Cygnets, shamans and boats: Life on a busy canal

Not so long ago we went  for a walk along the Regent’s Canal.  It was bright but still cold and we saw the first ducklings and cygnets of the year. The canal was quite murky and not as pristine as the other direction of the Regents which we have walked but clearly clean enough for wild fowl to live and thrive.

The stretch along from Haggerston in the East End to Mile End passing under the Roman Road was new to us and our friends so off we went in high expectations and these were more than justified…

This is a rather different stretch of the canal – much less neat and pretty and although still well populated by houseboats, these were rather down market in comparison to along the other direction.

This stretch is very much an exercise on how London is changing and what and who is populating it.

The canal is rather dirty here and there is quite a lot of rubbish floating along – perhaps thrown out by houseboats passing or by passerby or… but it is a very busy stretch of towpath with many cyclists whizzing along. Some of these will be the houseboat owners off to work or shop or… but here you don’t have a Sainsbury’s you can pull up your boat alongside and moor while you do your shopping, so you have to go off canal.

Despite the rather mucky water it is clearly quite healthy as we saw our first chicks of the year! Not only coots and moorhens, some of which were still sitting on nests – they build these platforms on top of small logs and stuff – and others with chicks of quite some size following chirpily along (they chirp continuously). But also, ducks and yes, our first cygnets of the year. Swans prefer to build nests out of water on large platforms. This pair had quite young cygnets still in the nest and just peeking over. They had built behind some breakwaters in a sheltered cove across the other side of the canal. Just as well as male swans can be very aggressive and they are large birds with big strong wings that can easily break bones… so you don’t want to have to walk too close to a nest!

We saw a variety of houseboats from a rather interesting one that had been tricked out in mock Elizabethan wood structures and sported a sign offering Shamanic fortunes to be told. I never knew that shamanic fortune telling was different but clearly someone thought it was. This boat also apparently had not got electric power (they would need to have their own generators as there is no mains to tie into) and was selling candles which it appeared to use inside.

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Haggerston according to our book on the Regents Canal marks the boundary between Hackney and Bethnal Green, and was itself once a small hamlet but now of course, is a busy part of East London having been swallowed up in the 10th century building following canal and railway development. The canal of course is a little older and was built with horse ramps at various bridges. These were because the horses pulling the canal boats and barges were often frightened by the steam engines of the railways and would rear and bolt into the canal. Someone then would have the job of coaxing them out and the ramps were necessary to provide a bank for them to climb.

As we walked the towpath we saw a variety of buildings on the opposite side of the canal from very modern and new developments to old factories that had been squatted and turned into rather ramshackle dwellings alongside small gardens and canal-side patios created out of whatever they could scavenge, and old cottages that had been there for a couple of centuries that were either well converted or rather tatty.

The houseboats were of a similar mixed collection of very modern, ones created by scavenging materials and others that were converted lifeboats or even military crafts.. whatever people could afford or wanted to live and all sizes and shapes with windows of all shapes too.

As we went towards Mile End we came across Victoria Park. This was a park we had never been to but it is very large  and built in the 1840s as a recreational space away from the bustle of the city. Laid out by John Nash cousin to the famous builder of the Nash crescents, it is the largest London municipal park. During the 2nd WW the park was used to store anti-aircraft guns and as such was is itself a target for the bombers and several artefacts were destroyed. It is a park that has been used frequently for demonstrations and held the Rock Against Racism concert in 1978 and still holds Summer concerts.

This part of the canal has several locks still operating and it is always good amusement to watch the boaters struggle to open and close the heavy gates and then the lock fills or empties slowly and you chat  to the boaters during this period finding out where they’ve come from and where they are going to, and then the gates open and off they go to their new mooring.

We ended up at Mile End, which is a scene from my childhood as I frequently visited relatives there but it has changed dramatically since then – becoming much more yuppie and the shops that I remember are no more – Costa Coffee has made it there!

In addition a new park has been created in the last 20 years built upon bomb sites left from the 2nd WW. It is next to one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in the UK – the Sephardi Novo Beth Chaim  cemetery  which opened in 1725 and replaced an older cemetery (1657).

The Ecology Park which is part of this new development has a collection of lakes, a wind turbine, an earth sheltered building with major solar power glazing and a water bore hole to provide clean water. This park also has a Green Bridge (which is yellow underneath and thus is known as the Banana Bridge locally) which is covered in grass and also has trees and flowers and provides a pedestrian bridge over the road.

So old is this area of East London that the major road that runs through it, and after which a Market is named, is the Roman Road. Mile End is named after the first milestone from Aldgate in the City.

We ended our journey there taking the Docklands Light Railway back to meet the Tube network and home for tea and beetroot and pineapple cake! (see recipe in an earlier blog) Oh and yes, the New Globe Tavern is all that is left of an earlier park for the many pleasures and divertissements of the 1820s…

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