Posted on 02/08/2019
The Regent’s Canal has been many things in its 199-year history: a vital trade route; home to live-aboard boaters; even a conduit for the cables of the national grid. But in my life it’s had a completely different and perhaps surprising role – as a source of solace, a haven of peace, and an anchor when I found myself adrift.
I’d come to Bethnal Green through an unlikely circumstance. While living in Guatemala, I’d written a script for a feature film set in east London. This had been an odd choice of setting since my knowledge of that part of the capital was limited to a single trip to Greenwich with the Cubs when I was eight. I therefore reckoned that, in the interests of verisimilitude, when I returned to Britain I should probably expand my first-hand experience of the area by taking up residence there.
It may sound faintly spurious but reverse culture-shock is quite something. After six years abroad, Bethnal Green – and British life more generally – took some getting used to. I was alone and my one local friend was someone I’d met just twice before. I began to explore my new surroundings and without really making any conscious effort to do so, found myself time and again seeking out my local waterway, the Regent’s Canal. It offered me a corridor of serenity, away from traffic noise and closer to trees (a grand old sweet chestnut was a particular favourite). Two decades later I would find myself beside a quite different waterway but taking succour from it in just the same way.
Samuel Johnson was a brilliantly witty man but he was apt to over-egg the pudding at times. While I had become tired of London I had not become tired of life so much as in need of a bit more space and fresher air than the city could offer. And so, after a mostly happy time in the capital I moved to Lewes, the ancient county town of Sussex. There were many elements that drew me there: the eminently climbable South Downs and the proximity of the sea being two particularly enticing features. But it was the fact that I would have easy access to a river that clinched it for me.
The flat I chose is a five-minute walk from the River Ouse and I’m fortunate that, when I reach its banks, I have a choice of two different landscapes. Should I head north, I soon find myself crossing arable fields and the Greensand Ridge into the Low Weald. Turn south and I pass the steep chalky cliffs that make Lewes the unlikely locus of Britain’s worst ever avalanche. Before long, my southern route leads me onto a broad floodplain dotted with picturesque villages (including Virginia Woolf’s Rodmell), patrolled by a beautiful pair of egrets, and bracketed by wonderfully sculptured hills between which the broadening river hurries with surprising directness towards the English Channel. Whichever way I go, I’m guaranteed a walk that will leave me feeling more grounded and more content with my lot than when I left home.
But just why do rivers produce this effect? Perhaps it’s their predictable ebbs and flows, the spring and neap tides you can mark on a calendar. Such constancy certainly makes it easy to strike up an acquaintanceship with them quickly. This can be particularly comforting shortly after a move when human relationships are up in the air and when the newness of everything can be bewildering. Likewise, the stolidity of canals, and the way insects, leaves and aquatic birds all drift slowly across them provides a welcome counterweight to the relentless rapidity of modern life.
Two decades ago, when I moved to Bethnal Green, I incorporated the Regent’s Canal into my everyday life. I used the towpath as a jogging track; a means of escape to the Lee Navigation and the countryside beyond; and as a handy way of cycling west into town. I became familiar with many of the quirkier paving slabs, relishing the ones I knew would rock gently back and forth under my wheels, emitting a friendly wok-wok sound that made me think of a hansom cab driving over cobbles in Dickens’ London. If it had rained recently, the same slabs would shoot a cheeky jet of water up at my pedals.
That’s not the only way my friendly neighbourhood waterway has got me damp. A few weeks ago I entered the annual raft race along the Ouse from Lewes to Newhaven. Inside the first mile, the mighty vessel I was paddling sank without ceremony, sending her crew of six swimming for the grassy bank. Can there be a better way of bonding with one’s new townsfolk and surroundings than a baptism in the waters of the local river?
When taking to the towpaths this summer be sure to be safe, the water might look tempting but there are more ways to cool down with two feet on the towpath. If however you would like to take part in some open water swimming, a spot of canoeing or an organised boat race please be sure to consult our summer water safety pages.