As the beating heart of the Industrial Revolution, London was served by a network of canals that allowed the carriage of materials and finished products around the city and beyond to the rest of the UK and the world beyond.
As a result, London continues to have a large number of canals and waterways snaking around the city that are now primarily used for pleasure rather than industrial purposes. The waterways in London are well-used and give a different perspective on the city than you will get from the busy streets around the canals.
The Grand Union
The best known canal in the UK and the biggest in London, the Grand Union canal comes into the city from the north from its opposite terminus in Birmingham. Although parts of the canal were in existence long before the turn of the 20th century, the former Regents Canal was amalgamated with a number of other canals in the British canal network to form the Grand Union as it stands today.
Regents Canal continues to be the best used of the London canals. Running through Camden and Kentish Town, a number of the warehouses and industrial units that were previously served by the canal have now been turned into housing and entertainment areas that draw people in from all over the city. At the time when the canals’ primary use was conveying industrial products from manufacturers to distributors, living by the canal would have been an unpleasant and messy business. Today, however, canal-front properties are very much sought-after and the areas around Camden and Islington have been significantly gentrified in recent years through clean-up and regeneration.
The Grand Surrey Canal
South of the Thames is also well-served with canals through the mainline and branches of the Grand Surrey Canal. The canal fell into disrepair following the move of canal traffic to the railways to transport products to ports in Portsmouth through the 19th century.
The area around what is now known as the “Surrey Canal Triangle” has recently been granted in the will see the building of over 2,000 new homes along with sporting and leisure facilities in the wake of the 2012 London Olympics. The plans propose changing the areas around Deptford and South Bermondsey beyond recognition and will bring a new lease of life to the canal in its post-industrial life.
The former City Canal
The city canal was a very short and short-lived canal that provided passage across the Isle of Dogs in London’s Docklands. Linking the two reaches of the River Thames, the canal allowed goods to be transported between docks for onward transport out of the city.
The canal, now no longer in operation, forms part of South Dock and no longer allows access across the dock. The former lock gate has been reconstructed in memory of the service that ran through the dock, but where the canal once ran is now plays host to military vessels visiting London as it is the furthest point upstream where they can be turned around for the return voyage.
In addition to the more well-known waterways around London, there are several canals and cuts that are less popular but no less worthy of a visit. The story of London’s industrial heritage is told through the canals that cross-cut the city to take goods from one place to another and are now forming part of the city’s future as redevelopment brings a new lease of life to former industrial areas and provides a place for families and visitors to get away from the heat of the streets.