Go to Venice or Amsterdam, and you can hardly cross a street without tumbling into a canal. In London, you have to dig deeper.

You’re looking for the Regent’s Canal, which stretches from chichi Maida Vale to Thames-side Limehouse, and cutting past London Zoo’s aviaries, Camden’s pop kids, Islington restaurants and Hackney high-rises on its way.

Built in the early nineteenth century to connect London’s docks with the Grand Union Canal to Birmingham, its traffic was almost entirely lost to truck and rail by the 1950s. Now (mostly) cleaned up, the canal and its tributaries are a wonderfully novel way to delve into a compelling, overexposed city.

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The canals by CGP Grey via Flickr (CC license)

Part of the canal’s allure is down to its submerged nature: much of its length is below street level, hidden by overgrown banks.

Spend time by the water’s edge and you feel utterly removed from the road and rail bridges above. When the route rises up or spews you back onto the street momentarily, you catch a brief glimpse of people seemingly oblivious to the green serpent that stretches across their city.

14138354473_73d197784a_oLondon waterbus by Markus Jalmerot via Flickr (CC license)

It’s not all idyllic: for every lovely patch of reeds or drifting duck, there’s a bobbing beer can or the unmistakable judder of traffic. Stroll the busier stretches on a summer Sunday, when the walkers, cyclists and barges are out, and the canal can feel more like a major thoroughfare than an escape route.

But this is a dynamic, breathing space: its energy is what makes it so vital, and makes the moments of quiet feel so special. There are countless highlights: the spire of St Pancras station, soaring over a surprisingly secluded corner near revitalized King’s Cross; Mile End’s picturesque nature reserve; and the bridges and wharfs that connect Limehouse to the Isle of Dogs.

17022682165_2c79631655_kLittle Venice by Davide D’Amico via Flickr (CC license)

The poet Paul Verlaine thought the isle’s vast docks and warehouses classical in their majesty, calling them “astonishing…Tyre and Carthage all rolled in to one”. Turned into smart flats or left to crumble, they are no longer the heartbeat of an industrial nation, but with their forgotten corners and fascinating history, they definitely still feel magical.

Make the most of your time on earth

Good tube stops from which to explore the canal include Warwick Avenue, Camden Town, Angel, Mile End and Limehouse. The London Canal Museum, 12–13 New Wharf Rd (canalmuseum.org.uk), is also worth a look. Discover more unforgettable places around the world with the new edition of Make the Most of Your Time on Earth.

 

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