On Board
Narrowboat "FRILFORD"
(British Waterways No. 500645)

 

Chapter Eight – Paddington, Little Venice and London Zoo!

7th to 10th April 2005

I asked Felicity how she proposed getting back to Minchinhampton, whence she'd come.
"Well, ideally I need to find a train station,” she said. "I have a return ticket from Paddington back to Stroud so if we can get to a station around here I can get up to Paddington and go from there. I need to be there in the next twenty-four hours."
"Lady," I replied, "the gods are with us this day. Look at the Paddington Arm. It goes to Paddington!"
"But you don't want to go to London," she replied, echoing a conversation we'd had more than once about my wish to 'get going' and push north up the Grand Union Canal.
“I don’t want to go through London and end up in Limehouse Basin and have to come back to Brentwood on the River Thames only to do all the locks again which we have just done. That I don’t want to do, but if you want to go to Paddington and you have the time, let’s go on the boat. I’ll stay in Little Venice a day or two and you’ll get to go home. Seems like a good plan all round! Oh – and there are no locks to Paddington!”

So that is what we did. The Paddington Arm was interesting. At various times it was both urban and industrial and at other times, surprisingly given our close proximity to urban areas, it was green and semi-rural. The Canal Museum (www.canalmuseum.org.uk) explains better than me the establishment of the Grand Junction Canal and the setting up of the Paddington Arm, part of which they describe thus:

“The initial plan was to link Braunston in Northamptonshire (where there were other canal connections to Birmingham and the north) with the river Thames at Brentford. This would have served central London only via the river - a long way around. In 1794, long before the main line was complete, the company had the idea of a branch or "arm" from Bull's Bridge in west London to Paddington. Paddington was much closer to the heart of the capital and was served by the "New Road" connecting it with the City. Parliamentary powers were quickly sought for this extension and the process of buying land and negotiating with difficult landowners began. The Bishop of London proved especially difficult to deal with. The Paddington Arm opened on 10th July 1801, terminating in a 400 yard long basin, 30 yards wide, around which were wharves, a hay and straw market, sheds for warehousing, and pens for livestock. The Paddington Arm was a success and Paddington was soon a busy inland transhipment point, with goods being carried on to other parts of London on carts.”

Yes, this is the first time I have pulled a lump of text off the Internet to pad out my narrative, and I don’t plan to make this a regular feature. However, the Internet is a great resource, of course, and I might as well have better people than me put some of what I am saying into context.

Felicity and I did the 13.5 miles of the Paddington Arm in a little over three and a half hours. There were some interesting moments. As we passed Northolt we had Wembley off our port bow and there, rising above all around it, was the arch of the new Wembley Stadium (www.wembleystadium.com). It looks most impressive. As I write this Multiplex, the Australian firm building the new stadium, have announced they will lose something like £45 million but that it will be open in time for the FA Cup Final in May 2006. Others are more sceptical and have their opinions boosted by the resignation of Multiplex’s founder from his position as executive chairman. Somehow this smacks of wobbly bridges across the River Thames and Princess Diana Fountains which don’t work, and Domes… All this with the London 2012 Olympic Bid going head to head with Paris whilst New York and Madrid look on attentively. Great Britain can be great indeed and I hope Wembley opens in a blaze of glory and is an instant success. We need it to be.

Shortly afterwards, at Park Royal, the North Circular Aqueduct hove into view. It was raining at the time we went over it so my pictures are a bit hurried and not very good. However, it was quite amazing to be high above the six lane highway which is the North Circular on FRILFORD looking down at thousands of vehicles thundering along that infamous highway. I gather the original aqueduct was built in the 1930s when there was no delay to canal traffic whatsoever. When the North Circular was widened in the 1990s and the aqueduct was replaced at the same time there was considerable delay to canal traffic. I wonder if it wobbled or was too slippery or something and remedial work had to be done. I don’t know. Forming a look back to the old aqueduct there are two plaques, each showing the coat of arms of Middlesex which were part of the original aqueduct, which have been mounted on the island between the two arms of the canal as it goes over the aqueduct (a duel carriageway canal over a six lane roadway!).

Further towards Little Venice we passed Wormwood Scrubs on our starboard side, although it was not possible to see much from the canal and, anyway, what was I looking for when I was looking? Shortly thereafter (and I know I have slipped into the sort of “and then I did this and then I did that…” style of writing which is frowned upon, but there we are. This was a ‘delivery trip’ of sorts and there were no deep and meaningful things happening. However, we passed interesting places and this is my account – helped by inserts from the Internet – of them!) – shortly thereafter we passed Kensal Green Cemetery. One of Greater London’s ‘Magnificent Seven’ cemeteries (the others being Highgate, West Norwood, Abney Park, Nunhead, Tower Hamlets and Brompton cemeteries), Kensal Green Cemetery is described as the doyen of cemeteries having been under the same management since its since its inception: to this day, Kensal Green is administered by the General Cemetery Company (est. 1830), which still has offices by the main gate.

I’m getting this from their website at www.kensalgreen.co.uk/. It is well worth a visit and from it I lift this rather wonderful paragraph:

“Kensal Green has seen over 300,000 interments since 1832. Its registers include over 700 notable personalities, from eminent Victorians to incorrigible ne'er-do-wells -- not least, the engineers Sir Marc Isambard Brunel and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the mathematician Charles Babbage, the funambulist Blondin, and the novelists Wilkie Collins, Anthony Trollope and William Makepeace Thackeray. Kensal Green is the resting place of Lord Byron's wife, Oscar Wilde's mother, Charles Dickens' sister-in-law, and Winston Churchill's daughter; the first man to cross Australia from south to north, and the last man to fight a duel in England; the duke's nephew who ruined the richest heiress of the day, and the English adventuress who rose from the workhouse by way of the theatre and the brothel to become a French baronne disgraced by the suspicion of murder.”

I have a mind to go on a walking tour of some of the big London cemeteries, and I shall start with Kensal Green. I have only really noticed cemeteries since Mother died. When visiting her I have taken a small walk around the Burial Ground in Marcham, where she lies, and have wondered about the people interred there. It is time to expand my horizons and go visit the great, the good and the not so great and good who form the sod on which we now walk!

By 2.15 pm we were approaching Little Venice. I did not know what to expect and was rather delighted by what I found. Narrowboats everywhere, but, as usual, enough room to proceed and places to manoeuvre if necessary. Little Venice is actually the point where the Paddington Arm meets the Regents Canal but today the name has come to mean the whole area to the south of Maida Vale. The term Little Venice was coined by the poet Robert Browning who lived in Warwick Crescent from 1862 to 1887. Indeed the triangular bit of water formed by the junction of the Paddington Arm, the Regent’s canal and the short arm to Paddington Basin, together with the island in the middle of the triangle, is known as Browning’s Pool and Island. Being the 7th April, the day Felicity and I got there was a bit early for the trees to create the leafy oasis of calm which is Little Venice, but the makings were there, set against the background of elegant, canalside Regency houses.

I took the short arm to the newly-restored Paddington Basin and after winding at the bottom of the basin came back to a mooring next to an office block, in the large plate glass windows of which FRILFORD looked smart and surprisingly easy in her now very urban and modern environment.

Winding? Turning a narrowboat round! Thanks to my friend Andrew Lansdale for finding this definitive explanation:

“To turn a 72ft. boat in a 14ft. wide canal means that they have to dig a chunk out of one side of the channel for turning in. These are known as “winding holes” which you might think would be pronounced as in winding a clock as you are turning the boat round – wrong – the first syllable (wind) is pronounced as in North wind etc. The reason being that the old horse drawn boats used the wind to help swing them round in the hole hence the whole procedure is known as winding.”

“Right,” exclaimed Felicity, “that was all rather good but where is Paddington Station?” I pointed to the high-arched roof of said station not 150 yards from where we were moored.
“There,” said I, smiling.
“You could have got me a bit closer!” she retorted, laughing out loud.

It was good. We’d had a good few hours coming up from Bulls Bridge Junction, were right where we wanted to be and within an hour of a suitable train departure to get Felicity back home at a reasonable time, as if such a preposterous assumption is realistic given the state of the rail system in this country. We walked through to the station and were, apparently, immediately struck by the same thing. Felicity was the first to mention it. “Blimey: it’s rather odd coming off the boat, off the canal and straight into this.” It was about 3 o’clock in the afternoon on a Thursday and Paddington Station was heaving with people, moving purposefully, full of intent; the PA was echoing out the usual unintelligible messages and on the concourse every conceivable concession was selling every conceivable commodity. The place was a cauldron of motion. Only the trains seemed not to be moving… We’d gone from being an adjunct to London to being in the heart of London bustle in the few steps it had taken us to come from the boat. I enjoy London but the immediacy of the change was a surprise.

I offered to sit with Felicity but went off to get a paper in the meantime. There was one rather reluctant looking person on the till at the WH Smith kiosk and a queue of about ten people waiting to be served. I didn’t wait. When I got back Felicity was making phone calls and insisted I need not stay with her, so I said goodbye and left. It transpires her train left on time about half an hour later and she got back home in good order, so maybe I should not bang on about the rail system in the UK! As for me, I slipped FRILFORD from her office-side mooring in Paddington Basin and went back to Little Venice. I tied up on the one available free space on a 7 days visitors’ mooring on Delamare Terrace, W2 (or is that ‘off’, the mooring being separated from Delamare Terrace by an iron railing fence and in a quite different world), close to Jason’s Trip, the water taxi and canal trip organisation, which I’d seen when coming the other way. I was lucky (or was someone watching over me?) for the canal is busy in Little Venice and I did not see another space become available in the few days I was there.

My log shows that in that short movement from Paddington Basin, I had just gone over the 200 miles mark of my journey. As I write this in Whaley Bridge in the heart of the Peak District I have just gone over the 500 mile mark. It is surprising how far one goes when one keeps at it. Average days for me are about 10-12 miles at a speed of about 2.9 miles an hour overall and I've covered a fair bit of distance, with much more to go.

However, I am getting ahead of myself. In Little Venice I found myself in the heart of London yet safe within the little world of FRILFORD which I had found it very easy to think of as home. On Friday I went exploring. I did not want to go through London, via Camden Lock, to Limehouse Basin as I have said, but I did think a walk along 2.5 miles of Regents Canal as far as Camden Lock was in order. Waterways.com (www.waterscape.com), the excellent British Waterways website describes the Regent’s canal thus:

“From the River Thames at Limehouse to Paddington, the nine-mile Regent’s canal is one of the best kept secrets in the capital. Largely hidden behind buildings, the line sneaks its way through a rich collage of urban landscapes. It starts at Little Venice - a colourful combination of boats and scenery at the junction between the Regent’s Canal and the Paddington Arm. At Regent's Park, it passes the famous zoo in a fine example of an city canal line. After the bustle of Camden Market and the quieter reaches through north-east London, the line ends at Limehouse Basin, a well-heeled basin containing boats of all shapes and sizes. Along the way are several tunnels, city basins, and an astonishing variety of waterside architecture.”

I must not have been in the mood that day! It’s okay; actually it is much more than okay but somehow I was not ‘transported’ by the place (no pun intended) and had it not been for the Lord Snowdon-designed Northern Aviary of London Zoo which sits one side of the canal, with London Zoo itself on the other side, I would have walked right past the famous London Zoo without noticing it. I did notice it but pressed on to Camden Lock. Yes, I was in a negative mood that day, for the market which is the ‘must-see’ tourist attraction for so many people, and the place to hang out for so many others, did nothing for me at all. Nothing. I can see where the attraction is, I suppose, but I am beyond all that slightly-alternative life style thing; in fact I was never there in the first place!

So I took my apparently-slightly-curmudgeonly self back along the towpath to Regent’s Park to do something that I have been meaning to do for years – revisit London Zoo. I was quite excited about that, notwithstanding my hardly noticing it earlier!

The Zoological Society of London does a good job; the zoo was interesting and the animals were clearly beautifully looked after. The people with their unruly kids were a pain, and in sharp contrast to the silent dignity of all the animals, but there was pleasure to be had from seeing genuinely interested children engaging with genuinely enthusiastical staff to discuss aspects of the animals and their existence in the wild. There are better facilities at Whipsnade and elsewhere, and there is a new aquarium being built in Docklands, I understand, which is good for the old site at Regent’s Park is rather shabby now, but it was wonderful to be able to get close to interesting animals and appreciate just how much zoos do to develop captive breeding programmes to prevent otherwise highly endangered species from becoming extinct. The ZSL deserve our support and in keeping with the new tenor of this journal (at least for today!) I suggest you have a look at www.zsl.org/london-zoo/, which is their website, of course.

On that Friday afternoon I have to say the highlight for me was the male Sumatran Tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae). The Sumatran Tigers are in large wooded enclosure towards the back of the zoo. Glass panels one side and chain link fencing the other. That male was an impressive boy! Whilst the female sat quietly on a raised platform in the middle of the enclosure, the male strutted around quite determinedly. I have not described it as menacingly, or threateningly, because I am not sure it was, but he was making damned sure we knew he was in charge. Several times when I was at the fence side of the enclosure he came right up to it and looked intensely across the zoo. Several times he opened his mouth and couple of times he gave out a muffled growl. On the glass side he seemed quite prepared to come right up to the glass and look intensely again. Whether or not he was ready to make eye contact, I was not and, remembering something about appearing submissive being a good idea in these circumstances, I looked down! The display was not for me as I am sure I was not upsetting him and neither were any of the people there with me, and I like to think he was not upset but just being a tiger! He was a picture of pure beauty and power.

On Friday late afternoon there was a hell of a rainstorm but Saturday morning was clear and saw me walking up to Camden Lock and back again, this time in the company of my good Norwegian friend Sverre, who has lived in London for several years. I’d called him the day before to discover he was in the process of having lunch with a major client (Sverre works for a Norwegian shipowner) and could he call me later. He didn’t, and I was pretty sure I knew why! When I got hold of him on Saturday morning and he suggested a canalside walk I knew I was right. When he arrived he confirmed that lunch had ‘gone on a bit’ and that he’d got back home in the small hours of the morning in a ‘relaxed’ frame of mind. He and I have been like that many times together in the past. We used to be in Singapore together, working for different firms, but both in shipping. In Singapore we worked hard and played hard. We were younger then! Anyway Sverre declared his time with his clients an on-going success, as ever, and we both enjoyed spending a few hours together walking to Camden Lock and back. Sverre is just like me and declared the market at Camden Lock not to be his thing at all and we walked back. He left to visit his girlfriend and I planned to make a little money on the horses!

I quickly came to realise that being in London was rather good from a practical point of view. It was the weekend of the Grand National. I like to have a little ‘flutter’ ever year but where was I going to watch it this year? Indeed where was I going to put on my bet(s)? Paddington Station! There was a branch of the betting shop Ladbrokes right there on the concourse, manned, personed perhaps, by several charming Asian women. I placed my bets with them and said I’d been wondering where to watch the race. They smiled pointed at the large screen on the opposite wall and suggested I watched it there. “The place will be full later,” they said. They were right. I had a few quid on the woman jockey Carrie Ford, riding Forest Gunner, and a few quid elsewhere to lay off that bet. In the event Carrie Ford captured the hearts of the nation, riding a competitive race, always in contention and completing the course to finish an eventual 5th in her first Grand National. It was good, but, as in life, there is nothing for a race well run and bookies don’t pay out on 5th place, and given that the other horses I’d backed finished well but not on the podium, I walked away from Ladbrokes a looser! Thank goodness I am not moved to bet on the horses on any other occasion, save for the odd point-to-point, for I rarely win anything!

All was not lost, however, because also on the Paddington Staion concourse was a Vodafone outlet. I have a cellphone contract with Vodafone and wanted one of their 3G datacards for my laptop so I could get Internet and email on the boat. I could already get all that on my cellphone but having it on my laptop would be more efficient. I’d tried to buy such a card in Henley but there was a supply problem and my local store did not have one. They had one on Paddington Station and I was soon on line from FRILFORD. Well, on air I suppose, there being no ‘lines’ involved.

On Sunday I decided to go and find Graham Price which involved leaving London. He lives on as steel boat which he designed himself on a mooring near Uxbridge. I’d been in touch with him and he’d offered to cook dinner for us both on Sunday night. Graham had been one of the crew with me on Heath Insured when we raced on the British Steel Challenge Round the World Yacht Race of 1992-93. I hadn’t seen him for a few years but he had been in touch with me about my trip and was supportively enthusiastic. I remember his culinary skills from Heath Insured and was looking forward to seeing him for his culinary skills are good!

When I moved off to go back down the Paddington Arm to Bulls Bridge Junction and then on to near Uxbridge I realised I was involved in another small ‘first’. This was the first time I’d navigated a canal without Felicity on board. I’d singlehanded the River Thames but not a canal. Finally I really was singlehanded on FRILFORD in the environment for which I had bought her, and, with not the slightest disrespect to Felicity, who is welcome on board FRILFORD anytime, it felt good.