In earlier parts of this End of the Line series, we’ve compared the contrasting fortunes of canal termini in their industrial heyday, and their modern setting. Nowhere is that contrast more stark than east London’s Limehouse Basin. 150 years ago, this was a scene of grit, graft and danger. Today, it is a place of leisure. A one-bedroom flat overlooking the basin costs over half a million pounds.
Anatomy of a basin
Limehouse Basin is a double terminus. Two important waterways – the Regent’s Canal and the Limehouse Cut feed in near the northern corners. Of the two terminating waterways, the Regent’s Canal needs little introduction. It is known to millions thanks to a route that beautifies King’s Cross, Camden Town and London Zoo. It connects to the Grand Junction at Paddington, and thence the wider canal network.
The Limehouse Cut may be less familiar. It is London’s oldest canal, opened in 1768. The Cut was devised as a timesaver. It’s no-nonsense straight line allows boats to pass between the Lee Navigation and the Thames without the many twists and turns of the natural route. This canal once fed directly into the Thames, but now communicates with Limehouse Basin following engineering works in 1968.
Coal for London
Limehouse Basin is a modern coinage. The area was originally known as Regent’s Canal Dock, from its opening in 1820 until the mid-20th century. It’s purpose was to link the Regent’s Canal to the Thames, and provide plenty of jetties for seagoing vessels, whose cargoes could then be transferred to canal boats for inland transport.
The dock struggled in those early years. By mid-century, though, it had found its true calling, supplying coal to London’s many gasworks, private hearths and, latterly, electricity generation plants. As the century progressed, collier ships grew larger – too large for Limehouse to handle. In the face of competition from a rival dock in Poplar, the Regent’s Canal Dock built a new ship lock to allow ingress of the bigger colliers. This meant carrying the ancient Narrow Street over a swing bridge. A modern replacement still functions. Seeing the roadway veer out over the dock is a sight to behold.
Like much of London’s docklands, the basin’s importance ebbed after the Second World War. Coal was no longer in demand, industry abandoned the Regent’s Canal, and the wider waterway network grew moribund. The turnaround for Limehouse began in the 1980s, when the former coal dock was gradually converted into a desirable housing development.
While heavy industry has long departed these waters, Limehouse Basin still sits at the heart of major transport networks. The Docklands Light Railway passes along the northern edge on an old railway viaduct. The Limehouse Link – said to be the most expensive road (per metre) ever built in Britain – dives underneath.
Here and there, hints of the industrial past can be found. The gasworks are long closed, but the skeletal remains of gasometers can are still to be seen along the Regent’s Canal. The nearest are at Haggerston, two miles up the towpath. The most imaginative are on the canal side at King’s Cross, where the Victorian metal frames now engirdle a drum-shaped housing development. In Limehouse Basin itself, a series of information boards help the visitor piece together the history. Look out for the hydraulic accumulator tower, just east of the entrance to the Regent’s Canal. This octagonal structure regulated the supply of hydraulic power to the dock’s cranes. It can be visited during London Open House week every September.
The basin is now a hub of leisure. Among the private yachts and narrowboats, one can often spot a parade of kayaks, curiously painted to resemble cows. The firm Moo Canoes hires out its craft to those wishing to paddle round the basin and along the Limehouse Cut. Across the water, the Cruising Association enjoys a purpose-built headquarters beside the Thames lock. Nearby, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay presides over The Narrow gastropub, while actor Ian Mckellen co-owns the more traditional pub The Grapes.
The once-gritty basin is now an overwhelmingly residential place, with countless modern flats overlooking its waters. The marina itself has space for 90 berths, a mix of transient narrowboats and longer-term craft. This is a popular spot, so if you’re thinking of using the visitor moorings, book well ahead.