A Wanderer’s Guide to Regent’s Canal – a Passage Through Space and Time

June 26, 2017

A reportage about Regent's Canal in London.

People tend to overlook the stuff that is close to them. In overcrowded and/or over exalted spaces it may be a lack of capacity. There is just too much stuff happening. But often it is the ignorance for the already known. No matter what, even with an inexhaustible amount of time, it is not possible to observe everything. The sheer beauty and diversity of our world is too much. So we better focus. Decide. And concentrate on what seems important right now.

While this might be a misleading introduction it is a reasonable detour in the context of this text’s ambition to encourage the reader to leave the house more curiously next time. Look for the non-special!

About Regent’s Canal

Now Regent’s Canal is not the first place to consider when thinking about London. Compared to the canals of Amsterdam, Berlin or Bruges it is unavowed. Yet, it is a distinctive part of that city that also holds an interesting history. Today, its mechanisms combine a mixture of culture, nature and locomotion.

During my time in London, I visited Regent’s Canal more or less every day. It became a good friend I visited with joy, but also in troubled times.

The construction of Regent’s Canal dates back to the beginning of the 19th century. Back then the canal was built to connect the Grand Junction Canal’s Paddington Arm and the river Thames. It soon became an important transportation system throughout London. Today, the canal has a length of 14 kilometres with most of its parts not wider than 20 meters. It connects West-London with East-London and is a territory of bikers, joggers and fitness freaks. But you look closer this is not the only folk that enjoys the canal’s ambience.

At Westbourne Park

I enter at the canal West London. This more rough part of the canal is dominated by the A40 (Westway). The huge Highway stretches its curves over the small river that flows in its shadow. Here the walls are full of graffiti art. Buildings seem functional, dirt floats over the ground. Yet as I walk I pass a man in his deckchair reading a book. Next to him a small table with some chairs in red plastic optics. Here no houseboats drop anchor. It is only the undisguised hum of London’s traffic that dominates and sets the stage.

As I walk further a more well-known picture of Regent’s Canal occurs. It’s those houseboats that line up the quay. Whilst these boats are full living environments that promise freedom in a screened design it is their outer shape that makes them special. On the boats, people build workshops, gardens, balconies, bike repairs, or book shops. Some are clean, some are dirty. At least all are special. It seems as if the outer appearance of the houseboats mimics their owners’ inner life. And so does the canal. The more elaborated the houseboats get, the fancier the canal adapts. Usually all parts are publicly accessible but there is a closed part around Blomfield Road. This area is reserved only for houseboat allotment holders. Through the fence, I see designed arbours. They are quite tiny but perhaps enough in a sailor’s ambition to conquer a bit of soil.

On its 14 kilometres each area of the canal seems somehow special. After Bloomfield Road, Regent’s Park presents itself classy and green. Here it is quite, except to the many boats with people that pass me. Some with music, most with alcoholic drinks. But the longer I dwell in this area the more I begin to realise the lone riders. They are people that relax. Couples that seek a quiet moment. Folks that enjoy a beautiful day. In between a constant flow of fitness junkies trickles over the quay. People get more and more. Music gets louder. I smell drugs. And finally, as I reach Camden Lock I find myself in one of London’s pulsating veins. The density of people is huge.

‘Boss, need something to smoke?’ – I negate the offer. What is Camden Lock today? It is difficult to tell. It certainly seems to be a melting pot of cultures. But what cultures? A hyper liberalised ,commercialised playground for dropouts or people that act like them? The scene feels playful. People enjoy themselves. Amenities here look sufficient for a crowd of consumers longing for relaxation. Be it as it may I decide to keep on walking like the water floating in the canal. No need to stop here.

After a few minutes the canal’s blissful peace returns. A black hole! It sucks me in. And spits me out. Time is both, quick and slow. I find myself in front of the University of Central Saint Martins at King’s Cross. The green fake patch of grass where students relax is still there. Two years ago we, my colleagues and I, were sitting here. Today I am a visitor. I see huge buildings. New developments. Steel, concrete, and straight lines dominate the new structures. As an antitheses to that – the old Granary. Central Saint Martin’s entrance building sits like a fortress opposing the novel. It is a reminder from a different era. Three water fountains form the castle’s moat. Kids splash around. Some naked. And I remember. I challenged myself that I would once also run through the fountains naked at the end of my studies. This day still may come.

Back at the canal, I see the swan family that has been breeding here for a couple of years. I am close the Bookbarge. The place sells used books, vinyl and sometimes hosts music. This time I am lucky and two musicians just started their session:

Sitting there and listening to the music I remember I once counted trollies and bikes lying on the riverbed close to the quay around the Bookbarge. Eight and eleven. I recall the poor little duckling that suddenly fell from the sky when I was sitting here. It was scared and without a chance. And also, yes, the incident of the cocaine bag that was lost by someone and immediately picked up by the person walking behind him. There are many places we pass daily that are special. But often we do not realise that. It is only that one has to slow down to observe – or probably create a little more distance between expectation and fulfilment.