As the principal canal in central London, the Regent’s Canal reflects many of the qualities of the city it traverses. There are areas of great wealth and those that once saw great poverty; warehouses transformed by new businesses; parks both vast and tiny; old buildings that turn their backs to the canal and shiny new apartment blocks that embrace the water; thriving street markets; hidden corners and tourist hotspots.
In many areas, such as Broadway Market, Camden Lock, Little Venice, Kings’ Cross and Limehouse, the canal has become a focal point of the community, a place where people can meet away from the bustle of London’s streets. One of these hubs, the City Road Basin in Islington, is the location of the annual Angel Canal Festival, a thriving event set to take place on 2 September 2018.
The canal was constructed between 1812 and 1820 to connect the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal with the Thames at Limehouse. This ambitious curve through the centre of the capital was incorporated into John Nash’s plans for Regent’s Park. The canal was an important freight route, so all 13 locks were constructed as doubles and a number of basins were built at intervals along the route. The City Road Basin was one of the busiest as it was the closest to the City of London.
The canal was initially much used, but by the 1840s was already under threat from railways. Plans were hatched to convert the route into a railway, but they fortunately never came to fruition. Instead, the canal gradually moved over to leisure use. Today, many people live on the water, and these colourful homes add to the canal’s vibrant energy. There’s also a wide selection of floating traders, , and the Trust holds regular events celebrating the canal’s unique qualities and history. The Regent’s Canal is also a real treat for nature lovers, as a walk along the towpath leads you past community gardens, pocket parks and tiny nature reserves. Read on for our guide to this quirky London waterway…
Plan your trip
The Angel Canal Festival takes place on Sunday 2 September and is a short walk from Angel tube station.
This 8.6-mile stretch of The Regent’s Canal runs from Little Venice to Limehouse, and it’s easily accessible by public transport: use Warwick Avenue for Little Venice or Limehouse DLR.
There are numerous eateries along the way – we’ve highlighted only a handful of places. If you’d like to take your own food there are some great delis and supermarkets near Little Venice on Clifton Road, as well as supermarkets close to the canal in Camden, St Pancras and Limehouse.
This is where the Regent’s Canal picks up from the Grand Union and it’s a popular spot for camera-wielding tourists who love the grand townhouses overlooking brightly-painted narrowboats. The pool at Little Venice has an island – nicknamed Browning’s Island after once-local poet Robert Browning – and is also home to a floating tea room and the Puppet Theatre Barge. Several trip boats start from this point, and there are some fine pubs and restaurants in the surrounding streets, including the Bridge House, which overlooks the canal.
The canal continues under Edgeware Road through the lengthy Maida Hill Tunnel , before heading through the shorter Eyre’s Tunnel, past the mooring at Lisson Grove. Here you’re close to Lord’s Cricket Ground, so you might want to take a detour to tour the ground and visit the museum. This is one of the more sedate stretches as the canal, and it’s lined by a succession of grand lodges as it passes Regent’s Park and skirts the edge of London Zoo. Keep an eye out, you might even be able to glimpse some of the animals.
Camden Lock was one of the first places on our inland waterway network to be revived after the Second World War, as the popular market grew into one of the biggest in Europe. There are now several good music venues and a lot of great shopping to be enjoyed here, much of it occupying the yards and warehouses built for the industries that once lined the canal and basin. The Little Venice boat trips end here, allowing visitors to get out and explore. Pedestrians, though, can press on through the crowds to St Pancras.
A more recent focus of renovation, St Pancras Lock is now one of the most exciting spots in London. The surrounding area is home to tech giants and Central St Martin’s art school, bringing a real buzz to the area. There are many shops, bars and restaurants, as well as a stunning neo-gothic water tower designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott that’s found next to the moorings at St Pancras Basin. There’s also the lovely Camley Street Nature Park, which will reopen again in spring 2019 after a new visitor’s information centre has been finished.
The redevelopment has allowed the area to retain some of its original industrial identity – the old gas holder frames have been redeveloped as apartments rather than being removed – but it also feels like an entirely new and exciting part of London, and the canal is very much a part of that. A short walk further east brings you to London Canal Museum, which enlightens visitors on the history of our canals from the site of a former ice depot. The Regent’s Canal at this point disappears into the 880m Islington Tunnel – London’s longest canal tunnel.
Angel Canal Festival
The tunnel re-emerges at City Road Basin, the location of the Angel Canal Festival. This lively event has been held at the basin since 1987, and has grown considerably since those early days. The 2018 event will be the first organised by the Canal & River Trust, which plans to retain all the qualities that have made the festival so popular. “It has a great reputation and a brilliant history,” says project manager Sian Palmer-Ferry. “We will try to keep it as close to the original spirit as possible, although with different priorities.”
The festival has a fascinating and very personal history. This once thriving basin had fallen into steep decline by the end of the 1960s, and proposals were made to fill it with concrete (which has happened to many other canal basins in London). Opposing this was Crystal Hale, a local resident and pioneer of canal conservation whose father, AP Herbert, had written a novel called The Water Gipsies about a boat-dwelling family on the Thames. Hale had inherited her father’s passion; she lived on Noel Road, overlooking the canal, and after saving the basin from redevelopment founded the Islington Boat Club and the Angel Community Boat Trust.
Hale organised the first Angel Festival in 1987 as a fundraising initiative. Her love of the canal was such that when she died in 1999, her body was carried on the roof of the Angel narrowboat through the Islington Tunnel and there’s a plaque in her memory at the City Road Basin. The Angel II boat will be present at the 2018 festival, and the Islington Boat Club will also take part along with other local charities and historical groups. Canal & River Trust volunteers will be on hand to provide walking tours, and there’ll also be boat trips to the nearby Sturt’s Lock, staffed by Clerkenwell & Islington Blue Badge Guides who will give fascinating insights into the area.
One of the main focal points will be a theatre boat, which will feature an array of entertainers. The Trust will also be bringing their boat Jena, where children can take part in arts and crafts. Elsewhere, you’ll have a chance to get involved in pottery painting, bug hotel building, face painting and instrument building. “We will still have a vast amount of food stalls, with many of the same providers as previous years, and also many of the same entertainers,” says Palmer-Ferry. “But we have also decided to focus on other areas that we think are more relevant to the canal and the waterways. The Mayor of Islington will arrive by boat and the Islington Boat Club will offer watersports, such as paddleboarding and kayaking.”
After City Road Basin, the canal heads east through more industrial territory towards Hackney. There are a number of fine waterside pubs and cafés around Kingsland Basin, including the Towpath Café, The Barge House, Arepa & Co and Draughts, a board games bar. Further on, the canal passes Broadway Market, which takes place every Saturday and welcomes around 135 stalls selling fresh produce, vintage clothes, flowers, coffee, books and groceries. Look out for more unusual enterprises nearby, such as Viktor Wynd’s Museum of Curiosities on Mare Street, where you can marvel at dodo bones, mermaid skeletons and a two-headed kitten. This is one of the few stretches of canal in the country where you are likely to spot somebody riding a unicycle.
Leaving Hackney, the canal passes the beautiful Victoria Park as it dips into the East End and heads towards the Thames. The park is one of London’s finer green spaces, with good facilities and several listed structures – including alcoves removed from London Bridge in 1831 – and the world’s oldest model boat club.
After passing Old Ford Lock, where the Hertford Union branches off to meet the Lee Navigation, the Regent’s Canal continues beside the Mile End Park, a long strip of green space created on land that had once been used by industries but was devastated by the Blitz. The park has play areas, an ecology centre, a climbing wall, the wonderful Palm Tree pub and the Ragged School Museum, which occupies three former canal warehouses on Copperfield Road and recreates the experience of a Victorian schoolroom.
The canal winds up at Limehouse Basin, once a thriving hub of industry and now a peaceful marina for narrowboats and yachts. Originally named Regent’s Canal Dock, this is where cargo would arrive from all over the world to be loaded on to canal barges; this is the point where the entire inland waterway system engaged with the wider world. The dock later became vital for the supply of coal to the gasworks and power stations that lined the canal and the Thames.
There are still some signs of this industrial past in the surrounding architecture, such as the octagonal hydraulic accumulator used to power the coal-handling machines. At Limehouse, you can hire kayaks or settle in for a drink at one of several great pubs, including The Narrow, a restaurant/pub run by Gordon Ramsay, and The Grapes, part-owned by Sir Ian McKellen.