Dreamed a dream by the old canal
Meandering across London from Little Venice through the heart of the East End to the yuppie apartments of Limehouse, the Regent’s Canal is one of my favourite parts of the capital. On a beautiful, crisp October morning, with the colours of autumn just beginning to appear on the trees, the busy leaf strewn towpath provides a lovely, scenic, cosmopolitan running route.
A large slice of London life is here; hungover Hackney hipsters; kids in shalwar kameez clutching Korans; elegant African ladies in gaily coloured towering head dresses; nose-ringed youths with trophy dogs; houseboat residents tending to their plants; runners of all shapes and sizes. And something rare for London is the sense of peacefulness broken only by the occasional ring-ring of a bell as cyclists jostle for space and the quacking of ducks on the water.
By Broadway Market, across the water from a huge rusting gasometer, a second hand bookstall stocks everything from Kafka to Clancy. Two teenage girls pass by, ignoring the paperbacks, talking loudly about last night’s X Factor. As the East End becomes North London there’s a string of canal-side cafes with outdoor seating for brunchers browsing the Sunday papers. Stories about the feats of millionaire footballers from overseas fill the back pages. An east European chef takes a break, cigarette in one hand, phone in the other.
At the City Road Basin an information board mentions Fellows, Morton and Clayton who, in the nineteenth century heyday of canals, were the largest canal transportation company in the country. Back in the nineteenth century a trip from the City Road Basin to the centre of Birmingham took around fifty four hours, no mean feat given the number of locks that had to be negotiated. A hundred or so miles north of London, a canal-side pub in Nottingham city centre, where I’ve enjoyed many a pint, is named after the same company.
The Regent’s Canal opened nearly two hundred years ago but the subsequent advent of rail travel prevented it from becoming as successful as it might have been. Indeed at one point it came very close to being drained and turned into a railway. Nevertheless the canal continued to play an important role in transporting coal, timber and foodstuffs between the south of England and the Midlands and the north right up to the 1960s.
Up above the sky is clear and blue save for the vapour trails of a much faster twenty first century form of transport jetting off to far flung destinations. In the time it used to take to get to Birmingham by canal boat you can now be sipping an espresso, several timezones away, in one of Melbourne’s trendy coffee shops.
The politicians and tabloid newspaper editors can have their immigration targets, tough border controls and security checks. They can try to scare us about immigration and tell of us of how we’re being “swamped” by waves of migrants here to live off benefits and take advantage of our health service. But down by the canal in one of the most multicultural parts of perhaps the most cosmopolitan city in the world, everyone goes about their Sunday morning business comfortable with their surroundings. In the open air, close to nature, we’re all the same, wandering along to our own internal soundtrack of hopes and dreams. Only the pace at which we move differs.