Above: Narrow-boat leaving Acton’s Lock and travelling towards Limehouse on the Regent’s Canal.
The Regent’s Canal – as its name implies – was constructed at the time of the Prince Regent. First proposed in 1802, as a link from the Paddington arm of the then Grand Junction Canal (opened in 1801) with the River Thames at Limehouse, the Regent’s Canal was constructed after an Act of Parliament was passed in 1812. The route was designed to be a water highway around Central London, passing in the main through open countryside.
Above: Map showing the Regent’s Canal as related to the London Borough of Hackney which is mainly beside the old Metropolitan Borough of Shoreditch. Related to Shoreditch, there are two locks and two basins.
The line of the canal through the Metropolitan Borough of Shoreditch is shown on the map. From the western end of Victoria Park to a street called Broadway Market, the Regent’s Canal is flanked on the north side by land in today’s London Borough of Hackney (once the Metropolitan Borough of Hackney) and land on the south side which is now the London Borough of Tower Hamlets (once the Metropolitan Borough of Bethnal Green).
Further west the canal passes under Queensbridge Road, under Kingsland Road, past Kingsland Basin and under Southgate Road. The canal runs through today’s London Borough of Hackney (once the Metropolitan Borough of Shoreditch).
Further west again, the canal extends to Wharf Road, just west of Wenlock Basin, where the north bank is today’s London Borough of Islington (once the Metropolitan Borough of Islington) and the south bank remains in today’s London Borough of Hackney (once the Metropolitan Borough of Shoreditch).
The total length of the Regent’s Canal crosses land which drops from the level of Little Venice, at Paddington, to the level of the Thames, at Limehouse. This required the construction of numerous locks – 12 in all. Within the length related to the old Metropolitan Borough of Shoreditch, there are just two locks. Sturt’s Lock is the more westerly one, which is beside Eagle Wharf Road. Acton’s Lock is further east, near Broadway Market.
Above: Looking into the Kingsland Basin from the Regent’s Canal end in 1999. Several people had taken up residence, living on house-boats. What was mainly derelict land around the basin has now tall blocks of apartments.
Until the 1970s, the Regent’s Canal was ‘hidden territory’. It was technically a ‘working’ canal and the towpath was officially private land, only intended for use by those having any legitimate business related to the canal – like maintenance gangs and those travelling on a narrow-boat on the canal. By that time, however, there was almost no maintenance and any commercial use of the canal to transport goods had almost ceased. The entire length of the canal was fenced off on both sides but, because there were public access points at a few locations, people looking for a place to go for a walk started to use the towpath. This led to more and more people walking along the towpath and the canal authorities, seeing the potential for leisure, began to open up the towpath for walkers and installed better signage so that people knew how long each section of the towpath was.
Nearby pubs and cafes also saw the possibility to increase their revenue and the Regent’s Canal is seen less as a canal and more of a linear park through the centre of London. Since water cannot flow uphill, the towpath beside the canal is great for walking because it is level throughout, with slight inclines beside the locks, where the land rises by a small amount.