A walk along the Regent’s Canal from Little Venice to Camden

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Several weeks ago when I arranged yesterday’s visit to London, I had expected that the last Saturday in September would be more autumnal. However, a forecast of 17 degrees and dawn to dusk sunshine resulted in a change of plans for the day. Museums and exhibitions can wait for colder days; this was going to be a perfect occasion for a stroll along one of the capital city’s waterways.

Having walked the stretch of the Canal from Regent’s Park to Camden last year, I decided that this time I’d begin at its starting point, Little Venice, where it meets the Grand Union Canal at Paddington Basin.

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The nearest tube station is Warwick Avenue. From there, it’s just a five minute walk to the Basin.

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I had expected there to be more boats around, but then it was only 09:40. Queues had already started to form for the water buses and private hire boats. I considered a cruise aboard Jason, but as embarkation was not for another 45 minutes I decided to walk instead.

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Heading north along the towpath, I soon found to my annoyance that I had to walk back up onto the road which runs parallel to the water. It seems that the permanent boating community whose vessels are moored there are entitled to lock an access gate which essentially turns that stretch of the towpath into their private gardens.

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Whilst I don’t begrudge them the privacy which this offers,  I wish it had been made clear on the various websites I had consulted when planning my walk. At that point I briefly regretted not having waited with the other Argonauts to set sail with Jason

My diversion took me past a nice looking cafe bar situated above the Canal tunnel.  I’d had a quick breakfast at 05:30 so I decided to break off for coffee and toast with a view of Little Venice.

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From there, the diversion took me further away from the water and through a housing estate. I consulted my map which seemed to suggest that I was still on track, but I had no idea where I would get back onto the towpath. A jogger helpfully pointed me in the right direction, informing me that I would pass a “nice pub” further ahead and that close by there would be a gate leading back down to the canal. Both were easy to find, but to my dismay this gate too was padlocked shut. A sign indicated an alternative route should the gate be locked, suggesting that there was actually no way for a pedestrian to ever know in advance whether the towpath would be accessible, as this depended on the choice of the boat residents at any given time.

With the water back in view, I ambled along past St John’s power station where on the other side of the Canal yet another cluster of boat people had made a pretty little floating community.

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They had also closed off the towpath where they had assembled some lovely gardens and homely structures. At that point, as I focused my camera through a gap in the railings, Jason sailed past. On balance, even though I had been diverted away from my chosen path through an insalubrious residential area , I was still glad I hadn’t wasted 45 minutes of my day waiting for that particular voyage to commence.

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A little further on, I was able to cross over to join the towpath. By this time, more people were canal-side: walking, running and cycling, with some even on the water. The capital’s waterways are havens for busy city-dwellers.

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My walk revealed a spectrum of city living, from the palatial properties on the far bank, through the array of quirky boat homes to the sleeping bags and tents under bridges and amongst the trees. One tent dweller bathed in the water as people passed by. I was quite moved by the sight of his little grooming kit of soap, shampoo, comb etc., guarded by his faithful canine companion. I hope he doesn’t have to do that for much longer as the days become colder and the water icy.

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This part of the canal skirts the western boundary of Regent’s Park and cuts through London Zoo with bridges connecting the two sides. Animal sounds can be heard from within the grounds. The photographs below show an aviary on my left and the giraffe house across the bank.

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The familiar view of the floating Chinese restaurant told me that I was to take the left turn under the next bridge.

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Camden lock was just a little way further ahead, as announced by the Bohemian air and herbal aroma.

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Camden Lock is a noisy and very vibrant hub of activity. It was almost midday and the area was teeming with visitors, exploring, shopping or just watching the world go by. The finger post told me I had walked two-and-a-half miles from Little Venice and that I could walk 302 miles to Liverpool if I fancied it. I decided to pass on that.

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I love Camden and have been countless times over the years, but I have found that as I get older I am less comfortable and less patient in the thick of the very slow moving swarms of spatially unaware sightseers, but it’s still good to see the amusement and wonder on the faces of visitors as they pose for selfies in this bizarre and very unconventional part of London where anything goes.

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The late Amy Winehouse  was a Camden girl, a fact which is celebrated through art works around the Stables market where she once worked on a stall. Would she still be around now if she hadn’t found fame?

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The Stables Market was formerly a horse hospital, dating back to 1854. Camden was an industrial hub where horses were instrumental in hauling goods between the canal and railway networks. References to the site’s former use are displayed throughout the market place’s alleys and courtyards.

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Stables

I amazed myself by keeping my purse zipped shut as I mooched around the winding passageways, a cornucopia of ethnic, vintage, and curio shops.

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Very ready for a sit down and a spot of lunch, I walked the short distance to Chalk Farm tube station to head back by train to the heart of the city.

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An English Village

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I recently visited the little-known village of Trim. It is a unique place on the west Lancashire coast boasting an abundance of desirable residences and traditional independent shops on the edge of the village green.

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Brightly painted narrowboats are moored along the canal, attracted to the peaceful surroundings and the hospitality on offer at the Nameless Horse pub.

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In some ways, this place has been frozen in time and gives the impression of an England that no longer exists.

Trim enjoys impressive facilities for a rural location of its modest size, including a post office, fire station and a police station.

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Two train stations: Trim and Brady provide frequent services, which seem to be unaffected by industrial action and chaos resulting from new timetabling.

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The vintage green line train passed by about 20 times or more during my short visit. Another train of an unusual European design conveyed some eccentric passengers including a Princess Diana lookalike and her consort, both in Edwardian dress, and another woman – possibly an artist – who offered me a rude two-digit salute, though she may just have been flashing a particularly showy ring.

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Trim has a fascinating ethnically diverse population. A community of faerie folk lives deep in the wild grasslands to the west of the village.

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The faerie realm amidst the wild lands

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Based on my observations, they appear to go out in pairs or threes, looking utterly miserable. Seemingly interested in watching from a distance the comings and goings of the human villagers, the wee people don’t appear to participate in village life. I didn’t see any faerie men in the locality, so it’s possible they live as a female only collective.

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Mushroom magic or mushroom misery?

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A recent increase in crime and wickedness is threatening the very fabric (or mainly the glazing) of what should be a perfect place to live. Close examination of some of the posh properties reveals cracks in the surface of the shiny windows.

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Despite extensive house-to-house enquiries carried out by Trim’s finest bobbies, they haven’t yet found out who is behind the window-smashing campaign. My money is on the person I saw peering through the panes of one house, rock in hand, about to strike. An enormous white sock pulled over his head made a cunning and effective disguise.

A more worrying development is the giant bird which has been making an appearance recently.

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Though it has been mainly foraging amongst the reed beds near to the faerie habitation, I saw it for myself in the centre of the village outside the taxi rank, and again later on top of the post office where it seemed, somewhat ironically, to be taking an interest in a cat which had ventured onto a nearby rooftop and fortunately was about to be rescued by the emergency services.

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Happily, the village people seemed unperturbed by the colossal feathered presence, and life carried on in its typical timeless way.

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The cricketers watched their wickets on the green; a newly married couple emerged from the church; outside Bistro Pierre, a fine diner momentarily rested against the wall for support, possibly having had one glass too many.

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Outside the pub, a man served his time in the ancient stocks for some unmentionable crime. The faeries looked on…. still miserable.

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A tour of Smithills Hall, Lancashire

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Smithills Hall is a grade 1 listed manor house near Bolton, Lancashire, close to the West Pennine Moors. Last Sunday I took a tour to find out more.

 

First things first. The popular tea room makes tasty soup and sandwiches which were just what we needed before the hour-long exploration began.

 

According to Dorothy, our excellent guide, when the Anglo Saxons settled in the area in the 7th century, they described the surrounding hylls as smeƥe, or smooth. By 1300s, Smeƥe hylls had evolved into Smythell as noted in the earliest records which mention a manor house in that location.  In 1335, house and land were bought by the powerful Radcliffe family who built the oldest parts of the present great hall from timber frames and stone.

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Dorothy, our tour guide

 

Original features are still present; my favourites are the alms windows where bread would be left in the loaf-shaped openings for collection by the beggars of the parish, so that physical contact with them could be avoided.

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After the last of the Radcliffes died heirless in 1485, Smithills (as it was by then known)  passed into the possession of the Bartons, wealthy gentlemen farmers who held onto it for two centuries. There are some wonderful features from this period including examples of carved wood.

 

 

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The Bartons were enthusiastic recyclers, repurposing the solid oak planks of decommissioned ships which happened to make splendid beams and joists.

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The Tudor period was one of great turmoil in England. Henry VIII had brought religious reformation in the 1530s  when he declared himself Head of the Church of England and severed ties with the Pope and Rome. After Henry’s death in 1547, his son, Edward, became King, but died after just six years. The new monarch, Queen Mary, re-established Catholicism.  She became known as Bloody Mary due to her persecution of Protestants and the gruesome burnings which she ordered to be carried out on Protestant clergy who would not recant their faith.

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In 1554, George Marsh, a preacher from Bolton, was interrogated or ‘examined’ in what is known as the ‘green room’ at Smithills Hall before he was eventually burned at Chester. The ‘green room’, with its incredibly uneven and creaky floor, can normally only be viewed on special tours such as the heritage event we were attending……and ghost tours.

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The green room where George Marsh was interrogated

All old English houses have their stories of ‘things that go bump in the night’ and Smithills is no exception. After his interrogation, George Marsh is said to have stamped on a flagstone, leaving a strange supernatural footprint which is now under a glass cover for protection. It was impossible to take a decent photo due to poor lighting and visitors walking past so here’s one I found online.

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An original private chapel was thought to have been established in the 8th century with the present chapel (still in use), being built in 1520 by the Bartons and later refurbished and extended.

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I particularly liked the splendid stained-glass windows and the wooden panels, some of which are engraved with Masonic-looking symbols which also appear elsewhere in the Hall. Another member of the tour group asked about these but was told that they’d been checked out by the Freemasons who denied the images were associated with their secret society.

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The Ainsworth family took ownership in 1801. They were ‘new money’, owning a very successful bleaching business and a family fortune which demanded a residence to match their status.

The different wings converge around a courtyard, now turned into an herb garden. Formal gardens surround the Hall and the wider grounds include extensive woodland and lawns.

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The west wing was the last part to be added in the Victorian era. Mr and Mrs Ainsworth’s separate sitting rooms have been set out authentically with some original features.

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Mr Ainsworth’s room containing some unpleasant taxidermy
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Gorgeous Delft pottery tiles

 

I was delighted to find his and hers fireplaces decorated with gorgeous tiles; his in a Delft design and hers created by my favourite ceramic artist, William de Morgan (read my blog post about him  here  ).

 

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William deMorgan tiles in Mrs A’s fireplace

Although I’m not a great fan of Victoriana in general, I found it interesting to compare the different sections and styles of this somewhat disjointed house.

After Smithills was sold to Bolton Corporation in 1938 it was put to various uses including as a home for elderly ladies; hopefully they were accommodated in the warmer west wing and not in the mediaeval grand hall…

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