Thursday, 17 February 2022

REGENTS CANAL WALK (Little Venice to Kings Cross)

 A sketch map of The Regents Canal showing where it joins The Grand Union Canal at Little Venice and its start at Limehouse on the Thames.

Wednesday 9th February, John Lodge and myself met at Waterloo Station at just a little after 10am. We planned to walk along The Regents Canal, that wends its way from its junction with the Grand Union Canal near the canal basin at ,”Little Venice,” and curves round past Regents Park to Limehouse Basin where the canal meets the River Thames. The walk  takes in the Georgian architecture of the Regency, a terrifying Victorian disaster, grand converted industrial buildings, modernist steal industrial units, the shops, pubs and cafes of vibrant Camden, the homes of twentieth century writers and actors, the centre for British folk music, the home of a great war time hero, the grand homes of diplomats and oligarchs, institutes at the forefront of medical research, canal boats clustered together creating cosy communities and on the final part of this first stretch of our walk the grand architecture of St Pancras Station and the new modernist British Library.

The canal was first proposed by Thomas Homer in 1802 as a link from the Paddington arm of the then Grand Junction Canal (opened in 1801) with the River Thames at Limehouse. The Regent's Canal was built during the early 19th century after an Act of Parliament was passed in 1812. John Nash was a director of the company; in 1811. He produced a masterplan for The Prince Regent to redevelop a large area of central north London. As a result, the Regent's Canal was included in the scheme, running for part of its distance along the northern edge of Regents Park. The intention was to create a canal that joined The Grand Union Canal leading up to Birmingham, the Midlands and the north with the Thames and the port of London and the trade that came to London from the rest of the world

John at Warwick Avenue tube entrance.

John and I emerged from Warwick Road tube entrance and walked on to the road bridge that crosses the canal at the point where the Little Venice basin is located and Regents Canal begins.On one side of the road we looked down onto the canal basin where it expands into a large area of water with canal boats moored to its quays at various points. We started our walk on the south side of the road bridge and aimed east towards Regents Park and Camden, along Maida Road. It is edged by large Georgian and early Victorian houses. A blue plaque on one house informed us the John Masefield ( 1878-1967) the poet laureate, lived in this house from 1907 to 1912. He is remembered as the author of the classic children's novels The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights, and poems, including The Everlasting Mercy and Sea-Fever.

John Masefield's house.

SEA FEVER by John Masefield

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a gray mist on the sea's face, and a gray dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way, where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.

Just opposite his front door there were only the sight of narrow boats to sooth his sea yearning spirit. None of your,” flung spray and the blown spume.”

The canal opposite John Masefield's house.

A shiny Maserati sports car was parked at the side of the road in front of John Masefield’s previous residence. The driver’s side door was wide open and the driver sat making a call on his mobile. Red leather upholstered car seats and it had a dashboard reminiscent of a fighter jet control display. The car, the driver and the area exuded wealth.

Nearby John Masefield’s house stands a vast cavernous brick built church in the Victorian Gothic style. The Church notice board informed us it was the ,”Catholic Apostolic Church, Maida Avenue W2.”The gates and doors had hefty padlocks on them. We saw that the plants and shrubs surrounding the church were well kept, so the church was not abandoned. Catholic churches are not usually described as Apostolic and they also usually are named after a saint. Both John and I felt it wasn’t a usual catholic church. I researched it and discovered a reference in the Britannica. The Catholic Apostolic Church, was formed in 1832 largely by the Scotsman Edward Irving. He and his followers prepared for the second coming. Apocalyptic groups also formed in the United States. The apocalyptic prophecies of William Miller (1782–1849) in the 1840s led to the formation of the church The Roman Catholic Church calls itself the one apostolic church but this form of Catholicism is different in many ways. Much is similar to and could be mistaken for Roman Catholicism but there are doctrinal differences for instance there is a great stress on symbolism, and in the Eucharist, it rejects both transubstantiation and consubstantiation but holds strongly to a presence. In some ways these philosophical positions appear to have subtle differences but in theological terms they are very different.

The Catholic Apostolic Church on Maida Avenue.

Most of the canal boats we saw on our walk were privately owned. Many of the narrow boats were personalised and adapted to the owner’s needs. Plant pots, washing lines and smoke stacks protruding from roofs. All were painted in bright reds and greens with intricate folk art flower designs adorning them. One boat had the title, THE ARTIST painted in large letters along the side of its hull. John and I surmised that an artist lived here. Narrow boat life is definitely for the free spirited and the adventurous. The living space is small and clearly narrow. One stretch of the canal, before we reached Camden, had a cluster of boats. Tall wrought iron gates blocked a stretch of the canal footpath on the north side of the canal where these boats were moored.. Wooden sheds and planted areas of the embankment, flowers, shrubs and vegetable patches with bicycles chained to railings depicted what appeared to be a permanent community of boats. A water born village.

A community of canal boats.

We wandered from the canal when places we saw on the map took our interest. We saw that the Cecil Sharp House is located a couple of roads from the side of the canal. It is the centre for ,”The English Folk Dance and Song Society. "We went inside and a young lady at the reception desk said we could look around. It has a vast hall for folk music and dance performances. It has a mural along the length of one wall by Ivon Hitchins and is a modernist depiction of key English folk dances and traditions. It hangs above performance that takes place in the hall. The centre also has a small library packed with many books and manuscripts. The genial librarian told us that they had books that even the British Library didn’t have. The library is named The Vaughn Williams Memorial Library. It holds many of Vaughn Williams’s manuscripts. He was a classical composer who collected folk songs and he included folk music into many of his compositions.

Cecil Sharp House.

It always a surprise to come across the houses where people, who are part of British history and culture, once lived. Does where somebody lives tell us about the person? I wonder. We were walking on the south side of the canal and I noticed a blue plaque on a house on the opposite side. We came to a small bridge and crossed to have a look. The blue plaque read, Guy Gibson VC 1918-1944. Piolet. Leader of The Dambusters Raid lived here. You can work it out. He was 26years old when he died. The raid on the German dams occurred in May 1943. My dad would have been excited to see this house. He was in the RAF during the war and served as an armourer on one of the Battle of Britain airfields at Bicester. Guy Gibson lead one of the most daring raids of WWII destroying the Ruhr Dams which flooded and damaged a large proportion of the German industrial capability. The factories were back running within months but the raids hampered the Nazi war effort for a period of time. This white Victorian house in a row of white Victorian houses was the home of a real national hero.

Guy Gibson's home next to the canal.

Further along the canal on the south side we came across another blue plaque, that of the actor Arthur Lowe. Captain Mainwaring of the Home Guard no less who was one of the stars of Dads Army. A fictional war hero who indeed represented the heroes of the Home Guard.

The home of Arthur Lowe in Maida Vale.

As we walked along the canal we  saw the Regents Park Mosque ahead so we took another detour to visit it. A school party from a local school were being taken in when we arrived. John and I walked around the precinct and stood at the entrance to the great prayer hall. We could have gone inside the hall but we wanted to continue our walk. Preparations such as removing our shoes and mentally getting ready to pray would have been fine for the two of us but we had to move on. Nobody challenged us within the Mosque precincts to ask what we wanted. We sensed a lot of trust. The few people we came across were at prayer.

Regents Park Mosque.

The canal passes to the south of Primrose Hill which is located north of the canal on the opposite side to London Zoo. The area around Primrose Hill is a famous area for writers, actors and musicians who live in the old Georgian and Victorian houses lining the local streets. I have been reading some of Alan Bennett’s diaries, 2005 to 2015. He is a prolific diarist, playwright, screen writer, actor and novelist. He is also famous for his early satirical stage shows with Peter Cook and Dudley More appearing at the Edinburgh fringe festival. Alan Bennett’s talents are prodigious. Some of his plays include the ,”History Boys,” that launched the careers of some very famous actors and was made into a film. He wrote ,”The Lady in the Van,” about a Miss Shepherd who lived in a van for a number of years in the small driveway in front of his house. It too has been filmed with with Maggie Smith playing the part of Miss Shepherd. I had looked up Alan Bennet’s house on the internet which he has now moved from and discovered its address, 23 Gloucester Crescent. The internet even provides pictures of it. Looking at Google maps on my phone John and I could see that Gloucester Crescent was nearby. We found it and halfway round the crescent we discovered Alan Bennetts famous house with large gates in front of the short driveway. It was behind these gates where Miss Shepherd must have lived in her van.

Alan Bennett used to live at 23 Gloucester Crescent. "The Lady in the Van, "was parked just behind the gates.

Nearby is Camden High Street. We decided to stop and have a pub lunch. There are a few venues to choose from in Camden High Street. We went into The Bucks Head. We sat and ate some delicious fish and chips and drank two pints of Camden Pale ale each. It is brewed locally in Camden . It has a hoppy taste and has a great flavour. I recommend the Camden brew. Many of the shops in Camden are small businesses that sell local clothes designers clothing, shoe makers and artists display and sell their wares too.. It is a young area and innovative crafts are evident in the high street. As we walked along,we noticed people dressed and adorned in avant garde ways. Many appear to not only be experimenting with what they wear but also what they do with their bodies. Some of the pubs are live music venues like the Bucks Head where John and I had our pub lunch and young musicians thrive in the area. Camden High Street leads up to the iconic railway bridge and the canal locks where we re-joined the canal footpath.

Camden Lock.

One old bridge we walked under beside the canal had three archways constructed from massive black ionic columns made of cast iron. The bridge itself had some intricate iron work topping the walls across its width. Homeless sleepers had left some of their belongings on the banks on both sides under the bridge arches. Two gentlemen lay in their sleeping bags as we passed talking and discussing things. They ignored us. A plaque placed on the embankment related the history of this bridge.

“Blow Up Bridge,” At 3am on the 2nd October 1874 the boat Tilbury carrying gunpowder to a quarry in the Midlands exploded demolishing the bridge and killing three people. Locals sprang from their beds feeling an earthquake.When the bridge was rebuilt the pillars were turned around so that they offered a smooth surface for the boats towing ropes. Look out for the rope grooves on either sides of the pillars.”

It is mind blowing, no pun intended. Further reading reveals that the boat was carrying petroleum and nuts as well as the gunpowder. A combustable combination. The consequences  of this accident brought about, by way of an act of Parliament, a change in the laws concerning transporting gunpowder and petroleum.

"Blow Up Bridge."

While walking past Regents Park, along the side of the canal, we came across a row of six , what appeared to be, large Georgian mansions. I discovered they were designed by Quinlan Terry who was commissioned by the government to design buildings to complete Nash’s vision for Regents Park. They were actually, unbelievably, completed in 2002. The American Ambassador lives in one of them. They each have a name. They are called, Veneto Villa, Doric Villa, Corinthian Villa, Ionic Villa, Gothick Villa and the Regency Villa.

"Regency Villa," on Regents Park outer circle designed by Quinlan Terry, completed in 2002.

As we walked towards St Pancras Station we saw a small park to one side with a stone church in the centre and few gravestones dotted about. I was for continuing on towards St Pancras but John suggested we go and have a look at the church. We soon discovered what we had come across. The first grave stone we stopped to look at had carved into it, “Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. Author of The Vindication of the rights of Women.”

Mary Wollstonecraft's tomb in St Pancras Old Church cemetery.

Where were we? It was St Pancras Old Church. When the railways came in the 1860’s when St Pancras Station was being constructed, the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church was in the way. Architects were employed to remove and reposition many of the gravestones. The church was not affected and neither was the tomb of Mary Wollstonecraft. We came to a tree that had many gravestones piled against it. Over the years the roots of the tree have entangled the grave stones and included them into its root system. A plaque near the tree read , “ The Hardy Tree.” So we read on. As a young man Thomas Hardy was an architect working for Arthur Bromfield. He was employed to work on the graveyard here. He spent many hours in St Pancras churchyard removing and repositioning gravestones. It was Hardy who created this cluster of gravestones around the tree. A day of amazing discoveries.

The Hardy Tree in the cemetery of St Pancras Old Church. Thomas Hardy created this pile of gravestones.

We walked on towards St Pancras and Kings Cross. We came across the Crick Institute for research into cancers. It is a vast modernist building with a massive glass roof that is reminiscent of an armadillo shell. John and I went inside to see a free exhibition they have in the entrance. Video interviews with scientists and surgeons are part of the exhibition. Its good to know about cancers, if somewhat sobering and thought provoking. As we get old all of us are susceptible to some sort of cancer. But what the Crick institute is doing is absolutely amazing. Their research is saving the world. They give us all hope.

After this the British Library was our next call. We went upstairs to the café and had a coffee. We visited the free exhibition they have there. The exhibition displays many documents and books that are so important to British people and the United Kingdom. There is a copy of the Magna Carta, a first folio edition of Shakespeare's collected works published by two of Shakespeare's friends , John Heminge and Henry Condell, who edited it and supervised the printing. They appear in a list of the 'Principall Actors' who performed in Shakespeare's plays, alongside Richard Burbage, Thomas Kemp and Shakespeare himself.

Shakespeare's Complete Works a first folio.

There are illuminated manuscripts of the Bible . We came across a poem written in perfect cursive style by Jane Austen to her brother Frank. It lies on the wooden writing slope her father bought her.

Jane Austen's handwritten poem to her brother Frank lying on the writing slope her father gave her.

Because it is the 100 th anniversary of Ullysses, by James Joyce published by ,”Shakespeare and Company,” in 1922 there was a first edition on display and a letter from Virginia Wolf and another from Sylvia Beach of Shakepeare and Co. Virginia Wolf politely turned down the offer of publishing the book at her Hogarth press in Richmond. In the display there was a large A1 sized piece of paper where Joyce had planned out one part of his book. It consisted of lists, phrases and words written in blue and red colouring pencil much of which is crossed out showing Joyce included that particular crossed out thought or idea in the novel. A large series of concentric almond shaped ovals nested inside each other, were drawn on part of the paper. Each oval had ideas written within it. A design that can be interpreted in a number of ways. The whole display was fascinating. There was analysis of the structure and themes in the book. I have read Ulysses in its entirety. It was similar to the effort needed to running a marathon. Exhaustion and tiredness could set in. I loved the language and the rhythms of the text, the lilting Irish cadences, phraseology and words.The language entices and seduces you. Much of the dialogue and description is enigmatic. Punctuation isn’t of great concern. Words and phrases tumble together. A great, attractive modernist piece of writing. It still confuses me but It’s good to know, as shown in this exhibition, that Joyce had a structural and thematic concept for it. Near the Ulysses exhibition there was also an extensive display about Angela Carter that I didn’t spend enough time with.

So John and I left the British Library, its massive iron statue of Isaac Newton hunched forward focussed on using a pair of compasses based on William Blake’s drawing of Newton. After having explored so many things along the way John and I walked past the front of St Pancras Station’s immense Victorian gothic masterpiece and got the tube from Kings Cross back to Waterloo. From Waterloo, platform one, we got our train back home. The next stage from Kings Cross to Lime House is an adventure for next time.

Arthur Lowe :

Guy Gibson :

https://www.poetry foundations .org/poets/john-masefield