It’s hard to see it now, but canals were originally built purely to connect basins in different parts of the country and the Limehouse Basin was king of the lot. This was once, after all, the front door to the entire canal network: 14 acres of water and wharves where cargo, mainly coal destined for power stations, was swapped between seagoing vessels and canal barges. The basin back then would have been a huge and hectic place and it remains an important site for boats thanks to its connection to the Thames. Heavily redeveloped, there still exists a considerable amount of the original canal architecture as well as some great pubs.
Limehouse Basin began life in 1820 as Regent’s Canal Dock, a place for seafaring boats to hand over cargo to canal boats to take along the Regent’s Canal. Largely used to supply coal to the power stations and gasworks that lined the towpath, it was a hugely important spot for the capital. Given the difficulty of getting rail into central London, it remained in use until after the Second World War at which point decline began. Regeneration was linked to the overall Docklands redevelopment, and by the 1990s the land and buildings around the basin were being used for luxury flats.
The basin itself now acts largely as a marina, although it is still the principle access point to the Thames for many boats and barges via the impressive ship lock – it’s worth trying to see this in operation. The basin is an excellent spot for ramblers to start a day out along the Regent’s Canal, the Limehouse Cut or Thames Path. Nearby pubs include The Narrow (run by Gordon Ramsay) and The Grapes, which is part-owned by Sir Ian McKellen. There are also many old canal buildings to see such as the harbourmaster’s office and the Grade-II listed hydraulic accumulator, which is housed in an eight-sided tower that was built in 1869 to regulate the hydraulic pressure for the coal-handling machinery. It is open every year for Open House Weekend.