Regent's Canal runs from the Grand Union Canal's Paddington branch to Limehouse Basin on the River Thames, passing through Camden Town, King's Cross and Mile End on the way. The canal is eight miles1 long, and features three tunnels through which the canal runs underground for just less than ¾ of a mile, being the only canal in London to pass underground. It also has several basins, parts of which have since become disused and have been filled in, and drops through about 30m2 via twelve locks. The canal is joined by various waterways to the Grand Union Canal and the rivers Lee and Thames, and takes about four hours to traverse from end to end.
Building the Canal
Construction of the Paddington arm of what was then known as the Grand Junction Canal was completed in 1801. The following year, a man named Thomas Homer proposed a canal to run from the Grand Union at Paddington to Limehouse on the River Thames. In 1811, he introduced the idea to John Nash, an architect who was at that time building Regent's Park under the decree of the Prince Regent3. Nash was interested in having the canal run through the park, and so he attempted to obtain a royal decree for the canal. The following year, the Regent's Canal Act was passed and a company was formed to build the canal, with Nash as director and Homer as superintendent. Nash's assistant James Morgan was given the roles of engineer, surveyor and architect, and so work began.
As is the case with many good projects, the building of Regent's Canal suffered its fair share of setbacks, costing the company both time and money. The first lock on the route from Paddington, Hampstead Road Lock, was built using a new 'hydro-pneumatic' design which was intended to save the canal's much-needed water. It was a complete failure, and had to be replaced with an ordinary lock which is still there today. As if that wasn't bad enough, it turned out that by 1815 Thomas Homer had started to embezzle the funds which were needed for construction of the canal he had used to promote. At one stage a lack of funding brought construction to a halt, but the company was able to draw funds from a government scheme to reduce unemployment.
Despite these setbacks, the canal was eventually opened in two stages, with the Paddington to Camden section opening in 1816, four years ahead of the rest of the canal. The canal had been built for £772,000, twice the original estimate, but later on it still encountered problems. Due to a lack of water in the canal it became necessary to dam the River Brent in 1835, creating a reservoir which then had to be further enlarged in 1837 and 1854. The last change to the canal came during the Second World War, when stop gates were added at King's Cross to help minimise flooding in case a bomb ruptured the concrete between the canal and the train tunnel below.
The canal opened at 11am on 1 August, 1820, and within the first year over 120,000 tons of cargo passed between Paddington and Limehouse. However, the age of the canal was soon replaced by that of the train, and in 1845 a £1 million offer was made to convert the canal between Paddington and City Road to railway. The offer predates the construction of the Metropolitan Underground line by about 15 years, and it is possible that had the canal been converted things would be very different today. However, despite being accepted, the offer fell through due to lack of funding.
Having avoided this threat, the canal went on to live a quiet life until 1874. Early one morning in October that year, a gunpowder barge exploded, killing the three crewmen and destroying Macclesfield Bridge in Regent's Park. The canal was shut for four days, and the bridge is now innovatively referred to as the 'Blow Up Bridge'. The canal then returned to normal, with another attempt to turn the canal into a railway failing in 1883.
In 1929, the Regent's Canal organisation purchased the Grand Junction Canal and the Warwick canals in order to form the Grand Union Canal from all three. This enlarged group was then nationalised along with most railways and canals in 1948, and became part of the British Waterways. Meanwhile, various changes were made to the canal. During the 1930s parts of City Road basin were filled in, and in 1942, the Cumberland Arm section next to Regent's Park was filled in with rubble from bombed houses. Later on in 1968, the old Limehouse lock route from Limehouse Cut to the Thames was filled in and replaced by a shortcut to Regent's Canal, and in 1979 City Road basin was further filled in to allow the running of electrical cables, so that it no longer passes south of the road of the same name.
The Hertford Union Canal and the Limehouse Cut
Until 1766, boats on the River Lee navigation had to navigate the twisting, tidal waters of Bow Creek in order to reach Limehouse via the Thames. In 1766, an Act was passed allowing the construction of the Limehouse Cut, linking the Lee Navigation at Bromley-by-Bow to the Thames at Limehouse. As mentioned above, the exit to the Thames was replaced in 1968 by a shortcut to the Regent's Canal.
In 1824, an Act was passed allowing the construction of the Hertford Union Canal between Regent's Canal just south of Victoria Park and the River Lee Navigation, allowing boats to avoid the distance required to reach the tidal Limehouse Cut. Despite this shortcut, the canal was never particularly popular, and for part of the 1850s was maintained so little that it became unnavigable. It was bought by and became part of Regent's Canal in 1857.
The canal is of both variable width and depth throughout, but is at least wide enough for two longboats to pass and deep enough for them not to scrape the bottom4. The canal passes under various bridges, giving it a height limit of about two and-a-half metres5 and making it unsuitable for rigged sailing boats.
The canal consists of concrete trough with a towpath along its north side for most of its length along with a variety of bridges and side basins. However, the canal passes through a total of three tunnels, two of which lack towpath completely. The shortest of these is Eyre's tunnel, which is 48 metres6 in length and passes under Lisson Grove. The tunnel contains a towpath and so is often mistaken for a bridge. A longer tunnel precedes it at Maida Hill, where the tunnel runs for 251 metres7 under Edgware Road and a number of houses. Both tunnels opened in 1816 along with the first section of the canal.
However, these tunnels are dwarfed by Islington tunnel, which is 886 metres8 long and lies just to the east of King's Cross. The tunnel was a feat of engineering work and is completely straight so that, given the correct conditions9, the light at one end can clearly be seen from the other. Soon after the Regent's Canal Act was passed in 1812, the canal company began a competition, offering 100 guineas for the best proposed design for Islington tunnel. They received nothing but conjecture and wild ideas, and James Morgan was eventually forced to do the job himself.
Work began in 1814, with six shafts eventually being sunk after careful planning to ensure the separately-built sections would meet. The operation ran into various problems including veins of soft and porous rock, and underground springs, but the tunnel was finished, albeit grossly over budget, by 1818. It was obviously well built, as it lasted 182 years before needing repair work in early 2000.
Following the Towpath
The various sections of the canal towpath make a popular route for joggers, cyclists10 and casual walkers alike, with the sections between Little Venice and Camden being particularly pleasant. The towpath is generally only open during the day, with several sections being locked behind gates at night.
The towpath begins in Little Venice, at the three-way junction between the Grand Union Canal, Regent's Canal, and the Paddington Basin. To reach the junction from Praed Street, simply head past the east side of Paddington station and along London Street until you see the basin. This will bring you onto the west side of the basin, and so you should cross over the large metal footbridge part of the way along. You will soon reach the junction in canals; here you should leave basin and make your way onto Warwick Avenue via the small park on your right, then walk north to the bridge over the canal. You can also find your way to the start of the canal by walking south from Warwick Avenue Underground station.
Two roads run along either side of the first section of the canal, and following these roads leads to Edgware Road, where the canal dives underground through the Maida Hill tunnel. Here you should cross the road to Aberdeen Place, which leads to a footpath which provides access down to the northeast end of the canal tunnel, where it is possible to join the towpath via a ramp down from street level.
Regent's Park to King's Cross
At this point the canal widens to allow room for a number of berths, then narrows again, passing under the mainline out of Marylebone station and the Jubilee and Metropolitan lines of the London Underground heading from Baker Street to St John's Wood. The canal then passes under Park Road and begins its curve around Regent's Park.
The towpath now passes through what seems to be idyllic countryside, as the cutting in which runs hides the city from view. The second bridge after Park Road is Macclesfield Bridge, and a short while later the canal passes through London Zoo, after which it reaches the Cumberland Arm basin. Here, the main canal passes northwards under Albert Road, while the basin continues eastwards, though it is mostly filled in. A ramp and some steps both lead up to the road, allowing an easy exit from the canal to Regent's Park to the south and the scenic Primrose Hill just to the north.
The canal then passes under Gloucester Avenue, the train lines out of Euston, and then Oval Road, which lies next to the castle-shaped Pirate Castle youth centre. The towpath then passes above the entrance to a small dock on a humpback bridge, which marks the canal's entrance into Camden Town. In order to follow the towpath, it is important to ignore the rather enticing bridge which leads diagonally over the canal and into the streets of Camden; instead, you should enter the market to the left and work your way back onto the towpath past the little wooden dock there. Camden Town Underground station lies a little way south of the canal and can be reached by taking the diagonal bridge and then turning right.
The canal now reaches its first set of locks, and the towpath heads downhill under six different roads11. The canal then makes its way past rows of houses, and this area is often frequented by joggers, canoeists and people enjoying a day out on a canal boat. After heading under Camley Street and the railway out of St Pancras, and past the St Pancras basin, the famous King's Cross Gasworks loom into view, dominating the scenery. Just before York Way, another convenient place to leave the towpath, the canal passes above the train tunnels which run out of King's Cross. The canal passes the Battlebridge basin, then enters the Islington tunnel.
Islington to Mile End
In order to continue along the canal, find your way to Upper Street and head just north of Angel tube station to Duncan Street. This road will lead you back to the canal, which then runs under a series of road bridges and past City Road, Wenlock and Kingsland Basin, the last of which lies on the north side and is crossed via a bridge. There are also a few locks along this part of the route. After passing some more gasworks and heading under the A107, the canal reaches Victoria Park, which the Hertford Union Canal follows off towards the River Lee.
The canal then heads south, and runs parallel with Mile End Park, which provides an alternative to the towpath at this point. Mile End tube station lies just to the east along Mile End Road. The canal passes one more gas works, and runs a little further through three locks to finally reach the Limehouse Basin. Limehouse DLR station lies on the nearby Commercial Road, and the Thames Path can be joined at the south end of the basin where it joins the Thames.