The original vision,
as architect John Nash saw it, was one of “barges moving through an urban landscape,” facilitating commerce via an expansive waterway cut directly through London that would link Paddington Arm (a branch of the Grand Union Canal) with Limehouse Basin and the River Thames to the east. Construction began on Regent’s Canal in 1812 under the supervision of Nash, who by the end of his illustrious career had also designed such London landmarks as the Marble Arch, Regent’s Park, and parts of Buckingham Palace.
Nash opened Regent’s Canal to great fanfare in 1820—and at a final cost more than twice the original estimate. Spanning nearly 14 kilometers from end to end, the waterway became populated with long river barges transporting building supplies and assorted sundries inland to areas that included Camden, Islington, and Hackney. Narrow towpaths lined the canal to accommodate the horses that pulled the barges. These were, in fact, perhaps too narrow, to judge by the short stone ramps built to help any horse that fell into the water get back to shore.
Though commercially viable for a time, the canal felt the inevitable squeeze of modernization as early as 1845, when an attempt was made to convert it into a railway. By the time small tractors replaced horses on the towpaths in the mid1950s, improved roads and railways had rendered Regent’s Canal’s trade viability obsolete. The last shipping barge sailed the canal in 1969.
After a period of disuse, however, the canal again thrives, though in ways Nash could not have possibly envisioned nearly 200 years ago.
Supplanting the horse (and tractor) traffic of yesteryear, today it is runners, bicyclists, bird watchers, and dog walkers jockeying for precious little towpath space as Regent’s Canal settles into its second life as a serene escape within the city. Hidden by ivied brick walls and modern housing developments in some parts, shrouded by loping willow trees and holly-decked bramble thickets in others, the canal is far removed from London’s touristy center. From pleasant Little Venice, near Paddington Station, to beloved East London green space Victoria Park, where the canal veers south to Limehouse Basin, canal-goers will discover scores of old wood-burning houseboats, the birdsong of chirping blue tits and wrens, and the many merchants contributing to Regent’s Canal’s ongoing rejuvenation.
Summertime cinemas, pop-up art shows and shops, and for-hire party boats are among the resourceful barge businesses trolling the canal these days. Some, such as mobile vinyl specialists The Record Deck ( therecorddeckuk.
wordpress.com), keep customers updated with their mooring locations on social media; others,
Above: Browsing the bookshelves at Word on the Water. Opposite, clockwise
from top left: Fresh-baked cookies at café and bar Barge House; a barista at the same establishment; Regent’s Canal at Islington’s Colebrooke Row; the Kimchinary outlet at KERB Camden Market.
like British seafood restaurant London Shell Co. ( londonshellco.com) and booksellers Word on
the Water ( fb.com/wordonthewater), have semipermanent anchor points.
Paddy Screech is one of three business partners managing the floating bookshop, which is housed in a refitted Dutch barge that’s more than 100 years old. “Our captain, Noy, brought the boat from Rotterdam intending to sell it in London, but he fell in love with it and unconsciously told those who came to view it everything that was wrong with it to put them off,” Screech says. “When we presented our plan of opening a bookshop he jumped at the chance.”
Shelves at Word on the Water, London’s only water-bound bookshop, are stacked with an engaging collection of literary gems, creative nonfiction, children’s literature and, in Screech’s words, “books that convey the wisdom that only a life of great challenge can generate.” Screech