By Jefferson Hunter
Walks along the Regent’s Canal begin, for me, to the east of central London, at Limehouse Basin. A hundred years ago this was the Regent’s Canal Dock, where ships eased through a lock from the Thames, tied up, and offloaded their cargoes of coal or timber into wagons, or into barges for transport onward into the capital. As displays at the small Canal Museum just behind King’s Cross Station will tell you, another cargo was ice, imported from the Baltic states, barged to King’s Cross and stored in brick-lined pits for use in Victorian ice-cream-making establishments. Documentary films from the 1920s screened in an endless loop at the Museum reveal Regent’s Canal Dock as a wilderness of masts through which draft horses pull barges slowly and silently across the grimy water while cloth-capped bargees nudge tillers back and forth against a backdrop of warehouses. All that is gone. On my way around the basin, now a marina filled with yachts and residential narrowboats, I pass the UltraSmile cosmetic dentistry practice and an art gallery, then, paralleling the Docklands Light Railway viaduct and crossing a smart little pedestrian bridge, I reach the lock between basin and canal. From here it is an eight-and-a-half-mile walk on the canal towpath north through Mile End, Islington, King’s Cross, and Camden, then west across Regent’s Park to Little Venice in Paddington. From Little Venice a short branch diverges south toward Paddington Station, while the much longer Grand Union Canal heads west toward the water transport system of the English Midlands. The Regent’s Canal was intended to and still does bring the Thames into watery contact with, say, Birmingham.
On one morning’s towpath stroll, toward the end of what had been an unusually mild winter in London, I stopped to watch a pair of coots getting their spring going early, the male fetching scraps of reed for his nest-building mate already settled into a cattail thicket, neither of them bothered by or even noticing my presence. No sign of the fauna T. S. Eliot mentions in The Waste Land, where canals are rendered as watery slums,
A rat crept softly through the vegetation,
Dragging its slimy belly on the bank,
though I suspect rats do creep about somewhere here, unless urban foxes succeed in keeping them down. Noting my interest in birds, a fellow stroller advised keeping a lookout for a pair of swans frequenting this stretch of water, and a few yards along the pair flew in right on cue, splashed noisily down, and resumed the graceful swanning about they do so well. They paddled up to me, looking for a handout. The birds’ half-domesticated tameness sorts with the peculiar nature of the Canal, half genuinely natural, an extended wildlife corridor complete with dense tangles of berry vines as well as cattails, and half a man-made construct, a masterpiece of 19th-century waterways engineering.
The engineering aspect comes to the fore as you pass by locks, 12 of them all told on the Canal, invariably the old-fashioned miter type, with gates joined at an angle pointing upstream against the sluggish current, so that water pressure helps seal them shut—the same ingenious design found in human heart valves. The locks lift boats up the 86-foot gradient between the Thames and Little Venice and were originally all double, that is, provided with side-by-side lifting chambers to speed two-way barge traffic through. Now most have been converted to single locks with a weir. Once I lingered to watch two narrowboats passing downstream through Salmon Lane Lock, one after the other, their owners leaning hard against the massive beams which lever open the upstream gates, then guiding the boats into the lock, tying them up temporarily, using a hand crank to raise the underwater doors which drain water out and lower its level within the lock, then finally opening the downstream gates and releasing the boats back into the Canal . . . a little ballet of purposeful activity, a demonstration of 300-year-old human ingenuity still perfectly accomplishing its task. One of the narrowboats had repurposed an old Victorian sitz bath as a plant container: more ingenuity.
The history of the Regent’s Canal is given in published books and on posters in the tidy Information Centre set inside a waterside Starbucks at Hampstead Road Locks. It was conceived in 1812 by the businessman Thomas Homer, then incorporated within the architect John Nash’s grand scheme for developing Regent’s Park in north central London. Smiled on by the Prince Regent himself, facilitated by an Act of Parliament but funded privately, the Canal was finished by 1820, complete with tunnels, turning basins, and side docks as well as locks. Almost immediately it was heavily used, making profits for two decades until the railways began offering cheaper and faster transport. After a minor respite during World War II, when the Canal did its patriotic bit by helping to transport munitions, it became more or less derelict, a melancholy waterway without purpose. Finally, cleaned up and repurposed as a civic amenity for narrowboat residents and casual walkers like me, it came under the care of the nonprofit Canal and River Trust. To see images of the Canal in its first, most prosperous decades you need go no further than the Information Centre, which displays on its walls reproductions of handsome topographical watercolors by the London artist Thomas Hosmer Shepherd. One of these shows a double lock, horses, barges, miniature figures standing about not doing much, and a top-hatted Regency gentleman, my predecessor as flâneur, surveying the scene at his leisure. Shepherd rendered everything in the soft pastel hues suitable for a London pastoral.
I am grateful for all information received about the Canal but prefer to exit the Information Centre, walk on, and read the waterway for myself—which is to say, recollect writings or paintings which have accumulated around this or that stretch of the Canal, pick over the cultural flotsam of its long murky history, and also peruse the Canal’s own signs, which may be textual or material. The material signs, like potsherds uncovered in an archeological dig, give evidence of a long-vanished civilization, in this case a technologically ingenious one. Consider the black-painted iron pipes set vertically at the corners of brick bridges carrying streets over the towpath and Canal. The pipes—you can feel their smoothness still—were for towropes to slip around. Otherwise the ropes, dirty, full of grit from the paths and shards of coal from cargoes, would have rubbed against and damaged the brickwork. Then there are the odd cutouts in the Canal bank which you come upon every few hundred yards. Twenty or so feet long, perhaps a foot and a half wide, these mini-widenings of the waterway mark places where a stone ramp slopes gradually up from the Canal bottom to the bank. Peer down into the water on a sunny day and you will be able to see what remains of the ramps. They allowed any Clydesdales or Suffolk Punches that had stumbled into the water to clop back up to the towpath and get on with the job. And why would the horses have stumbled into the water? They panicked at the sounds of the railway or perhaps at the sight of sparks or steam from railway engines, since tracks often ran immediately next to canals. A parable here, I think: draft animals spooked by the machines that were in the process of supplanting them.
As for textual signs, the Regent’s Canal is an open-air library of graffiti, some political, a few gnomic, as with “Finesse what you have inside” spray-painted in red on a wall close to the London Zoo. The Canal is also a long skinny marina for narrowboats, plus the occasional double-wide reconditioned barge. Posted mooring regulations specify how long properly licensed boaters (the license costs a few hundred pounds a year) are allowed to stay for free at any one mooring, typically a week or two weeks. Otherwise they must pay a £25 per day docking fee. As I write, the authorities have proposed setting the docking fees closer to market levels, which would make narrowboat residence a much more expensive proposition. The canal boat community is loudly protesting this threat to what they view as their chosen, independent, money-spurning way of life. Where else could they find places to live, in a city so short of affordable housing as London? I suspect that if fees are raised, the boat people will devise workarounds. As I walk the towpath I keep seeing hand-lettered signs in narrowboat windows saying “engine broken down—unable to shift boat . . .”
Aesthetically speaking, the ramshackle boats here seem sharply at odds with their architectural surroundings. New buildings with upmarket flats or glass-walled offices full of computer stations line both sides of the Canal, especially starting north of Queen Mary College of the University of London, and where there are no buildings there are landscaped and amenity-furnished green spaces like the giant Victoria Park. Against all this the Canal’s boats assert an indomitable raffishness. Their décor tends to the idiosyncratic, with ironically chosen objets trouvés sharing deck space with domestic bric-a-brac, bags of trash piled up next to bikes and barbecue grills, and often a profusion of plants and herbs grown in pots. The owners, glimpsed sunning themselves on deck with a coffee or painting away at the woodwork, have the look of the hippies who drive in beaten-up VW camper vans from solstice celebration to solstice celebration. (Inside a narrowboat window I once spotted a model of just such a van; it had a tiny suitcase and a tiny surfboard perched on its roof rack.) Often not in their first youth, regularly tattooed or pierced, boat dwellers appear even more regularly to be smoking handrolled cigarettes or spliffs: marijuana scents the air as you walk by, mixing with the smoke from narrowboat stoves. The 1970s have come to berth on stretches of the Regent’s Canal otherwise given over entirely to the 2010s. Every perspective across a narrowboat deck to the glass balconies of flats presents a lifestyle contrast, the boats’ laid-back pastoral (Thomas Shepherd would have painted it so) juxtaposed with the buildings’ money-making or money-spending purposefulness.
“Pickle,” “Mea Culpa,” “Cowslip,” narrowboat names, perpetuate the theme of raffish eccentricity. The name of one vessel I passed a long way up the Canal, “We Used to Make Things,” does something else. Here is a melancholy admission of the loss of manufacturing jobs which London suffered in the 1960s and which greatly accelerated in the next decades. The city’s garment factories, breweries, chemical works, machine shops, foundries, operational docks, shipyards, and printing plants are now mostly gone, so that the occasional surviving worksite seems a distinct anomaly. The loss of manufacturing has of course provoked self-examination, created economic and social problems. What should London look like, try to be, earn its living from, if not from making things? Contemporary London’s solution has been to hugely expand the service-industry sector, to foster the restaurant trade and other food operations, marketing, computer services, advertising, tourism, and especially the financial businesses in the City and at Canary Wharf. Social problems, such as how working-class Londoners are supposed to live in one of the most expensive cities in the world, have proved less solvable.
Along the towpath, as nearly everywhere in the East End, I see recent London history made legible in architectural redevelopment, warehouses converted to bijou flats, handsome old brick lock-keepers’ cottages turned into cafés. The overall direction of change is obvious, from worksites to residences, from places where Londoners used to make things to places where they live, eat, and order cappuccinos. As it happens, canal boats display this pattern in miniature. In the late 18th or early 19th century they were simple barges for carrying cargo, and their crews lived in housing off the water. Then, to save money as competition from the railways intensified, bargees moved with their families into reconfigured boats, with living quarters squeezed into bows or sterns. Later still, after the railways won the competition, the boats became purely residential, as they have remained. The cargo they transport now, if they move at all, is human.
One important 19th-century London industry, involving many thousands of workers and millions of tons of coal per year, was the production of coal gas for lighting and cooking. The gas was stored in huge cylindrical tanks, gasometers or gas holders, the iron skeletons of which survive even as the industry which constructed and used them has died. A gasometer looms up repeatedly and menacingly in David Cronenberg’s 2002 Spider, a film shot partly in canalside locations in the East End and featuring a coal-gas murder in its plot. The gasometers I pass on the Regent’s Canal look sad rather than menacing, bare ruined choirs with Victorian detailing that really does make them resemble the Gothic framework of a church, with diaper work in iron, graceful thin columns aspiring to the sky, and filigree or solidly square Baroque-style capitals perched atop the columns.
Their ecclesiastical beauty notwithstanding, the gasometers present a problem for London and other British cities. Since they are officially listed as historically important structures, they cannot be demolished, so what is to be done with them? Turn them into housing would be the standard solution in 21st-century London, and that is in fact the solution now being worked out by an enterprise called Gasholders London. In the newly fashionable neighborhood abutting the Regent’s Canal north of King’s Cross, where rail lines crisscross and plazas open the neighborhood up for shops and waterside restaurants, residential towers are being built inside two enormous gasometers, their ironwork constituting a kind of armature or exoskeleton for the flats. A third gasometer, left more or less untouched, provides industrial-chic décor. It is impossible to walk by this work-in-progress without gaping. Certainly I gaped as I passed it on a walk, looking upward toward the tracery as one would do inside a cathedral. A man on the Canal bank, Asian, young, looking like a well-to-do resident of a gasometer flat, did not gape, being preoccupied with setting up his fishing equipment for a go at whatever was swimming in the now relatively unpolluted Canal waters.
While I was fishing in the dull canal
On a winter evening round behind the gashouse,
Eliot has his Fisher King mutter in The Waste Land. Nothing dull about the Canal now, at least on this stretch.
Before reaching King’s Cross, the Regent’s Canal undergoes two changes, the first of them topographic. At Islington the surrounding terrain rises into a modest hill which the canal is forced to traverse via tunnel—the major engineering challenge which its Regency builders faced and overcame. Since there was no room for a towpath within the tunnel, draft horses had to be unharnessed and led on a detour west to Muriel Street, where the Canal emerged from its underground passage. Meanwhile the boats were legged through the tunnel. That is, their crewmen lay on their backs and, upside down, strode against the tunnel roof, propelling the vessels and their heavy cargoes along with nothing but leg power. Later the Canal owners provided a steam-powered cable to winch boats through, but apparently some crews found the fees for using it too high and carried on with legging. Nowadays no visible sign remains of this expenditure of human effort, here or at the similar but shorter tunnel a mile or so west in Maida Vale. You see only the blocked-off towpaths and the tunnel openings themselves, dark and forbidding urban cavern mouths. In 1911 the English artist C. R. W. Nevinson put the Maida Vale tunnel opening into the background of his painting “The Towpath,” a portrayal of two working-class lovers embracing by the side of the Regent’s Canal. Surrounded by hissing steam vents, smokestacks, and dark warehouses, by a still industrial London, the lovers have nevertheless found a quiet stretch all to themselves at twilight, a romantic stretch, even. Under a luminous sky, streetlamps glimmer on the water; the tunnel opening looks appealingly mysterious, not forbidding. You know the lovers are working-class because of his clothes (rolled-up sleeves, vest) and the hat she has taken off so she can lean into his arms and be kissed. The hat is a wide-brimmed number heartbreakingly decorated with a white plume. Besides, who but a working-class couple would have only a towpath to court in?
The other change to the Regent’s Canal hereabouts is sociological. Around Broadway Market it starts to become trendy, a conduit to the happening streets of Hackney. Just off the towpath, by the picturesquely named Cat & Mutton Bridge, you encounter the Body Redemption Scrub clinic and the Txotx Basque Restaurant, by the look of them both expensive. Admittedly, the very inexpensive F. Cooke Eel and Pie Shop stands next door, but in the current scale of foodie values few things could be trendier than an old-fashioned English eel and pie shop. Along the Canal from Broadway Market westward into Camden the signs of hip gentrification proliferate. You pass a playspace for kids with handsome wooden climbing structures, you pass bike shops, community gardens with raised beds for flowers and vegetables, a kayak and canoe center in a side basin. Businesses come right down to the towpath to serve their clienteles, like The Narrowboat pub, its stylishly understated sign bearing the motto Intrate communitatem, “Enter the community,” an invitation for anyone who happens to read Latin to become part of an Islington enclave. The hipness here is quite distinct from the raffishness of stretches further east and south, toward Limehouse. It is stylish rather than scruffy, new rather than old in appearance, moneyed rather than just getting by, defined by the public spaces of playground, pub, or leisure center rather than the private spaces of narrowboats. Its iconic figure would not be a grizzled hippy toking on a joint but a 30-something sitting at an outdoor table of a towpath-side café (say, the Canal No. 5 Café at City Road Lock), writing notes in a leather-bound journal or tapping away at a MacBook while surfing with the café’s Wifi.
Or perhaps the iconic figure would be the Canal and River Trust volunteer I once encountered at a wide plaza on the towpath, next to the community garden. She accosted me politely and with bright enthusiasm, asking me what I thought about the Canal, why I was there. It goes without saying that she was seeking a donation (the Canal and River Trust will lose government funding in a few years and become an entirely private charity), but she also seemed genuinely curious about what an American visitor found of interest canal-side in Islington. In answer to her I paraphrased sentiments from the cheeky signs the Trust has posted all along the waterways in its care (“Caution! You have now entered a stress-free zone, and relax”; “Notice how much more you relax when you’re next to water?”), but the truth is, I was there for many reasons, most of them not involving relaxation—to enjoy a sunny day, get a little exercise, learn more about London, record topographic details in my plastic-bound journal, take pictures with my smartphone, saunter along seeing architecture from unusual angles (just as I might do in a walk on the High Line in mid-Manhattan), be reminded of Canal-themed passages from books, and think of ways I myself might write about the Canal’s history and its current life, as I am doing now. I spared the volunteer a recital of all that and promised to make a donation later.
After City Road Lock, the tunnel under Islington and the long detour on streets around it, you regain the towpath, which, continuing to head west, passes through shorter tunnels beneath rail lines and takes shorter detours around construction sites; this is a fast-redeveloping area. If you are a through-walker along the Canal like me, you measure your progress in stretches between locks. Successively north from Limehouse, these are Basin Lock, Commercial Road Lock, Salmon Lane Lock, Johnson’s Lock, Mile End Lock, Old Ford Lock, Acton’s Lock, Sturt’s Lock, St Pancras Lock, Kentish Town Lock, Hawley Lock, and Hampstead Road Locks, the last an exception to the rule in that it has remained double, as Nash’s engineers originally designed it. It is not, however, particularly busy with the lifting of boats. The increased traffic is all pedestrian here, where Camden High Street intersects the Canal and brings to it dense crowds of the tourists who have been sampling the wares at Camden Market nearby. Just over the pretty iron bridge spanning the Canal, an outdoor food court offers smoothies and Ethiopian coffees, Colombian, Indonesian, or Vietnamese street food. I am as willing as the next fellow to linger there awhile, enjoying my crispy fried squid with green chili sauce, but I do not stay long. After all, the food stalls here are much like those elsewhere in London, in Borough Market, for instance, or for that matter in Paris or Brooklyn or San Francisco.
* * *
Imagine the crowds removed from Camden, go back a few decades in time—admittedly difficult things to do—and you would be in the midst of a backwater, a semi-shabby neighborhood of old houses abutting a derelict canal. This was the Camden chosen by John Le Carré for the climax of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The Soviet agent and the English mole whom he is running use a house in Camden for crash meetings, and there the old Cambridge Circus hand George Smiley sequesters himself in order to discover which friend and colleague it is who has been betraying his country. With topographic precision Le Carré locates the house in “Lock Gardens,”
which presumably drew its name from the Camden and Hampstead Road Locks nearby . . . a terrace of flat-fronted 19th-century houses built at the centre of the crescent, each with three floors and a basement and a strip of walled back garden running down to the Regent’s Canal.
Lock Gardens is apparently fictitious, but Le Carré’s house could be any one of the three-story residences still crowded onto Camden Lock side streets. I have always liked the climax of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and I like it more now, after learning the neighborhood by walking through it. Le Carré notes that Smiley’s assistant Peter Guillam stood close by the house, waiting for events, then at the mole’s arrival raced down the canal tow-path, finally reaching “a low-arched bridge and a steel stairway which led upward in zigzags to Gloucester Avenue. The gate was closed and he had to climb it, ripping one sleeve to the elbow.” I have been through that gate myself, though more decorously than Guillam, without ripping any clothes.
From Camden westward the towpath continues in a quiet stretch, one without locks all the way to Paddington and beyond, since the Canal’s maximum elevation has now been reached. The Pirate Castle sits bankside, a bizarre but well-intentioned water-activities center and indoor play space for children. It looks like something out of Disneyland. Near it, colorful graffiti cover walls. Every now and then you pass, usually under a bridge, the shabby encampments of people sleeping rough, emphatically not a Disneyland touch. A fashion shoot takes place under a bridge crossing, with elaborate camera, light reflectors, and posing model. Again I am reminded of walking on the High Line in New York. Besides these sights, there is little to note west of Camden as for a mile or so the Canal passes through subdued residential neighborhoods. Then it turns abruptly right past a Chinese restaurant housed in a pagoda floating in the water, a splash of bright red against the dirty green of canal water and the bright green of landscaping, and it enters Regent’s Park, curving to follow the line of the park’s northern boundary. No rough sleepers here, nor moored narrowboats, only greenery, and on the north side of the towpath the giant outdoor aviary of the Zoological Society of London, a soaring steel-and-mesh affair designed by Lord Snowden. Peacocks and ibises patrol the ground while hawks perch on metal struts, watching me watching them.
Beyond the Zoo but still in Regent’s Park, across the Canal on the south bank, six giant mansions in cream-colored stucco loom up. Their elevation above the water is part of the original Regent’s Park plan. Nash (or the Prince Regent) wanted the watercourse to be sunken so that the traffic using it, dirty 19th-century coal and hay barges, would not spoil householders’ vistas across the parterres. I used to think that the six houses were themselves respectably old and Nash-designed, dwellings like those in the elegant terraces and circles further south in the Park. Paul Knox’s 2015 book London: Architecture, Building and Social Change set me right. These mansions were in fact
commissioned by the Crown Estate for the northwestern edge of Regent’s Park and built from 1987 onwards, the last being completed in 2008. The architect, Quinlan Terry, intended the six villas to be a demonstration of the range of the Classical tradition (but with interiors customized to the lifestyles of today’s super-rich). Accordingly, there are Corinthian, Gothick, Veneto, Tuscan and Regency villas, as well as the Doric villa. Vulgar and ostentatious even in the context of Nash’s Regency grandiosity, it is as if a row of McMansions has been transplanted from an affluent Atlanta exurb.
So it is contemporary not Regency money on architectural display here, and looking carefully I can convince myself that I do see vulgarity in the facades, not elegance. I would be pleased to get a glimpse of the McMansions’ owners, Chinese investment bankers, Russian oligarchs, Saudi princes, pleased to stand for a while watching them watching me, but I have never seen anyone about.
Contemporary money unquestionably becomes a theme of the Canal between Regent’s Park and Paddington. Nearby houses, though not necessarily mansions, are obviously expensive, and narrowboats, once they start appearing in the Canal again, seem expensive too, nicely groomed and freshly painted, distinctly un-raffish. A puppet theatre on a brightly colored boat offers plays for neighborhood children and posts a sign thanking the arts agency for funding it. One narrowboat community at Blomfield Road is gated, restricted to owners and their guests. So much for Intrate communitatem. It was not always thus. Paul Verlaine freely walked London canals including this one in the 1870s, during the episode of his tortured love affair with Arthur Rimbaud, and he described it in all its 19th-century murkiness, its impoverishment of spirit, in one of the poems from Aquarelles, “Streets II.” The poem is footnoted as being written in or about Paddington, and it begins, charmingly, “O rivière dans la rue!,” then proceeds to describe the modest dwellings by the canal, “yellow and black cottages” illuminated by the dawn. Money is not in sight. For Verlaine, the Canal itself, “yellow as death,” opaque but nevertheless pure, reflects nothing but fog.
I suspect that the literature best suited to the Canal is novelistic rather than poetic, its ambience calling less for mythopoesis and romance, as in Eliot and Verlaine, than for an exact, localized descriptiveness, as in Le Carré, or as in Anthony Powell, the author of the 12-novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time. Powell’s feeling for locality and his hyperactive social sense, his eagerness to search out the history of neighborhoods and the people living in them, make him the preeminent chronicler of London backwaters, for example, the terminus of the Regent’s Canal amid streets north of Paddington Station. It was a war-worn and shabby area in the 1950s, when the action of Powell’s novel Books Do Furnish a Room takes place. The narrator Nick Jenkins is speaking:
At this period the environs of the Canal had not yet developed into something of a quartier chic, as later incarnated. Before the war, the indigenous population, time-honoured landladies, inveterate lodgers, immemorial whores, long undisturbed in surrounding premises, had already begun to give place to young married couples, but buildings already tumbledown had now been further reduced by bombing. The neighbourhood looked anything but flourishing. Leaving Edgware Road, I walked along the north bank of the Canal. On either side of the water gaps among the houses marked where direct hits had reduced Regency villas to rubble.
Nick travels to Paddington to visit his novelist friend X. Trapnel, now conducting a tortured affair with Pamela Widmerpool in a squalid flat somewhere close by the water. Pamela becomes obsessed with what she regards as the deficiencies of the new novel Trapnel is writing, and eventually the demons of anger that rule her life drive her to picking up the manuscript, Trapnel’s sole copy, and throwing it in the Canal. Later Trapnel, drunk, along with Nick and another friend, comes upon soaked ruined sheets of paper floating in water covered with “concentric circles of oil, undulating in the colours of the spectrum. . . . Through these luminous prisms floated anonymous off-scourings of every kind, tin cans, petrol drums, soggy cardboard boxes.” Curious at seeing sodden pages among the rest of the mess, Trapnel climbs down and pokes at one of them with his swordstick, his personal talisman and the extension of his ego. Lifting the page up, he reads it and, discovering his own writing on it, realizes what Pamela has done to him. In despair, he crushes the page and throws it back into the Canal, then hurls his swordstick after it. “Trapnel’s Excalibur” strikes the flood a long way from the bank, then disappears.
It is a remarkable scene, funny and well-observed and profoundly disturbing. I wish it had been available to read in the late 1960s when I stayed intermittently in Paddington myself, but Books Do Furnish a Room only appeared in 1971, and in any case I had not heard of Anthony Powell in those years. I was studying English literature at Bristol University in the west of England and took the occasional London break to catch a play in the West End or hear a concert at the Royal Festival Hall, or simply to sightsee. Exiting the British Rail train under the great soaring arches of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Paddington Station, never failing to catch the excitement of the metropolis in the building’s echoing noise and bustle, I would promptly lug my suitcase a few hundred yards to Norfolk Square or Sussex Gardens and seek a room in one of the walk-up, bathroom-down-the-hall hotels thickly clustered there, their usual charge £3 a night. Then I might eat a lamb curry at an Indian restaurant in the neighborhood, price 7/6 in those pre-decimalization days, about a third of a pound.
After the meal I would be off on the Underground, catching the Bakerloo Line into the center of London, where I thought to find the heart of the matter (I had heard of Graham Greene), the historical and cultural essence of the capital. Walking through narrow streets in the City, where T. S. Eliot had once worked at a bank, I imagined I was seeing the same bowler-hatted, despairing commuters he had described in The Waste Land, crowds of them flowing over London Bridge, so many, gazing downward and marching in lockstep to their private purgatories in offices. Perhaps I peeked into St Mary Woolnoth and Magnus Martyr, churches mentioned in the poem, the first a Hawksmoor, the second a Wren, and read the inscriptions on marble monuments therein, with their eulogizing histories of the great and the good. (Samuel Johnson: “In lapidary inscriptions a man is not upon oath.”) Certainly I crossed Hungerford foot bridge over the Thames, visited the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square, gazed at the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey, watched the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace.
I do not regret doing these touristic things. Everyone new to a city must explore its central and most hallowed sites. What I regret is not exploring the peripheral neighborhood at the end of the Regent’s Canal, Paddington itself. I might have come upon the basin hidden just behind St Mary’s Hospital and followed it to Little Venice, and from there sauntered east and south along a towpath which, though much less groomed than now, intermittent in places, bordered by working gasometers and the dodgy neighborhoods of Books Do Furnish a Room, was definitely walkable. The Regent’s Canal could have taken me on a journey more revelatory than any ride on the Bakerloo Line, one leading in its slow and roundabout way to a history with its own lapidary inscriptions, the signs spray-painted or incised on the stone revetments of the Canal; a history with tales of bargees and Regency gentlemen, of industry and lassitude, of anonymous off-scourings of every kind and the ruined pages of someone’s novel, of narrowboats floating on the tides of time and passing every now and then through locks on their way to the Thames and the sea.