Limehouse Basin
Relics from the past mix with new developments
City Road Basin
Eastern portal of the Islington Tunnel
Waymarks guide you to and from each portal