The canals of London, an oasis of sustainability

Tuesday 26 October 2021

Although it may be hard to believe, in London it is easy to find green spaces, and difficult to walk more than fifteen minutes in any direction without coming across a park or a small garden, where Londoners often take their lunch breaks. In fact, there are as many trees as there are inhabitants – more than eight million – and if you look at a map, you will see that 21% of the city’s surface is green.        

The canals, with their lush green banks, have all the charm of those parts of the city that are frequented more often by locals than by visitors. A walk allows you to observe the day-to-day routines of Londoners, from those who whiz by on their bikes after a hard day's work, to those who prefer to sit on the canal banks with their feet dangling over the edge and talk for hours on end, and of course, those who have established their houseboats in the water and converted this privileged site into their home. 

A walk through these sustainable oases allows the visitor to feel they are part of the city. Perhaps because on the towpaths and river walks, time passes at a different pace. It is worth letting yourself become ensnared by such peacefulness and to be surrounded by greenery and water, by trees that look their best in the autumn and by that special energy found in the nooks and crannies of large cities in which Mother Nature is queen.

 

From elegant Little Venice to busy King’s Cross

Regent's Canal, London. Houseboats moored on the banks. Walking paths along the banks.

Regent’s Canal has an easy river walk that is revealing for the uninitiated and can be discovered in many ways, on foot or by kayak. It was originally built to connect the branch of the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal to the River Thames. It runs from Little Venice to the eastern part of the city, in the docklands, and has a length of almost 14 kilometres. 

The starting point could well be Primrose Hill, a cheerful neighbourhood in the northern part of the capital that borders Regent’s Park, one of the historical Royal Parks in the city centre. One important stopping place is Primrose Bakery; try their famous cupcakes for which they are well known, with their delicious carrot cakes being perhaps the most British of them all. After leaving London Zoo behind us, we enter the canal and head for Camden.  Castlehaven Community Park & Horticulture Hub, a green area behind the busy market, is one of those exciting projects that makes you believe a green future is still possible. There, a group of volunteers organise events focused on promoting a more sustainable lifestyle, not only through their commitment to the regeneration of this green area that is open to the public and which they maintain, but also through workshops targeted at those who want to start growing their own vegetables or learn more about gardening. What’s more, on Fridays they sell the vegetables they grow.  

Retracing our steps to the banks of the canal, we continue to the east, leaving the busy neighbourhood of Camden behind us. The next stop is King’s Cross, which has witnessed one of the most ambitious processes for the urban regeneration and creation of green areas in London in recent years. Once a run-down industrial area, regeneration efforts mean that twenty years on it is now one of the liveliest districts in the northern part of the city.

Granary Square, King's Cross. Outdoor seating along canal. People relaxing and chatting.

Before continuing our route, Granary Square, with its emblematic fountains, is the perfect place to stop and have a drink or a meal. From the Vinoteca, a spacious wine bar filled with natural light and a menu to suit all tastes (biodynamic English sparkling wine, gin and tonic, cocktails and non-alcoholic drinks), to the Instagrammable Caravan, with its Australian brunches and barista coffee, the excellent tacos of Al Pastor or the delicious Indian food of the reputed Dishoom, it would be a sin not to make the most of the local gastronomic offering.

Camley Street Natural Park, which is between King’s Cross and St. Pancras, occupies a surface area of almost one hectare and has recently reopened after a major renovation. This natural area, unknown to many, was set up in 1984 and is built on the remains of what was once a courtyard where coal from the north was stored. For this reason, its power as a symbol of sustainability is even more relevant. Here you will find woods and marshes, the perfect habitat for dozens of animals and plants which would have nowhere to live in other parts of the city, as well as a fantastic stage for taking photos of an unknown side of London. 

To make the most of the space between the water of the canal and the land, floating reed beds have been built to help absorb the excess nutrients of the water, thus contributing to the reduction of waste and ensuring cleaner water. To see and enjoy the canal from a different angle, a visit to the Viewpoint is a must. This isolated, floating space was designed by a team of young Finnish architects and allows you to disconnect and forget that you are in the centre of a vast city, instead making you feel you are part of the canal.

Close by, on the other bank of the canal, the reputed British landscape architect Dan Pearson has made a contribution to the area by designing the Handyside Gardens, a public park connected to the path that runs along the canal bank. In his design, Pearson, who has always sought to reconnect people with nature, used plant varieties that stand out for their beauty and colours which change during the year. The design invites passers-by to sit and rest on one of the many benches in the gardens and see how the natural elements cleverly blend with the urban landscape.

 

From Angel to Hackney, the modern heart of London

The Towpath Cafe, canal-side eatery.

Moving on from King’s Cross to Angel, we continue on foot amidst weeping willows and elders, and planters with different plant species ranging from aromatic herbs to vegetables, depending on the season.  The charming Towpath café, on the banks of the canal, is a great place to stop – brunch is the busiest time – and try one of the dishes prepared with local ingredients. One excellent example of their philosophy is their natural elderflower cordial, for which they use the raw materials that grow on the banks of the canal itself.

This café epitomises the idea of a community that exists among the locals and the employees, the same concept as the one behind dozens of neighbourhood and community movements, as well as non-profit organisations, who work to protect the ecosystem and natural life along the canal. In Haggerston, once more we see metres and metres of floating islands whose purpose is to create a corridor of biodiversity. The volunteers of the non-profit organisation Canal River Trust were responsible for installing these artificial islands which also help to cement the concept of London as a National Park City. 

The Wildlife Gardeners of Haggerston have also started to create a green corridor that will run as far as the mouth of the River Lea.

The river walk could end at Hackney City Farm, an exceptional site in which different farm animals including pigs, sheep, ducks and hens co-exist with visitors and volunteers, and where children can learn values such as respect for nature while they amuse themselves.  The farm cafe, Frizzante, is inspired by Italian agro-tourism farms and its menu features ecological ingredients and Italian dishes.   

All these initiatives are fine examples of how both pre-sustainability decisions made in offices and spontaneous projects undertaken by neighbourhoods make it possible to regenerate areas and protect biodiversity.

Alternatively, to regain our strength, our last stop could be Columbia Road. One of the most photogenic streets in London, it is filled with independent stores, many with sustainable credentials, where you can find dozens of delightful objects to buy, including candles, pottery and glassware. On Sundays the street hosts the most popular flower market in the city. And as a perfect ending to the day, what could be better than to have supper at Morito Hackney Road, a restaurant that serves simple, high-quality Mediterranean food and on some days (normally Tuesdays) organises live music performances in the basement.

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