Maybe It’s Penance (for Last Night) or a Deposit (on Tonight), But Whatever It Is, It’s My Morning Run Along Regent’s Canal

Regent's Canal London

This time around in London it starts on Chapel Market, where as you may have guessed there’s a daily food and sundries market.

Vendors set up early in the morning, unloading cardboard containers crammed with fruits and vegetables largely sourced from the English countryside, and styrofoam boxes packed with regional meats, fishes, and crustaceans. They push metal, cage-like trolleys filled with suitcases and watches and hardware and country cheeses and breads, and they pop up tents and kitchens that will soon smell of frying falafel, slow-smoking barbecue pork, and bubbling pans of paella (“Chicken on the bone with prawns and mussels”).

Somebody still sells CDs; on the weekends, somebody else sells oversized stuffed animals, displayed kind of like those prizes you can win at the local fair if you pop five balloons with five dulled darts. I think they’re more for show than for sale.

“Aaah-low, dawling, how are you this gawwr-geous day?”

“Oh, it’s just lovely, innit? S’posta rain too-marraw though.”

“Well, you look lovely today, my dear.”

“Horrible strawberries, two for one pound! Absolutely horrible strawberries, two for a pound!”

A right on Liverpool, across Upper Street, left, and right at The York, a 19th-century pub (now part of the Nicholson’s chain) at which the post-work set gathers in droves for pints and huge glasses of wine on the outdoor patio when the weather is glorious. Straight ahead, I go down a dark hobbit hole in a thicket of wild forest, emerging at Islington Visitor Moorings (free long boat parking for up to seven days) on Regent’s Canal.  To my left, orange and lavender and yellow flowers tumble over a brick wall canvassed in ivy and shrubs and plants — I don’t know what species they are, but I’m sure a botanist does. I’m on James Morgan’s towpath, which debuted in the 1810s.

Occasionally people fish here; more often people booze it up here; whatever they do here it’s almost always quiet here. There’s a sweet, gentle fragrance on this little stretch of the canal; it smells like June 2014. I’d recognize that smell anywhere. I’d love to have a drink with you here sometime. We could share a bottle of Champagne and talk about absolutely nothing of importance. We could talk about our friends and colleagues and friends who aren’t really friends and colleagues we’d rather weren’t colleagues, because that’s what people talk about, isn’t it? That, and television shows.

For now, I’m running. Six miles, nearly every morning. (Training in humid Singapore has its advantages in cool places like London). Leaving Islington Vistior Moorings, I pass underneath a brick archway slapped with a numbered plaque (38), the towpath twisting in a blind turn on both ends. Runners slow their pace under the arches. Walkers proceed warily. Bicyclists ring bells; when they don’t have a bell, they say “beep beep!” or “yoo hoo, yoo hoo!” or they just whistle.

Regent's Canal London

There’s precious little space on the Regent’s Canal towpath, and even less of it underneath the brick arches, some of which have underbellies lit by pinkish-purple lights after sundown. I think a few runners and walkers and bicyclists accidentally fall into the canal every year; I’m not positive because I’ve never seen it happen, but I do think it happens.

Just around the blind bend of brick archway #38, there’s a bench on which I and thousands of others have shared bottles of wine and beer and Champagne. In the morning, the garbage can next to the bench is either completely empty and lined with a new trash bag, or it’s overflowing with empty Champagne and beer and wine bottles and crushed-in-the-middle tallboy cans.

Related: London’s Regent’s Canal, or The Feat and Folly of James Morgan

Past City Lock #5 and The Pumphouse Cafe, the running route takes proper shape, straight down just under three miles to the southwest tip of Victoria Park, the turnaround point, where I stop to take a breath over token plank exercises because one day I’m totally going to be a little ripped. (I’m never going to be totally or even partially ripped.)

Once, in Victoria Park, I watched a muscular black dog — the kind of dog that is either adorable or ugly and terrifying, depending on your point of view — sprint across a grassy field towards a young father and his infant son kicking a soccer ball back and forth. They were laughing; it was one of those young father-young son scenes that melt your cold black heart. They stopped laughing when they saw the beast running straight at them.

“HE ONLY WANTS THE BALL! THE DOG ONLY WANTS THE BALL! He only.. “

The hapless dog owner’s voice trailed off as the dog reached the terrified twosome and tossed the soccer ball, the dog’s momentum carrying it into the boy just enough to knock him to the side, but not enough to knock him down. The ball deflated in a snap of teeth. The father collected his son. The hapless dog owner tried to apologize. The father looked at him with reproach as he walked away carrying his son. The dog owner went chasing after his fucking dog as it ran towards another father playing soccer with his son on the other side of the field.

One morning in the park, an infant boy bawls as his father pushes a small infant-sized bike, the family dog trotting beside them, a look of “I love this kid, but please shut him up” on its face. The father turns to his son. “If you don’t shut you mouf…. do you want me to slap you face? I swear I will slap you in da mouf.”

But Victoria Park is still nearly three miles away; I’m just now running past The Pumphouse, heading due east, past The Narrow Boat pub, down the towpath, made from mixed materials of cement and brick and dusty, rocky dirt. Swans and mallards and black ducks with foreheads crested white bob in the canal. A travel writer might say the setting is “bucolic with its dizzying array of eye candy.”

When the light shines in a certain way, the water has a mossy-green hue at this early-morning hour; when it shines another way, it’s like a river of motor oil. You can see the rainbow reflection of oil slicks on its surface; sometimes, you can see right down to the bottom (it’s not that deep), and you see things you’d rather not see. Bottles. Cans. Miscellaneous trash. Dead bodies. Joking. Not about the trash though.

Regent's Canal London

I plunge further down the towpath, past another city lock with water seeping through the cracks of gates made of strong, battered timber. Here are benches and overflowing garbage cans, and fishermen casting across the canal towards weeping willows with springtime haircuts. There are young mothers having coffee and cakes at cafes named Towpath and Waterhouse, and here is a cluster of school children in kayaks, teachers attempting in vain to corral the excitement and turn this into a learning experience.

Teacher: “Okay, right — let’s say you lose you paddle. What else can you use?

Students: “Ahhhhhhh!!!!!!! Woooooooo!!!!”

I keep running, slowing my pace around the blind archway turns, listening for the bells or the “beep-beep!” or the “yoo hoo! yoo hoo!” There are some comparatively open towpath stretches, when bicyclists and walkers and runners and stroller-pushers and drunks and dog-walkers jockey for space more comfortably. It’s easier to let bicyclists by on those stretches; when I do, I’m thanked with a whispered “cheers mate” as they pass. Sometimes they just whisper “cheers.” Some of the large, horizontally shaped cinderblocks wiggle like a loose baby tooth when I step on them; that sound they make when they seesaw slightly is as satisfying as popping bubble wrap.

Along Regent’s Canal, fancy condos paneled with fancy wood and studded with fancy glass balconies, sandwiching comparably modest brick housing blocks that have been there long before this was prime real estate. In the canal, long houseboats, some topped with astro turf and piled high with bicycles and barbecues and fire wood. Some have neatly manicured gardens; some have dogs or cats or both. Once, the crystal-clear sound of dubstep thumped like a club from inside a boat; as I ran by, I saw the silhouettes of dancing bodies, and smelled good pot.

That was near Victoria Park. That’s where I turn around and, this time in London, head back to Chapel Market. Six miles roundtrip.

Brian Spencer is a freelance writer and editor based in Singapore; more of his work for the Perceptive Travel Blog is here.

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