London’s Canal Towpaths and their improvements – Canalway

Canalway – the background

People often ask what ‘Canalway’ stands for when referring to the annual Cavalcade boating festival in London’s Little Venice each May.

Canalway (or more correctly, Canal Way) is a project that began in the 1970’s with a substantial implemention of works and improvements made during the Queens Silver Jubilee 1977. This explains why the Silver Jubilee symbol is present on the many Canal Way plaques that are still dotted around London’s canal network. In fact the Silver Jubilee walk and the Canal Way were a combined effort at creating a network of walking routes in the capital. Whilst the Silver Jubilee network is still developing and expanding today as what is known as the Jubilee Greenway, Canal Way was abandoned due to the abolition of the GLC in 1986.

Local councils undertook work to bring London’s canals and their towpaths up to Canal Way standards, however the budget came from the GLC.

The Canalway Cavalcade began as a result of the Canal Way project. The very first Canalway festival took place in May 1982 at Mile End, a celebration of the ambitious project in opening up the city’s waterways. The Mile End site was too small for the event which proved extremely popular, so the following year it was moved to Little Venice. That makes the Canalway Cavalcade festival either 31 or 30 years old in 2013, depending on how one wishes to acknowledge the event’s origins.

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The Grand Union’s Paddington Arm at Kensal Green in the 1950’s. Wide towpath, barely used

As for the towpaths themselves, they have not always been exactly barred to use by the public. Though they were primarily for the boat horses and other people working on the canals, some stretches were in fact accessible and upon a permit from the British Waterways Board (cost was 2/6d in the 1960s) one could take a walk along the country’s towpaths at their own risk. Towpaths had once been excellently maintained but with the advent of motor barges and narrowboats, many towpaths fell into disrepair. As a result of by-wash from the new motorised boats, towpaths were either non-existent or downright dangerous in many areas, and it is for this that there was a desire within the waterways authorities to limit access to these as much as was practically possible.

Nevertheless during the fifties when horse-drawn boating (and indeed haulage by tractor on the London canals) emerges what may be the earliest ever towpath improvement works. The Warwick Crescent/Delamere Terrace canal walk was indeed proposed by the London County Council proposed in the later part of that decade and would provide a useful pedestrian link. It does appear that the LCC began this work by hard-surfacing the south side of the Little Venice pool in 1956/7. Alas the switch from the old LCC to the new Greater London Council later occured and saw a change in emphasis on London’s road distribution network. Under this the Harrow Road to Camden Town route was needed for a new motorway. It was clear the canal was to be in-filled, and this caused major upset.

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The towpath’s poor condition is clearly seen on the section past Lord Snowdon’s Aviary in 1964.

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View looking in the opposite direction, showing the state of towpath further east within the Zoo’s section.

As commercial carrying on the country’s canals slowed to a stop by the mid sixties, attention turned to making the canals useful in new and different ways. Up until that point many had seen canals as old fashioned transport arteries whose end had come. Filling them in was the only answer for many concerned authorities, and as we have seen, the GLC indeed had every intent of filling in the Regent’s Canal for a new road. Slowly councils and boroughs began to see the merits of the waterways for recreational amenities, but not without some effort by the present canal societies. The Regent’s Canal Group sought to emphasise such a paradigm shift with its substantial report produced in 1967. The main focus of this report was to convince the Greater London Council it needed to embrace this new vision rather than infill the Regent’s Canal as intended.


Regent’s Canal: A policy for its future – 1967 – author’s collection.

The origins of the Canal Way Parks, as they were originally mooted, were clearly instigated in ‘Regents Canal; A Policy For Its Future.’ The Regents Canal Group called for the city’s towpaths to be opened up and requested that the barricades preventing walkers from passing through Regents Park be removed. It also looked at the waterways’ potential and expanded on the pros of such merits. The 1967 report was clearly a major change in the then flagging fortunes of the Regents Canal and the Greater London Council’s proposals for a new motorway from Little Venice-Camden was dropped after the report.

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Westminster’s 1968 towpath improvements were denoted by this sign at Lisson Grove.

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The gate at Lisson Grove – the original start point for the 1968 scheme.

Westminster Council took up the initiative prompted by the Regent’s Canal report and strove to open that section of towpath within its borough. These included the Warwick Estate canalside walk and through Regent’s Park from Lisson Grove to the London Zoo. The former had originally been mooted by the LCC in the late fifties, so was actually ten years in the making and opening by 1967. That through Regent’s Park opened in 1968. These two sections practically created a continuous towpath between Harrow Road and Primrose Hill bridge. The stretch of canal alongside Blomfield Road was not fenced off unlike it is today, so crucially provided the middle, missing link along with footpaths over Maida Hill tunnel.

One could in fact walk as far as Hampstead Road locks in the weekdays as long a Towpath Walking permit for 2/6d was obtained, with the express understanding that there was a risk of using the Zoo to Camden section with its worn uneven surfaces and badly worn edges.


By 1972 Camden had opened its section between Hampstead Road and London Zoo.

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Signs at Hampstead Road Lock. Just the top finger post remains. The middle formerly was for Manchester.

Westminster extended its towpath walk at Little Venice with a new section underneath the Harrow Road bridge to an enlarged Wawrick Gardens (Rembrandt Gardens) and then via a footbridge across the Regent’s Canal narrows at Warwick Avenue, thus creating a full circular walkway around Little Venice.


The twin towpaths under Harrow Road (no.2) bridge. That on the right was built in the late 1960’s.

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Old sign from Westminster’s 1970’s scheme – seen in 2003 at Harrow Rd

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Probably the only sign in the 21st Century extant from Westminster Council’s early towpath improvements!

Westminster council’s work during the late 60’s and early 70’s is the reason we have the rare situation of a towpath on either side of the canal under Harrow Road. Before the second path was built under Harrow Road bridge an existing ledge was already in place, around three feet wide. The new towpath was created simply by widening this ledge. The work past Stone Wharf & Warwick Gardens was finally completed in 1975. The addition of a footbridge across the entrance to the Regents Canal by Warwick Avenue bridge gave an uninteruppted circular walk around the Little Venice pool without having to venture onto the nearby roads. On the 2nd of May 1975 Warwick Gardens was renamed Rembrandt Gardens in celebration of the Dutch city’s 700th anniversary.

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The short lived Rembrandt Gdns footbridge built in 1975. This linked the north & south sides of Little Venice.

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The only clue to the former footbridge’s existence is these wooden foundations on the south side of canal.

In view of the popularity of the section from Lisson Grove to Primrose Hill, Camden Council took its turn to upgrade the previously sub-standard section through its borough as far as Hampstead Road, and this was officially opened on 20 May 1972. It was not until around 1974 that an official route existed across the two London Boroughs. The missing link was the bit between the two Regent’s Park bridges, usually shut to all except anglers with permits. This padlocked section along the London Zoo section was finally opened up shortly after.


Jason at Cumberland Turn in 1969. The condition of the Regent’s Canal towpath is clearly shown.

Other tasks such as the building of the ‘Aberdeen steps’ did not come until much later hence Lisson Grove remained the official starting point for the towpath from Little Venice for many years. The remainder of the walk was made via Blomfield Road, Aberdeen Place and Lisson Grove. The building of the estate known as Wharncliffe Gardens in 1979 enabled the building of a direct access from Aberdeen Place down to the towpath by Maida Hill tunnel via what are now known as the Aberdeen steps. Clearly there was a flight of steps down to the canal prior to this date, built from concrete possibly as part of the Grand Union Canal’s 1930’s improvements. Apparently a land slip soon put them out of action. Repairs were not undertaken as more conivial access was available at Lisson Grove just a short distance away.


Eastern portal of Maida Hill tunnel, 1977. Clearly the towpath was for use of boats as no steps are seen here.

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The present Aberdeen steps, with part of the original stairs visible underneath on the left.


Old gate, formerly intended to keep unpermitted walkers out of the zoo section through Regents Park.

These two views clearly show us how much widening has taken place on the towpath through Regent’s Park. The stone kerb between the fences is all that remains of the original towpath edge. Most of the others were reused to edge the new widened towpath.

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The Zoo section early 1980’s. This & the picture below show how much the towpath has been widened again since. Note piling.


The end of Westminster’s 1970’s section. This arrangement was similar to the one at St Marks Gate bridge.

These two sections either side of the blockage past the London Zoo were in fact meant to be used at one’s own risk with the purchase of a towpath permit for 2/6d. The abandoned gate that can be seen by the inner Zoo bridge (no.12) was designed to prevent walkers getting further westwards through Regents Park, whilst those at Primrose Hill prevented those walking east. The only regulars to have keys that opened these gates were from the angling clubs who were licensed to use this section.

During the 1970’s a huge scheme to install electricity cables underneath the towpath between Acton power station and Islington got underway. Despite not actually being part of the towpath improvement schemes, it did contribute greatly towards a better environment for walking. By the mid 1970’s people were easily able to walk westwards from Little Venice as far as the Grand Junction Arms in Harlesden on a hard surface towpath. Unfortunately this scheme introduced that awful contraption which still stands to this day above the eastern portal of Maida Hill tunnel. This ‘contraption’ carries the electricity cables down to the towpath after travelling under the pavements between Blomfield Road and Aberdeen Place.

In 1985 the towpath was further improved and widened by the electricity generating board. Much of the canal towpath between Harlseden and East London is its responsibility as well as Canal & River Trust’s.

Next: The Canalway Scheme

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