From Little Venice to Little Arabia – Sunday afternoon on London’s canals

I’m on holiday this week but due to lack of funds our vacation has turned into a staycation. Never mind – there’s plenty to do in London, even with the terrible weather we have been ‘enjoying’ of late.

So we have decided to explore some parts of the city we haven’t been to before. Last week I read somewhere – I think it was in Time Out – that there was a weekend festival at various locations along the Regent’s Canal to celebrate its 200th anniversary. One of these locations was Little Venice in Maida Vale – it’s probably some 25 years since I was last there and Mary Ann had never been. We were hoping to go on Saturday but it was raining heavily, so we went on Sunday afternoon instead. We could have gone by bus, but decided that the ‘Waterbus’ from Camden Lock Market would be more fun. This is a 50 minute journey along the Regent’s Canal aboard an old narrowboat converted for passenger use. It’s a pleasant trip at a leisurely pace, though it would have been more interesting if there was commentary from the crew, or at least a few landmarks pointed out along the way. It is of course possible to walk most of the journey along the towpath (though it is 2 miles), but there is one part of the journey where canal boat and walkers diverge, and that is the Maida Hill tunnel (251 metres), which has no towpath. The boat ride is therefore a unique way of experiencing the canal.

Passing moored canal boats with the villas of Maida Avenue behind

Passing moored canal boats with the villas of Maida Avenue behind

Most of the journey the canal runs through a cutting, so there isn’t a great deal to see apart from the towpath and vegetation on the canal banks. (Though as you are passing through Regent’s Park you could, with a bit of imagination, almost think you are in the countryside.) It is interesting peering – with a certain degree of envy – into the back gardens of the houses on St Mark’s Crescent with their little landing stages and tethered boats. At the other end of the journey, I enjoyed the stretch where the canal emerges from the Maida Hill Tunnel and runs perfectly straight for 500 metres at street level between Blomfield Road and Maida Avenue with their elegant stuccoed Victorian villas. Passing under Warwick Avenue bridge, the canal immediately widens into the triangular junction with the Paddington arm of the Grand Union Canal known as Browning’s Pool (after the poet Robert Browning who lived in the area and may have coined the name ‘Little Venice’, though Lord Byron is a more likely candidate for that honour.)

Browning's Pool Little Venice

Browning’s Pool, Little Venice

Browning’s Pool is the terminus for the Waterbus. We were disappointed to find, when we arrived at Little Venice, that there was absolutely no sign of the Regent’s Canal Festival – not even the promised gondola rides! We had a walk around the area, then decided to follow the Grand Union south to Paddington, which is part of the canal I had never seen before.

The Gondoliers

The Gondoliers

This part of the Grand Union Canal is in complete contrast to Little Venice. It is at the heart of the Paddington Waterside development area and much is new, including stainless steel footbridges, works of art, canalside cafes and floating classrooms, alongside remaining warehouses and workshops of an earlier era. And, to our (and others’) great surprise, a gondola, being readied for hire by its two gondoliers, resplendent in red and white striped shirts and straw boaters! Although we had not come far from Little Venice, seeing a traditional gondola in this post-industrial setting was a somewhat surreal experience.

The gondola set off in the direction of Little Venice; we continued our canalside walk. We hadn’t gone very far when we came across a group of people hauling a contraption of wood and plastic sheeting across a footbridge. They stopped halfway across and lowered a bucket on a rope into the water, which they hauled up, and emptied into the plastic sheet. From the footpath I shouted up: “So what are you doing? Is this science or art?” A man answered: “More art than science.” Apparently they were following the course of the now underground Westbourne, one of the ‘hidden rivers’ of London. If I understood correctly they were making their way down to where the Westbourne meets the Thames, for some reason taking water samples along the way. As the Westbourne enters the river near to Chelsea Bridge, they had quite a long way to go, presumably intending to drag their cart through Bayswater, Hyde Park. Knightsbridge and Chelsea. All in the name of art.

Paddington Basin

Paddington Basin

After running southeast alongside Paddington Station the canal turns eastward and widens to form the Paddington Basin. This is lined with a number of new buildings commercial and residential, including the new headquarters of Marks and Spencer. I have to say that when we visited late on a Sunday afternoon it was practically deserted but I guess it would be a lot busier during the week, especially at lunchtimes.

We enjoyed watching a family of tufted ducks (well, mum and five babies; dad was doing his own thing over the other side of the basin) swimming along, the youngsters practising their diving as they paddled along. Then we walked through a passageway and found ourselves at the junction of Praed Street and ever busy Edgware Road. We could have been in another world as we walked through ‘Little Arabia’ with its numerous shisha cafes and Lebanese restaurants; outdoor seating areas filled to capacity on what was turning out to be a very pleasant Sunday afternoon.

If you would like to see some more photos, follow this link.

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About Holloway Rev

Paul Weary is a Methodist minister living and working in Holloway, North London.
This entry was posted in History, London, Travel and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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