Part 2 KINGS CROSS TO THE KINGSLAND ROAD HACKNEY
On Thursday 24th February John and myself joined by Tony Brown, continued the Regents Canal Walk.
John and I had finished the first part of the walk at The British Library and Kings Cross Station, so it was from there we continued walking the canal path.
We had a wander around St Pancras Station, opened in October 1868 and designed by William Henry Barlow looking at the immense iron and glass arched roofs and the wonderful Victorian brickwork all around, archways and pillars, brickwork, windows and doors. A masterpiece of Victorian Gothic. A ,"cathedral," in its own right. St Pancras is now the Eurostar station and the gateway to Europe from London. Two long sleek Euro Star trains were in the station while we were there.. The tall giant bronze statue of a couple embracing, the plinth of which is surrounded by bronze plaques depicting events connected with the station.
We found the statue to Sir John Betjamin and posed for photographs with him. Betjamin, star of TV documentaries and accessible poetry, his poetry always striking me with the depth of its meaning within the simple imagery and rhythms he created. In many ways he is the poet of the mid 20th century landscape and buildings of Britain. Apart from his poems he is known as the saviour of many a Victorian building that might have been demolished,including St Pancras Station itself. That is why his statue is here.However he was too late to save the amazing façade of Euston Station a mile down the road from St Pancras.
“Revival ran along the hedge
and made my spirit whole
When steam was on the window panes
And Glory in my soul"
By Sir John Betjamin
By Sir John Betjamin
The age of steam, the Industrial Revolution, the glories of the Victorian age, the rural landscape and practices of the past were what inspired John Betjamin. I don’t remember, when watching his documentaries as a youth, whether he ever delved into the detrimental aspects of all that, and may well have condoned them as necessary; the class system underpinned by poverty, the coal polluting practices of the Victorian era and so forth. So, in many ways, the popular poet maybe is not so popular now.
Inside The Betjamin Arms set within The Midlands Hotel.
Britain is , on the whole, quite good at keeping the best examples of our past buildings. We have The National Trust and also English Heritage which are devoted to keeping many examples of the great country houses of the Georgian period, Medieval Castles,Roman Forts, including more modern examples of architecture and in some cases buildings kept just because of who lived there. I am thinking here of John Lennon's Aunty Mamies house in Menlove Avenue Liverpool,an ordinary 1930s semi. The National Trust has also preserved the council house in Forthlin Road Liverpool where Paul McCartney lived as a child and as a teenager wrote, along with John Lennon some of their early hit songs. Houses like those are justly kept. However, our city and town council planning departments have not been so good at retaining unique examples of architecture within their city and town boroughs. “Concrete Brutalist,” buildings , housing estates from the 60s and 70s , often well designed and unique examples of our built heritage in their own right have been the target of demolition. Renovation and repurposing are not in many town planning departments vocabulary, which is a great shame. It begs the important questions, what is valuable? what should be kept? what can be repurposed or renovated? The canal walk provides examples of a whole range of architecture, old and new , some has been repurposed and some developed in new ways, and also places where buildings have been demolished and new masterpieces erected.
The three of us had a coffee and a chat about this and that, as you do, in the Betjamin Arms bar and tea room set within the structure of the magnificent Midland Hotel which fronts St Pancras and overlooks the Euston Road. We could also look back into the station concourse with those Eurostar trains waiting. The interior of the bar displays all the Victorian Gothic features Betjamin was so proud of.
From here we walked out of the front of the station passing the front of The Midland Hotel marvelling at its magnificence.
We reached the canal again just north of St Pancras and Kings Cross.
We turned right beside the British Library next door and headed north towards the canal. We passed
There is a whole mixture of things the canal is about. It has its history of horse drawn boats moving goods about the country and helping in boosting the Industrial Revolution. Iron, sugar, tea, tin, explosives, oil, wool, items from the West Indies , the coal and the granaries at Granary Wharf all part of the diverse trade that the canal enabled.There is much left to show us about its origins. The tow paths are stone edged. Brick sides drop vertically into the water and there is the complexity of lock gates, at intervals, moving boats from one level to another. Often the lock keeper’s cottages still remain. Wide basins that extend off the canal to the north and south of the canal include City Road Basin, Battlebridge Basin where the London Canal Museum is now located, St Pancras Basin where we began the second part of our canal walk and others. These must have been locations for industries that required their own quays and piers for loading and offloading goods produced locally making items for trade with other parts of the country via the canal system. Some of the old warehouses still remain converted into flats , offices and workshops. Along the route of the canal there is also a cross section of society, social housing, small businesses, elegant architectural builds, modern executive flats, businesses secreted under old brick archways beside the canal, boating clubs and of course a multitude of canal boats. Sometimes you can smell the wood burners on some of these canal boats from a distance as you approach. Often the spaces on the roofs of the canal boats are a collection of flower pots, washing lines, stove chimneys, bicycles lying on their sides and the clutter of canal living.
As we walked, often joggers went past. Cyclists, sometimes, but not often, warned us of their approach by ringing their bell but sometimes provided no warning at all. Mums with buggies and as the day proceeded, teenagers making their way home from school. Once in a while we see the owners and inhabitants of the canal boats, through the open entrance to their boat or perhaps as they emerge on to the pathway. We have spoken to some, passing the time of day. I remember seeing one lady ensconced in the cabin of her boast brewing tea in a cramped area. I looked down at her and she looked up. I felt a little guilty, perhaps impinging on her privacy. But I am sure she is used to this with her lifestyle.
As we approached Islington the canal enters a tunnel and goes underground for 960 meters just short of a kilometre. It was opened in 1818 and designed by the engineer James Morgan. There is no towpath here so we had to walk above the tunnel following the signs to where the tunnel once again emerged further along.. We walked along Chapel Street where Chapel Street market is located . It is a multicultural area, Italian coffee shops, Indian restaurants and fruit and veg stalls, and clothing stalls. A little reminiscent of Albert Square in Eastenders.. At the end of Chapel market, near The Angel Islington we went into The Islington Town House public house for a beer and something to eat. We later rejoined the canal towpath at Duncan Street and Colebrook Row.
What is prevalent everywhere is the graffiti and tags. Tags are signature names. Graffitti is more complex and often makes a political or social commentary.Much of the tags look untidy because the artists have created their signs and pictures, one on top of another. You can make out most of their tags though. TAGS are primarily a set of initials sometimes just scrawled swiftly with a can of spray paint, sometimes intricately formed giving the initials a three dimensional effect and carefully painted in two or more colours. D.E.X, MUNS, CHUP, PUAN, MOEX and the tags multiplied as we walked along. The ZERZ tag was done on a number of locations along the canal, meticulously formed in silver and sometimes green but always in a three dimensional form. Why would somebody want to leave a mark like that? This form of street art has been carried out for thousands of years. I remember visiting Pompeii in the Bay of Naples a few years ago and seeing Ancient Roman tags in the streets of the ancient city. A particular gladiator had his fan following in one street in Pompeii. It makes me and other onlookers notice. We read it. We wonder at the nerve of somebody to do that. A connection is made with the tag artist. They have made their mark and we have been affected by it. A message saying, I exist, is conveyed. I find graffiti really interesting. Some people think its an act of vandalism but surely vandalism is about making a comment, sending a message from the heart and mind and not always destructively. Graffitti and TAGS are often positive things.. Banksy is one of the most famous and sophisticated of the graffiti artist known all over the world. There is a famous Banksy in Shoreditch just south of the canal. Shoreditch has its famous stick people logos by an artist called Stix. Many advertising companies use his graffiti art work. Often the graffiti around Shoreditch carries importance to the local community and all of us who see it. Sitting on the top of the 243 bus from Hoxton to Waterloo the other day I passed a fence, fencing off a building site that has a recent mural depicting urban bombing in the Ukraine. A child with a teddy bear melts into a skeletal form half flesh and half skull. I saw the mural for a passing moment but feel its emotional impact even now when I think about it. Walls, roofs, a collection of disused underground trains stacked on top of a building, bridges and shop fronts are all a canvas for the graffiti artist.
Graffiti along the canal side.
Just before we reached the bridge over the canal at Kingsland Road in Shoreditch we saw some elegant modern flats with balconies overlooking the canal labelled the ,"Gainsborough Studio Flats." This modern block is the northern canal side of the complex. On the south side overlooking Shoreditch Park in Poole Street is an old Victorian industrial building. It was originally a coal fired power station for the Great Northern and City Railway. A small white surround art nouveau doorway is located at the right this façade and a blue plaque on the wall near this entrance provides further information about this buildings later use. After its first life as a power station it was repurposed as the famous Gainsborough Film Studios.
Gainsborough Studios was active between 1924 and 1951. Other films were made at Lime Grove and Pinewood Studios. This former film studios was converted into flats in 2004.The studio is best remembered for the Gainsborough melodramas it produced in the1940s.
Gainsborough Studios, produced some of Britain’s best-known early films, such as The Lady Vanishes (1938), The Man in Grey (1943) and Fanny by Gaslight (1944), as well as launching the careers of the many of the country’s cinema stars. Above all, one of the world’s greatest film directors learned his trade at the studios, east London-born Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980).
We climbed the stone steps from the canal side at Kingsland Road and finished our second leg of the walk near the mosque on Kingsland Road and got the bus back to Waterloo Station.
Part 3 THE KINGSLAND ROAD TO LIMEHOUSE
We continued our walk on the final stretch from the Kingsland Road bridge over the canal on the 16th March. After passing more graffiti on walls, a set of lock gates and the expected cyclists and joggers eventually we arrived at Victoria Park, with its Chinese Pagoda and boating lakes. Victoria Park opened in 1845 and was created to beautify the East End, provide recreational space and improve public health. The consultant planner was Sir James Pennethorne. The park is located in Tower Hamlets. It is bordered by Hackney, Bethnal Green and Stratford, where the 2012 Olympic Park is located. We didn’t venture over to the Olympic stadiums because we kept to the canal footpaths.
The Chinese pagoda in Victoria Park.
While we were in the park, John had a word with a couple of police officers patrolling the park. We had had a few near misses with cyclists speeding past us along the canal towpath. None of them had rung their bells as they approached us. Tony and I walked on and only observed from a distance. The police officers looked suitably concerned and noted John’s complaint it appeared.
Victoria Park must have witnessed the recreation of so many ,”East Enders.” It is a beautiful park. All of us from whatever section of society, deserve to experience the beauty of nature. London is blessed with not only the famous parks, Hyde Park and Regents Park which our canal walk has taken us past, set in central London but a multitude of local parks in every London borough , often each borough has a number of wonderful parks not just one, across London. Londoners are very lucky to have this legacy from as early as Victorian times and from the early twentieth century to enjoy , to be able to exercise, taking part in football, cricket, bowling, tennis, paddling pools and children’s playgrounds. The parks are a resource that improves the populations health and well being. Local people love their parks and defend their existence vehemently at times. My own local park created in the1930s by a local politician Sir Joseph Hood,is the beating communal heart of my neighbourhood. Childrens’ sports teams, adult sports teams, a playschool open everyday of the week for toddlers and a place to just stroll, relax, listen to bird song and in one case, I have witnessed, to practice your skills at tai chi.
The entrance to Victoria Park, Tower Hamlets.
As we approached the Limehouse Basin, where the Regents Canal actually begins, at the heart of docklands, we were passing some blocks of flats on the opposite side of the canal. We heard an angry voice shouting abuse at a neighbour. We could not work out what the gentleman’s anger was about. He was very upset and very angry. And he didn’t stop his tirade. It continued certainly after we had moved on into the distance. We could hear the other person trying to reply but not getting a word in edgeways.
Flats beside the canal.
Limehouse Basin is a large area of water surrounded by quays where luxury yachts amd motor launches are moored. It is worth taking a moment to recall what was here before. In the 19th century this basin would have been surrounded by multi-storey brick built warehouses. Doorways high in the structures would have had cranes with rope winches to haul bales and crates of products to the upper levels. Steam ships puffing out coal dust, the splash and rumble of paddle steamers. Thames barges that traded all along the Kent coast with large brown and red sails would have proliferated . The shouts and calls of stevedores, the clip clopping of horses pulling canal barges alongside some of the quays and ships at anchor ready to take on-board produce from all over the Empire and transport it up the canal system to Birmingham , the Midlands and the north. It was all here;a hive of activity.
Arriving at Limehouse Basin.
Now nearly all the buildings are modern, apartments, offices and small businesses. Very few examples of the 19th century infrastructure remain. The brick chimney of a pump house can be glimpsed behind the Docklands Light Railway Railway viaduct. The bridge archways that support the viaduct that arch over the final part of the canal as it joins the basin are part of the old canal and basin infrastructure. It is apt to remember that most of the old docklands were destroyed during the Blitz, the docklands in the east end being a prime target. We walked around the pathways that lead over pedestrian bridges across narrow inlets that lead to smaller basins off Limehouse and around the quay side. A sign post indicated the direction of The Grapes public house. At the end of our walk we were looking forward to a pint and some grub.
A Victorian pump house chimney protruding above the Docklands Light Railway viaduct at Limehouse.
The Grapes pub is situated in, Narrow Street, backing on to the Thames with Docklands stretching east of it. The back of the pub has a balcony over the Thames itself. Narrow Street appears to be a misnomer. It is not narrow. What there is today is a wide thoroughfare with wide green verges and a small park. Referring to the history of Limehouse however, Narrow Street was indeed narrow with originally, the row of houses where The Grapes is situated almost within touching distance of the houses and buildings opposite it.
Other streets in the area, Ropemakers Fields, East India Dock Road, Basin Approach, Shoulder of Mutton Alley all give indications about the local history.
Entering The Grapes in Limehouse. (The Six Jolly Fellowship- Porters)
We walked through the door of the Grapes into a narrow passage to the right with dark brown varnished wood panelled walls giving a gloomy feeling to the place. Old black and white photographs hung on the walls showing dockworkers from , I presume, the 1930s sitting in a row each supping a pint of beer. There was a small bar to the left with a smiling welcoming barmaid and landlady standing behind the counter. We walked on through to the back of the pub which had three or four beer barrels turned on end as tables and wooden benches. Another bar opened on to this part of the pub. The windows at the back looked out onto the Thames. It was obvious the back of the pub was lapped by the river. Some steps inside the back of the pub lead to a balcony outside overlooking the Thames. We sat down and perused the menu on the table in front of us. I noticed the walls were covered in pictures of Charles Dickens and some his characters. I didn’t at first give these pictures much attention. The thought that always occurs when you walk into an old pub anywhere in London and see Dickens on the walls is that once Dickens came in here. Dickens walked all over London, finding inspiration. I was certainly not wrong about, The Grapes.
However the first thing I asked the genial smiling landlady was , jokingly ,”that’s a big shillelagh you have behind the bar.”A large brown varnished knobbly stick with a gnarled end was on display. “Oh no, that’s not a shillelagh ,” she said. “What do you think it might be?” I don’t know why but I immediately said, tongue in cheek, “It’s Gandalphs staff.” “ Yes it is. Sir Ian McKellen is a part owner of The Grapes.” I was gobsmacked. I then noticed, near us at the back of the pub, was a miniature statue of Gandalf the Wizard wielding his staff.
Gandalph is behind me.
Then of course I asked about The Dickens connection. Both the landlady and the barmaid came together , all smiles and enthusiasm and related to us about the Dicken’s link. The Grapes is ,”The Six Jolly Fellowship- Porters,” that features especially in the first book of Our Mutual Friend. Here Gaffer Hexam fell out of favour with Miss Abby Potterson, the landlady in the novel. Here too the soaked and presumed drowned body of Rogue Riderhood was dragged from the Thames and laid out on a table in the pub and eventually revived to live on. Here Lizzie Hexam pleaded with Abby Potterson for clemency for her ,as it turns out, falsly accused father over being too successful at finding and recovering dead bodies from the Thames. Suspicions had been set going by Rogue Riderhood. Miss Abby Potterson was a wise and intelligent warm hearted woman who everybody respected in the area and who laid down the law and looked after her customers wellbeing, knowing their wives and families intimately. The present day landlady, I never got to know her name, is just like Dicken’s description of Miss Abby Potterson, it occurred to me, warm, personable, in charge. So much happens around this pub in Dicken’s novel and we were sitting there in the bar where a lot of the early action takes place. Locations like this in London are exciting to be in and a real privilege. The three of us had a couple of pints of the local brew and ate a plate of fish and chips, with napkins and all the condiments provided. We went out on to the balcony at the back of The Grapes to look over the Thames and Docklands to the east. There, standing out of the water facing docklands is an Anthony Gormley iron cast figure, calm, implacable, gazing straight at the international banking area of Docklands. Perhaps, like Miss Abby Potterson, holding her customers to account, this Gormley figure, above the lapping waves, is holding docklands and its financial commerce to account.
Antony Gormley's figure contemplating Docklands. (From the balcony at the back of The Grapes.)
Chapter VI Book One Our Mutual Friend
“ The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters already mentioned as a tavern of dropsical appearance, had long settled down into a state of hale infirmity. In its whole constitution it had not a straight floor , and hardly a straight line; but it had outlasted, and clearly would yet outlast, many a better a trimmed building, many a sprucer public house. Externally it was a narrow lopsided wooden jumble of corpulent windows heaped one upon another as you might heap as many toppling oranges, with a crazy wooden verandah impending over the water; indeed the whole house, inclusive of the complaining flagstaff on the roof , impended over the water, but seemed to have got into the condition of a fainthearted diver who has paused so longon the brink that he will nevre go in.”
Yes, that is definitely The Grapes. After leaving The Grapes we walked along the Thames Path to the Thames Clipper pier nearby. We got a ferry back to Westminster where we embarked walking a short distance to Waterloo Station and got our trains home.
As an afterthought, if John, Tony and myself created our own graffiti tags what might they be?
Here you are. Have a guess whose TAG is whose.
Stik graffitti artists: http://stik.org/
Gainsborough Studios: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gainsborough_Pictures
Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens Penguin Classics (first published 1865) 1997
Victoria Park: https://www.towerhamlets.gov.uk/lgnl/leisure_and_culture/parks_and_open_spaces/victoria_park/victoria_park.asp
The Regents Canal: https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/enjoy-the-waterways/canal-and-river-network/regents-canal
John Betjamin: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/john-betjeman
Canal Boat art: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roses_and_Castles
Antony Gormley: https://www.antonygormley.com/
The London Canal Museum: https://www.canalmuseum.org.uk/