London: Grand Union and Regents Canals

9 miles there and back (14.5 kilometres), on the canal towpath from Ladbroke Grove to Camden, including grubbing about in the markets. August. Sunny and hot. Accompanied by family and silly dog Shovell. Easy peasy.

TL;DR Crossing the urban jungle on a backwater; food from every corner of the world.

I’ve walked this walk many times, I feel as though I know it back to front. I know where to watch the bats feeding at sunset, where the heron always fishes, the best place to get a coffee (D1 Coffee) and the best place to get brunch (Grand Junction). The nice thing about it- you can join the towpath when you like, and leave it when you’re done. You can even carry on to Limehouse basin and get a tube home. But you should always stop in Camden Town.

I’m also pleased to tell you, after an appalling lack of access which has dragged on for at least 10 years, you can now walk the Lisson Grove section of towpath once again. Ten bleedin’ years it’s been closed. At least. I’m not sure my son has ever walked it and he’s now a teenager; even before it was off limits the previous keyholder was sacked for frequently not being bothered to open it, or so I’m told.

We join the towpath at Ladbroke Grove Sainsburys, a handy stop if you’re on a narrowboat which sadly I am not. Kensal Green Cemetery is on the opposite bank and this section of the Paddington arm of the Grand Union canal is a great spot for bat fans. During lockdown we built a bat detector and spent a lot of sunset time down here.

Bring duck food, there are a lot of overfed ducks and moorhens. Feeding moorhens in the spring is a delight as they will always feed their babies first, but don’t feed them bread. You’ll almost always see the heron, but if not someone has painted a giant one on the old warehouse wall.

It’s grimy and graffitied down here, but it still feels like stepping away from the madness of London. Pretty it is not. There’s a busy skatepark and the Westway thunders over your head at one point. People live and work on the narrowboats here, you have to get to Little Venice before the boats and barges get beautiful. Stop at the Grand Junction arts centre café before you reach Little Venice (where the prices will be astronomical). If you want to pick up the waterbus you can do that at Little Venice, where the huge white Regency houses are impressively pristine. In May there’s a canal cavalcade weekend here and the triangular basin is rammed with boats.

You’ll need to leave the towpath and cross the bridge as this is where the Paddington arm splits off to Paddington Basin on the right. We need to join the opposite bank by the Puppet Theatre Barge. We’re now on the Regents Canal, built in 1812 (but without the canon fire) for George IV. On Blomfield Road at some point you’ll have to leave the waterside as the moorings are private and you can’t walk through the Maida Hill tunnel. When you go up to the road and cross Edgware Road look for Guy Gibson’s house, the dambuster, and D1 coffee shop.

Go down the snicket on the corner opposite Crockers Folly and behold, the newly reopened Lisson Grove section. It’s a little jungly down here at the moment, it’s been wild for years remember and you’ll soon be in the Lisson Grove moorings. Please go slowly, kids and animals play here and you are in their garden.

Keep an eye out for Blow Up Bridge with its huge black cast iron pillars. One night in 1874 the Tilbury cargo barge carrying coffee and nuts and unfortunately 5 tons of gunpowder exploded under the bridge destroying itself, everything and everyone nearby. It is said the blast was so big that fish rained down in the streets of London. If you look closely on the pillars you’ll see where a hundred years of barge tow ropes have worn grooves into the metal. Whilst it’s fairly common to see rope grooves, these are on the wrong side. When the bridge was rebuilt the pillars were turned 180 degrees.

Say hello as you pass the homeless settlement here. In london we all live in each other’s footsteps so always be respectful, these are Regents Park residents after all. There’s also great graffiti on this stretch.

If you’re very lucky you’ll hear the steam barge go past which sounds wonderful, see above, or at least see the coal barges yoked together which sell fuel up and down the canal.

The houses on the opposite bank soon become mansions of royals, artists and the obscenely wealthy, designed by architect John Nash. And then London Zoo. From the canal you can see the prairie dogs and the chunky warthogs, a bargain zoo ticket. The Snowdon Aviary which has been empty and decaying for years is now Monkey Valley, and you walk right under it. Let’s hope they’re the well behaved ones. There is a den of wild Aesculapian snakes here, escapees from the zoo I guess. They aren’t venomous and survive on rats but can be (rarely) seen hanging around in bushes as these ones can climb. Eek.

After this you’ll take a left at the giant floating chinese boat, known as the Feng Shang Princess restaurant, much loved by Paul McCartney apparently, and make your way up to Camden Lock, or to give the twin locks their full name, Hampstead Road Lock #1. Hawley locks are a little further and eventually Kings Cross.

But here’s where you get off and start offroading. There is every bit of tat imaginable and overpriced food from every part of the globe, but it’s an excellent place to mooch, people watch and waste time getting parts of yourself pierced. I know, I know, it’s not what it was back in the bad old days but nostalgia is the preserve of the stagnant.

You can return by canal boat, on foot, by underground, overground, continue on all the way to Limehouse Basin, or simply decide to stay and live in a squat here, assuming any still exist, and sell crystals on a market stall. Enjoy.

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Any half decent map of London should have the canals on so you don’t need to buy anything, save your money for street food. You can do a there-and-back or linear with public transport. You know this, you don’t need me.

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