“Thine only regret is the bloody towpaths.” – Regent’s Canal engineer and architect James Morgan (1776-ish – 1856), speaking from The Celestial Supernatural Land of the Dearly Departed, circa 2010
By Brian Spencer
On those cherished days when the sun mercifully peeks out from behind England’s blanket of grey permanence, Regent’s Canal, an 8.6-mile long waterway snaking through central London from Grand Union Canal to the River Thames, heaves with disparate gaggles of bicyclists, runners, and lollygaggers, and with stroller pushers, dog walkers, and booze hounds, all jockeying for precious little space on a narrow 10-foot-wide towpath along the canal. At its busiest points and blindspot tunnels, navigating the human flurry can be a harrowing affair–no railings means one small misstep and it’s into the black, mucky waters you go, drowning in this shallow product of the early nineteenth century less of a concern than contracting an incurable flesh-eating supervirus that eats you from inside out.
But then you walk a little further, and watch slack-jawed teenagers, in between coming-of-age cigarettes, swimming in the canal as if it were a public pool, and you realize… ew, that is so fucking ill. I do not want to fall into that.
Conceived in the early 1800s and its first channel opened in 1816, Regent’s Canal was imagined as a shortcut for transporting goods and cargo inland, but that ideal soon fizzled with the development of more roads and railways. By the mid-1800s a number of plans were already afoot to scrap the canal entirely and transform it into the future of transportation–the railroad–or, at a minimum, to at least lay track alongside it. Neither ever happened, and the canal later regained some of its shortly lived shipping prominence during the 1930s before, again, fading back to commercial irrelevance for good by 1970.
Today the only traffic through Regent’s Canal is mainly that of narrow longboats–longboats like the one Jeremy and Mark rent before Jeremy eats a dead, barbecued dog–with names like Wife of Bath, Lady Mildmay, and The Hobbit. Many have roof gardens, satellite dishes, and bearded thirtysomethings with laptops lounging on the deck; all of them don’t so much cruise as languidly chug. Occasionally you’ll see solo paddlers or kayaking couples in inflatable dinghies rowing their way through the water; sometimes you’ll see hundreds of them.
Along the canal’s shores, the canal itself hidden from the adjacent roads on one side by a graffiti-covered brick wall, expensive condos with wooden facades and see-through balconies increasingly populate a landscape completed by cool office spaces, storage warehouses, cafés, and pubs. If you think it sounds a little like my old ‘hood of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, you’d be right. In fact, the demographics and gentrified spirit of the area along and around Regent’s Canal from Islington to Hackney, in particular, feels like a trans-Atlantic mirrored reflection of North Brooklyn.
I rented a flat for three nights located about a minute from the lovely spot on Regent’s Canal shown in the lead photo, above, and about five minutes’ walk from the Angel tube station. I’m sure the “secret” of this laid-back area has long been out amongst Londoners, but this recent stay was the first time I’ve had the opportunity to explore hip neighborhoods like Islington, Hoxton, and Shoreditch, and it was certainly a highlight. I’ll admit that if I were visiting straight from Brooklyn it may have felt a wee redundant spending so much time there, but this was my first reconnect with the Western world after a year based in Singapore and traveling exclusively in Asia–so it was perfect.
(Well, nearly perfect: the pockets of
hardcore insecure uber-hipsters, the ones who always seem to travel in herds of at least eight, that I tolerated but loathed in Williamsburg also gravitate towards these areas, particularly Shoreditch. Loved the organic foods and beers at Islington’s The Duke of Cambridge, but the crowd? Eh, not so much.)
But don’t let the random cool kids scare you away. As I say, staying near and exploring the areas around Regent’s Canal was a focal point of my most recent jaunt to London; I’ll definitely be back. The vibe is relaxed, the eating and boozing options are plentiful, and walking along the canal itself, stopping for a coffee or a pint, or to uncork a BYOB bottle of wine or uncap a London-brewed craft beer, is a pleasure–even though James Morgan did totally bungle the towpaths.