Contributing Editor: Emma Walton
A lot of people don’t know about the network of canals running through London. The waterways in the UK stretch as far North as the Lake District before coming all the way down to the River Thames. Despite this, the industrialisation of the city means that picturesque waterways are not the first thought that comes to most tourists’ minds.
Regent’s Canal is a stretch of water 13.8 km (8.6 miles) long that passes through Little Venice, Maida Vale, Hampstead, Kentish Town, Camden, Mile End and Limehouse. My favourite section of the canal, however, is from Islington through the East End to Victoria Park.
Built in the early 1800's, the Canal didn't have an awful lot of early success. Just 10 years after it was completed, it was decided that it would serve London better if it were in fact a railway. Plans were drawn up, but luckily for us they were never put into motion and the Canal survived.
Further north, the Canal passes some of London’s most buzzing attractions including London Zoo and Camden Lock Market, but the stretch of canal starting in Islington is much quieter and offers a lovely spot for a Sunday afternoon stroll, ducking in and out of the many pubs on the route.
Starting from the Islington Tunnel (which is just a short stroll from Angel tube station) you can begin walking east along the canal’s towpath. Here the canal sits in the shadow of Islington's beautiful townhouses before it opens out on to City Road Basin with some absolutely stunning apartments on the right. Along this stretch you first get to smell the narrowboats wood fired stoves burning and see the warm glow of the firelight inside.
Walk just a little further and you will come to some steps - at the top is The Narrowboat (a fantastic gastropub with the likes of Camden Hells on tap). Keep walking and you'll be able to admire the beautiful narrowboats lining the side of the canal. Many of them are beautifully painted proudly showing off which part of London they are from. The Islington Boating Club has made boat trips quite popular for the locals and you can now hire a narrowboat for as little as 6 hours.
Another fab stop as you find yourself on the borders of Islington, Hackney and Shoreditch is the Rosemary Branch Theatre. Downstairs is another wonderful pub with much of its Victorian Music Hall charm still intact. Again you'll find good grub and local beers brewed in N1. Upstairs the theatre is still used famous for its eclectic mix of art and entertainment.
As you wander further into Hackney you’ll notice the mixture of English rural charm and urban life as swans, moorhens and coots bob alongside the narrowboats which by now are set on a background of concrete and graffiti. For me, this emphases how something beautiful can survive somewhere that would otherwise seem quite bleak. The graffiti is also quite clever with giant coots lining the walls. If you keep walking you will even find a Banksy among the art!
As this stretch of canal becomes more and more popular the dilapidated post-war housing is fast being developed in to swanky new flats. This area is really on the up! The tiny, but very popular Towpath Café is perhaps a little pricey, but they offer a bite to eat and a drink to keep you going on your Sunday afternoon stroll.
Keep going and you’ll make it to Kingsland Basin where a community of boaters grow their own vegetables in a specially adapted garden barge! On the weekends, you can take a detour and head to the The Pattern Market, just past off Kingsland Road which sells the usual mix of vintage clothes and bric-a-brac that’s so popular in the East End. Go far enough and you’ll find yourself in Victoria Park.
Whether you chose to take a walk along the more gentrified sections of Regent’s Canal, or through the heart of the East End, you’ll be in for a treat. London's canals are still a relatively well kept secret and they make for a wonderful change of scenery as well as a great place to grab a drink and a bite to eat.