Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article Regent's Canal Dock is the copyright of Jim Shead - A cruise through London in 1966. First published in Waterways World May 1999
Regent's Canal Dock
by Jim Shead.
In recent years I have had the privilege of over six months boating each year, a luxury I could only dream of in the days of my youth. At that time cruising the waterways was, for me, confined to a few weeks on hired boats and a couple of trips organised by the Inland Waterways Association. It was in 1966 that the IWA London and Home Counties Branch organised a trip that was to take me down the Regent's Canal to the Regents Canal Dock, onto the River Lee and then return via the Hertford Union Canal. Most of this route can be travelled today but much has changed and some features have disappeared completely.
We assembled on Sunday morning at Hampstead Road Locks where Jason was waiting for us, then still run by John James the pioneering trip boat operator. Other IWA members accompanied us in three cruisers. The little convoy set off in the autumn sunshine, the clear sky giving no hint of the cloudy afternoon that was to come. It may seem strange remembering the weather of thirty years ago but as a photographer it was important to me, and if my memory should have faded the photographs I took that day record the progress of the cloud. I have no pictures taken in the afternoon. A commentary pointed out the sights as we passed: the mass of railway lines leading into St Pancras and King's Cross stations, Battlebridge and City Road basins and Islington Tunnel. All these, and many more, are substantially the same today. What has changed is London's view of the canal. In the sixties the country still tended to turn its back on the canals, to keep them behind walls and to restrict access to the towpaths. There were very few people along the banks, mostly fishermen, and even fewer pleasure boats.
Just over six miles and 12 locks took us to the end of the Regent's Canal. Here we entered the Regent's Canal Dock, which was largely what we now call Limehouse Basin today although there are two significant differences. The first is that there was no direct link between the dock and Limehouse Cut, which leads to the River Lee, instead Limehouse Cut went directly into the Thames through Limehouse Lock. The second difference is that the dock had a ship lock, which has now been replaced by a much smaller lock. Much of the surrounding area is the same. The railway viaduct behind the dock still forms the backdrop to the remodelled basin although it now carries the Dockland's Light Railway rather than endless trains of coal wagons. At this point two British Waterways trip boats joined us, although I can't remember why, and the whole convoy was to go out of the ship lock and down the Thames a hundred yards to go into Limehouse Cut. Although it was an extremely short trip on the tideway Jason was not allowed to carry passengers for this part of the trip so we all got off and watched the boats go into the ship lock, which was 350 feet long and 60 feet wide. It looked quite empty when operated for only 3 full-length narrowboats and 3 cruisers.
While the boats locked through we went to the Grapes for lunch. We had brought sandwiches with us and ate them in the pub, a thing that would be unthinkable today but in the sixties, when pubs that served food were the exception, it seemed an accepted practice. After lunch we went back to Limehouse lock and saw Jason, locking through, watched by a small group of children who lived in the tenement beside the lock. Both the lock and the building have since disappeared although many neighbouring buildings have changed little externally, however many of the old warehouses have been converted into expensive riverside flats.
In the afternoon we made our way up Limehouse Cut and onto the River Lee. Timber yards and moored lighters loaded with lengths of wood seemed to dominate this part of the trip although as it was a Sunday we saw no commercial traffic on the move. After passing through Old Ford Lock we turned left onto the Hertford Union Canal, or Duckett's Cut, a 11/4 mile shortcut between the Regent's Canal and the River Lee built by Sir George Duckett in 1830. This straight channel with 3 locks took us back to the Regent's Canal where we retraced our route back to Hampstead Road Locks at Camden Town. At this point some people departed but many remained aboard for the trip through the Regent's Park Zoo and Maida Vale Tunnel. It was growing dark by the time we stepped ashore at Little Venice. Jason had travelled 171/2 miles, through 26 locks on two rivers and two canals. As I walked back to the tube station I reflected on a full days boating and my first trip on London's canals.
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