A different kind of travelogue. As an avid young traveller I often wondered what would it would be like when I got older, gathered commitments, created children and accrued debt. This is what it's like.
I used to live here. A lifetime ago.
For 5 years I lived on a Narrowboat, in Kingsland Basin, in London’s inner North East. I lived in an area called De Beauvoir Town. Almost no one ever heard of it. It was a hidden sliver of blue between pages 62 and 63 in the London A-Z. It’s immediately north of Hoxton. Almost everyone had heard of that.
Hoxton became famous as the hip and groovy magnet for music and advertising and that sort of thing. That was all focused on Hoxton Square. Bluenote Club, Tomato and the like.
I lived at the other end of Hoxton, famous as a stronghold for British Fascists aka National Front and this rather good Clip which is the exact route I walked to Hoxton Square from my boat.
Nonetheless that is all over now. The former headquarters of the bigots is a nice set of offices and a language school. (Chuckle away.)
The place where my canal boat was moored was Kingsland Basin. A large body of water off the Regents Canal, which is a branch of the much larger Grand Union Canal.In there we ran a charity that still survives; Canals in Hackney Users Group (CHUG). Which is impressive in itself given the development around it. There’s a story in there for another time.
The canals are amazing though, if you’re in London check it out. Get a “Tube” to Angel Station. Walk north on Islington High Street, turn to the east all the way down Duncan Street and as you reach Colebrooke Row you will see a little path on the opposite side of the road.
Go down that path. Do. It is worth it and you will drop into a different world, a watery oasis in this formerly industrial part of England’s capitol.
It is also yet another part of London that is being gentrified. Which is not surprising. It has been radically altered since I lived there. Which largely means apartments. But along the “tow-path” its important to ignore the apartments because if you don’t pay attention you’ll trip over a rope tying up a canal boat or get knocked over by a cyclist.
Nearly 20 years ago, as a cyclist, when I made way to and from work or play this tow-path was largely abandoned. It was darker, dirtier, dodgier and a little bit dangerous. Not very dangerous but most people were afraid of going down there at night and many would avoid it during the day. The governing body controlling canals, British Waterways, used to forbid all mooring along here. Now there is barely a yard of space as an unruly stationary flotilla fills the water. It’s untidy but its alive. The fact that people live along the canal means that it is now a community not a wasteland. There is safety in numbers.
It has not been completely sanitised. There are still alcoholics, people smoking marijuana, a little anti-social behaviour and some rubbish too. I didn’t see any syringes and needles but I didn’t look that hard. They used to be unavoidable. Now there are cafes, shared work-spaces, design studios, pop-up shops, fashionable young people, fashionable older people.
Keep heading East and you’ll come across all sorts of interesting historical sites, mostly re-purposed. Some repeatedly repurposed. There is the cute Narrowboat Pub. There are floating cinemas, former industries, early 20th century film studios, National Museum vaults, gas towers, 60‘s brutalist housing estates built on rubble that lay there since the second world war. On either side there are large canal “Basins” each of which, in the past, were hives of activity where barges brought the goods from all over the empire via the Thames.
CHUG is still based in Kingsland Basin which has changed a lot. Here there are still a decent number of narrowboats, some of them boats I recognised from 20 years ago. When I moved in there there was not one apartment around it. Now there is not one space or building that has not been transformed into apartments, including my favourite building. On the eastern wharf there stands an old Spice warehouse that had been closed for decades when I was there but still gave of the beautiful scents of the exotic products harvested at great human and ecological cost from the far side of the world. Back in the days of the Empire some of these spices were worth more than their weight in gold.
I was nostalgic. Kingsland basin was my home for years. I didn’t knock on the gate or introduce myself to anyone. I told my kids stories as we walked along the canal but at Kingsland Basin I just went a little bit silent.
What can you do. You have to keep going. If you do you will notice as you get further from Islington everything gets a little scruffier but if you are up for it is just as interesting. At the Pritchard’s Road Bridge you’ll see signs for Broadway Market which is worth a visit. At the north end of that street is the park called London Fields. If you continue along the canal you will arrive at Victoria Park (one of the first parks built in London to aid Public Health). Or go all the way to the terminus of the Regents’ Canal at Limehouse Basin. It is a great walk with kids as theres so much to distract them but I would suggest avoiding the canal at “rush hour” as the guys on their bikes are pumped up with the adrenaline required to survive out on the London Streets. They can get a little too close for comfort just as the cars and trucks get too close to them out in the traffic.
There are dozens of public transport connections at most of the bridges over the canal. As you walk up the steps from the canal you emerge from a world without cars and fumes and rejoin the London you know; trucks and buses and noise and smoke. The waterway remains an oasis, just not a secret one.
London A-Z Published 1995
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