Bicentenary of opening the Regent’s Canal Part 4: Regeneration

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The boat trip business had started on the Regent’s Canal in 1951, as part of the Festival of Britain celebrations, growing from 1500 to 100,000 passengers in ten years. The narrowboat ‘Jason’ was the first trip boat, here passing the short stub of the Cumberland Market Branch in 1957 (Canal and River Trust).

In 1965, St Pancras (now Camden) Civic Society, with the Islington and Paddington Waterways Societies, formed the Regent’s Canal Group (RCG). The RCG, a body embracing all the inner London canal-side amenity societies, campaigned for opening the towpath to the public. RCG championed a peaceful, green and tranquil route away from the traffic for the public to enjoy, a direct contrast to the dangers posed at that time by the motorway proposals of the Greater London Council (GLC).

Changes in official attitude to the canal and its uses were primarily the result of the RCG’s influence. It fought to maintain industrial vistas, rather than prettify them with “improvements”, deploring undistinguished canal-side architecture that paid no homage to the Canal. Key individuals were Diana Gurney of Camden Civic Society(also, a Friend of RPPH); Peggy Jay, Chair of the Parks and Smallholdings Committee of the GLC;and Peter Jay of Paddington Waterways Society, but many others deserve mention.

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The Pirates’ Club was formed in 1966 under the leadership of Viscount St. Davids, allowing children to satisfy the urge for adventure, enjoy the water and learn boating skills. The first clubhouse was a floating one. It inspired similar schemes around the country. At that time, the only ‘public’ parts of the Regent’s Canal were by the Cumberland mooring basin and Regent’s Park Zoo. Other sections of the towpath were only accessible under licence to anglers and boat clubs. In 1977, the club’s success was marked by building the Pirate Castle and the Jubilee Waterside Centre.

In 1967, the Regent’s Canal Group published “Regent’s Canal – a policy for its future”. Even as the report rolled from the presses, one of the basins, seen as the key to the revival of the waterway, was being filled in – Haggerston. However, their persistence was bearing fruit as, in 1968, Westminster opened towpaths within its boundaries to the public for recreational use. It took a further four years, until 1972, for Camden to follow the Westminster lead with the progressive opening to the public of the 11/2 miles of towpaths within its boundaries, starting with the towpath from the basin forming the stub of the Cumberland Arm to Hampstead Road Locks. In 1974, the second stage from Hampstead Road Locks to York Way was opened. It was now possible to walk from Maida Hill Tunnel to Islington Tunnel. A month later the Regent’s Canal Conservation Area was designated.

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The regeneration of the towpath led to the restoration and upgrade of the Lock Keeper’s Cottage at Hampstead Road Locks (shown here). Dating from 1816, it now combines a role as the Regent’s Canal Information Centre with being a coffee house.

In 1972/3, a property company bought the yard at Hampstead Road Locks and converted it to workshops let to crafts people, branding it as ‘Camden Lock’. The creative energy released was translated at weekends into an exciting retail market that grew and spread up the High Street into clothes, music, food and entertainment.

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The five Camden markets are now among the top tourist destinations in London, not least due to the preservation of much of their historic setting. The view along the canal from the locks and the Roving Bridge is an exceptional vista of industrial buildings dominated by the Interchange (shown here).

A new purpose was found for the canal route in 1979, when the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) installed underground cables in a trough below the towpath between St John’s Wood and City Road. These 400 kV cables now form part of the National Grid, supplying electrical power to London. Pumped canal water is circulated as a coolant for the high-voltage cables from the pumping station opposite the Pirate Castle.

In 1982, the remainder of the towpath down to Limehouse was opened to the public and plans to redevelop Limehouse Basin were the subject of a design competition. Other basins were also dredged, many by private initiatives of bodies such as the London Narrowboat Association.   

Camley Street Natural Park was opened by Ken Livingstone on 7 May 1985. In 1992, the Princess Royal opened the London Canal Museum in Battlebridge Basin.

Due to the increase in cycle commuting since the 2005 London Bombings, and increasing environmental awareness, the towpath has become a busy cycle route for commuters. National Cycle Route 1 includes the stretch along the canal towpath from Limehouse Basin to Mile End. Several studies into the effects of sharing the towpath between cyclists and pedestrians have concluded that, despite the limited width, there are relatively few problems.

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The attractions of canal-side living have also stimulated a rising tide of property development, undermining the nature of the canal as a green and secluded linear park. Combined with the increasing unaffordability of property in the capital, this has led to a near doubling in the number of boats on London’s canals in the last seven years.

For the Canal and River Trust, which faces similar funding challenges to that of Regent’s Park, increasing competition for mooring spaces offers an opportunity to sell not only cruising licences but also permanent moorings, to the chagrin of the continuous cruising community. Narrowboats are moored three deep on long stretches of the Regent’s Canal, such as seen here alongside Victoria Park, and permanent moorings are being taken by commercial activities, such as “Word on the Water, the London Bookbarge” at King’s Cross.  

We end this series of articles marking the bicentenary of Regent’s Canal with a view of the IWA’s Canalway Cavalcade in Paddington Basin. The Inland Waterway Association’s boating festival is a celebration of life on the water held every year since 1983 with the obvious exception of 2020.

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