Over the years, I’ve walked the canal towpath close to where I live, many times. I’ve travelled a good distance along it too, walking in all directions (most often down to Limehouse to go to the Grapes), but this is the first time I’ve walked the canal with the sole purpose of photographing it.
The previous times I’ve walked along here have either been for recreational purposes or simply to get from A to B. From the point of view of the pathways project, this is the first time I’ve walked a route that I know very well. Therefore, the question to be answered today is, would photographing this route offer me a new perspective on familiar territory?
around the core of London
The route from the Hertford Union canal (London’s shortest canal, connecting the Regent’s canal and Lee Navigation) to Little Venice crosses London, skirting the north edge of the City and the West End. Only where the route borders Victoria Park and Regent’s Park are there any real signs of greenery. The rest of the time, it ploughs through an unremittingly urban, semi-industrial landscape. It’s a lot less grim and grimy than it was a decade or two ago. A project to restore the canal towpath and provide more access points was started by British Waterways in the late 1990’s and is pretty much complete, although there always seems to be ongoing maintenance. Now, thanks to this restoration work, the canal area has been opened up to the local populace.
Only a few years ago, the canal was a much quieter place, a forgotten backwater, overgrown, derelict and, apart from a few al fresco drinkers and the rare mugging, a pretty peaceful place. On a sunny day, it was relaxing to saunter along the seldom-used towpath, catching glimpses of wildlife (I’ve seen Kingfishers flying under Bow Flyover) and, for a few hours, enjoy a little solitude.
It’s a scene that’s changed rapidly in the last few years. The Capital is being repopulated at an alarming rate. The number of people living in inner London declined in the 1970s and stayed low throughout the 1980s. Now, dozens, if not hundreds of apartment blocks have sprung up on the brownfield sites on either side of the canal. Cleaning up the area in the process and bringing thousands of new people into the centre of town and bringing them into contact with an area that, not so long ago, only a few people knew about and fewer even ventured into.
It’s now a playground for new urbanites, a car-free route for cycle commuters, a running track, and an opportunity for commerce – with waterside cafés, bars and pubs. I guess for a lot of people (especially property developers), these are welcome changes. But for me, a once interesting landscape, a place to escape and a significant bit of London’s history is turning into a boring, shiny canyon of glass, steel, concrete and wood cladding.
So, did photographing this route provide me with a new perspective on familiar territory? Possibly it did – but some of that novelty could also be due to the recent, radical changes in the landscape. For certain, it made me realise that things are changing rapidly in the Capital, particularly, close to where I live.
In any case, I need to do this walk again, to re-photograph the route, perhaps walking in the opposite direction. On the day I chose to go, the sky was a little hazy and, as I was walking from east to west into the sun, the sky was very, very bright. With the deep shadows created by the buildings on either side of the canal and the bright sky reflecting off the water, it was extremely difficult to get a balanced exposure. I’ll re-review the photos and make my mind up in due course.