London’s Regents Canal is 8.5 miles long, has 13 locks, 7 basins, 50 bridges and 2 tunnels. It was opened on August 1st 1820, and horses pulled barges along it, making deliveries in London until the railways took over. The riverside people regarded the boat people as ‘water gypsies’, but were friends with the bargees (the working men whose horses pulled the barges), and who had nickmanes like ‘Blossom’, ‘Long Tom’, ‘Trunky’, ‘Skippo’ and ‘Paddington Poll’.
The canal companies continued to deliver the items the railways couldn’t handle until the 1960s, when the canal fell into disuse and became a disease-ridden backwater. Kids would play here in gangs of up to a hundred.
One good side effect of the London property boom was realising that the warehouses lining the canal would be valuable. But in order to attract buyers, the canal had to be cleaned up.
If you walk along the Regents canal now you’ll see fish, wildflowers, herons, geese, moorhens, ducks and swans. And the barges are all back, but this time they’re used for living on and leisure pursuits. Quite a change in forty years.
Battlebridge Basin 1960s
The Same View Now
By the way, as you walk along the canal, which cuts right across central London, you’ll often see one of these things. It’s called a Horse Slip. Sometimes the horses lost their footing and fell in the canal. They would be brought along to the slips, where they could regain their footing and climb out. Today, over-eager bell-tinkling cyclists sometimes miss them and shoot straight into the canal. How we laugh.