Low Water - The Draining of Regents Canal
I’ve written before about walking along the Regents Canal, but I was drawn back there again when I heard that it had been drained. Not the whole thing, of course, but a stretch north from Limehouse Basin. The seepage of water over close to 200 years has chewed away under the towpath (glad it didn’t fall down when I was on it). The BBC report on this focused on the strange debris found, but I wanted to see what was changed by the absence of water where it had long been part of the city.
Many of my London walks seek out water, whether the main flow of the Thames, the thread of a tributary or the relict frames of the docks. Water changes the urban landscape, doubling it through reflection, but also subverting that doubling by fragmenting the reflected city. Not only ripples, or the circles spreading from raindrops’ point of impact, but also the widening wakes of ducks and geese break up the straight lines of buildings. The black lines of reeds insert themselves into the view, and other plants cast shadows that play with the colours. On a grey day, green might appear on the surface of the water. On a bright one, leaves show as shifting hints of black as the breeze catches them and their shadows flicker between glitterings.
But even if the city is remade in its reflection, the real place remains. It imposes itself in the water in the form of plastic bags turning slowly. Sometimes the weedy tops of traffic cones divert what flow there is. Usually there’s a whiff of something effluent-ish, or chemical.
So taking the towpath up from Limehouse towards Mile End normally gives me a sense of feeling my way through a transformation, of the flats and derelict industrial buildings into something not quite resolved into one thing or another, a state of coming-into-being that for me is one of the attractions of London – it’s always becoming something else.
Without the water – well, the BBC’s emphasis on rubbish was quite accurate. The bottom of the canal was slimy mud with stones, through which trickled the soiled remnants of the water. In among this unpromising stuff, supermarket trolleys, bits of bikes, poles, nondescript metal, and all the other usual dross – bags, boxes, shattered plastic. Some way along, three workmen in fluorescent overalls knocked grimly at the grey-faced stones laid to line the waterway when the land around was still on the edge of London. Either side, a very cold wind blew all around the modern housing.
It would have been daft to expect anything else. The Thames has spent most of the last 2000 years being poisoned, as have most of the waters connected with it. Even if no one ever dumped anything in the canal, it would still have filled with litter blown there by the wind. But still, the static way the channel lay there in the earth, the lack of play between the sky and the empty cut, the dullness of the steel safety fencing (which pushes the walker that bit closer to the cyclists) gave a bleak feel to my walk.
I had meant to go back the way I came, the towpath back to Limehouse Basin, and then to the office, but when the sun came out I was drawn aside. This was a mid-November sunset, and above the roofs colours were spreading out, almost blinding me when I glanced up.
I drifted away from the canal. Without really planning it, I went towards the Limehouse Cut, then across Commercial Road to the Town Hall, and from there to St Anne’s, the Hawksmoor church dropped whitely beside the traffic. This is a place where London’s history reveals something of itself – there’s the modern road, and on the far side from the church are Victorian terraces, their facades uneven and unloved, and their lower storeys turned into shops. They look towards the church, which sits in what remains of an elegant square – a sort of distorted (and more interesting) take on Bloomsbury. The bus queues here always seem very long.
St Anne’s has a wide, long churchyard, with the tombs and the intended top of the original spire (now a peculiar obelisk in the grass – see Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor) sharing the space with plane trees. The fallen leaves shone on the grass like flames. Meanwhile, the blazing end of daylight blushed the Portland stone of the church – and “blush” is apt because in that light the masonry really looked like a pale but living skin.
From the churchyard, a few streets led me back to the Thames, where there’s always water. And that afternoon, what water. The reflected flamework of the sky was continually shifting, breaking, building back again as the river took its curve down past the Isle of Dogs. At the foot of the steps up to Westferry Circus I stopped and looked out towards Canada Water, where one building has a glass lantern set in its roof. The light seemed to burn through, its brightness redoubled. When the Regents Canal is refilled I’ll go and walk there again.