October 14, 2006

Grand Union Canal Walk

London has a canal system that inconspicuously snakes through some if its urban neighbourhoods. The area in which we live, between Kensington & Chelsea and Paddington (yes, like the bear), features a portion of the Grand Union Canal.

According to “The Grand Union Canal Walk: London to Birmingham” a guide book by Clive Holmes, “This route, something of a ‘round the houses’ circuit, was finished during 1790.” It was built by blasting with gunpowder and was for a short period a major means of commerce.

Holmes’ book explores the 145 mile walk from an area called Little Venice in West London (where we live) to the City of Birmingham. This week I ventured out to explore the nearest portion of the canal.

A five minute walk from our flat and just a block from the tube and train tracks is the canal’s nearest entry point. Stepping onto the towpath I instantly was transferred into a different world away from the hustle and bustle of everyday London. Not many folks were on the path, just a few walkers, joggers and bicyclists.

I started off in the direction of Birmingham and walked about a mile along the canal. The pigeon-free waters were dotted instead with gatherings of Canadian geese and swans. Next to one segment of the canal, in a park off of Portobello Road, is a swamp area in which a regal heron stood on an old wooden dock. It really was difficult to imagine I was in the heart of London.

The most exciting features are the dozens of canal boats moored along the banks. They appear to be inhabited homes and each reflects the personality and house decorating skills of its owner. They ranged from boats with lovely gardens and lace curtains to nomadic habitats with wood piles on the roof and brick-a-brack on the stern.

Along this portion of the route I passed parks, swamps, housing projects, condos, under pedestrian walk paths and bridges, and a supermarket that allows boaters to dock and shop. It then curls through an area known as Shepherds Bush which is more industrial. This zone features Kensal Green Cemetery on one side and then giant Victorian cisterns for water on the other.

The following day I went in the opposite direction towards Paddington to the area known as Little Venice. This direction had a completely different feel. The canal snaked under the highway and was edged by housing complexes. Little Venice was the junction of two canals and even featured a floating café. It appeared to be marketed as a tourist destination. Unfortunately the houseboats in this area have private moorings so the walkway along the canal is locked requiring that you walk along the street.

It was surprising how close this all is to our flat. Distance was difficult to judge and when I looked on the map it turned out that I was only a tube stop away from our neighbourhood. I am eager to rent a bike and explore further in the direction of Birmingham.