Happy 200th to the Regent’s
IN 1816 THE first section of the Regent’s Canal opened, linking the Paddington Arm of what was then the Grand Junction Canal to Camden and to Cumberland Basin. And two centuries on, both of these places feature in the anniversary celebrations – with a cake-cutting ceremony at Camden, and an exhibition at the London Canal Museum featuring the ‘lost’ Cumberland Basin.
The opening ceremony at Cumberland Basin marked the first step towards the 1820 completion of a route which descended via 12 locks as it skirted the north side of the city of London to link to the Thames at Limehouse. It wasn’t all plain sailing: the Prince Regent may have given his name to the canal but he didn’t give it any money, and it struggled to raise the cash – not helped by its promoter Thomas Homer embezzling funds in 1815, and fighting between the navvies building the canal and gardeners working on adjacent land.
But once it was opened the through-route to the docks prospered, carrying coal, timber, building materials, and (on one occasion) enough gunpowder for an unfortunate explosion to destroy a bridge. It was still carrying commercial freight traffic into the 1970s, has been busy with leisure craft and public trip-boats for over half a century and, as the London Canal Museum’s trustee Roger Squires puts it, “although it has changed drastically, it still offers a key feature in the townscape and continues to provide an amazing local resource”.
However, while the Regent’s Canal is enjoyed by millions every year, you won’t see Cumberland Basin on the map today, and you might struggle to find many signs on the ground. The half-mile Cumberland Arm, reaching down towards Euston Road and aiming to serve the developing West End, never fulfilled its potential. It was eventually filled in with bomb rubble after the Second World War, and the only evidence that boaters see today is a sharp turn as the canal leaves Regent’s Park, with a small mooring basin occupied by an unlikely-looking Chinese restaurant boat.
But if you know where to look, traces of the arm can be found – and the Museum’s display (featuring the artist’s impressions on this page, specially commissioned from London illustrator Jane Smith) explains where to look for clues to this lost London canal: allotments on the former basin site, and a bridge over nothing. “The exhibition tells some enthralling stories of lost industries; the rise and fall of the canal arm and its renewal as part of today’s London”.
The exhibition runs until November: see canalmuseum.org.uk.
It isn’t the only canal bicentenary this year: we’ll be looking at the Leeds & Liverpool next month.