The Regent’s Canal is one of London’s best-kept secrets - a peaceful haven often hidden by the surrounding buildings. Today it is well-loved by boaters, walkers and cyclists all looking to escape the capital’s busy streets, but this gem of a canal was all too nearly converted into a railway.
The canal links a diverse cross-section of London’s attractions. From the colourful collection of narrowboats at Little Venice basin in Maida Vale, it runs on through Regent’s Park. Here it is overlooked by a vast aviary - part of London Zoo. In Camden, it passes the craft stalls and quirky clothing shops of the famous market, a centre for London’s alternative culture.
The story begins
In 1812, the Regent's Canal Company was formed to cut a new canal from the Grand Junction Canal's Paddington Arm to Limehouse, where a dock was planned at the junction with the Thames. The architect John Nash played a part in its construction, using his idea of 'barges moving through an urban landscape'.
Completed in 1820, it was built too close to the start of the railway age to be financially successful and at one stage the Regent’s only narrowly escaped being turned into a railway. But the canal went on to become a vital part in southern England's transport system.
Success for the Regent’s Canal
Together with the Grand Junction Canal and the associated routes to the Midlands and north, the Regent’s Canal carried huge quantities of timber, coal, building materials and foodstuffs into and out of London. In fact long-distance traffic continued to use the canal into the 1960s.
However, by the time the canal was nationalised in 1948, commercial traffic had started to dwindle.
Threat to the Regent’s Canal
Like all canals, the Regent’s lost commercial traffic to the railways and by the 1960’s, lorries were taking much of the rest. The Regent’s Canal Dock, at the junction with the Thames, closed to shipping in 1969 and this was the final nail in the coffin for this once bustling waterway. Unused and unloved, its future looked bleak.
A new purpose
Canals are wonderfully versatile, and in 1979 the British Waterways Board allowed underground electricity cables to be laid in a trough below the towpath between St John’s Wood and City Road. Pumped canal water is used to cool these high voltage cables, which now form part of the National Grid.
The Regent’s Canal today
We’re pleased and proud that this most interesting canal is alive today, to play a part in the lives of so many Londoners and visitors to the capital. Its towpaths form alternative routes to work for walkers and cyclists, its peaceful scenery grants a breath of fresh air to all. Boaters gain a whole new perspective on some of London’s most well-known sights as they travel along its waters.
After the buzz of Camden there are quieter reaches, but the canal is still at the heart of a vibrant cultural scene. As it continues towards the East End, it passes close by many small independent art galleries and studios, displaying exciting and cutting-edge work.
The Regent’s Canal finally joins the River Thames at Limehouse Basin, always busy with boats of all kinds
The Regent's Canal is a highly attractive waterway in itself, offering you the chance to see a side of London missed by others.
It's also a useful through-route to the rivers Lee and Stort, and for the more adventurous boater, forms part of the London Ring which incorporates a trip along the Thames tideway. Access onto the River Thames is via Limehouse Lock or Bow Locks, and from the Grand Union Canal via Thames Lock at Brentford. Remember that the Thames has fickle currents and tide runs.
Walking & cycling
Our towpaths connect many of the capital's famous green spaces with central routes from Regent's Park to Victoria Park and even right across London from the Lee Valley Regional Park in the east to the Colne Valley Regional Park in the west.
Check out Part 1 of the Londonist's series about London's canals.