POSTCODE FROM THE EDGE: A slow boat to docklands

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The eight-and-a-half miles from Paddington in west London to Limehouse in the east is a journey which many tube travellers dread - the generally unreliable Circle and Central Lines are followed by the dreadfully unreliable Docklands Light Railway. But thankfully, there is an alternative. The Regent's Canal was sunk 180 years ago and skulks below street level, cruising unnoticed on its seaward journey by the gridlocked landlubbers on the streets above. It has survived explosions, drownings, squabbles over land- ownership and attempted sell-offs to become the coolest commuter route in the capital.

The prettiest curves of the canal are to the west, through Little Venice and past the mosque in Regent's Park. Macclesfield Bridge (at the southern end of Avenue Road, just before Primrose Hill) was destroyed in 1874 when a consignment of gunpowder, en route to the the quarries of Nottingham via the Grand Union Canal, exploded, killing three men and damaging some of the cages at Regent's Park Zoo. After the chaos of Camden Town, the canal runs south towards St Pancras through Agar Town, an area named after local landowner William Agar who cynically bought up land in the vicinity of the canal after learning of its proposed route.

The London Canal Museum on New Wharf Road (off Caledonian Road) is the first of the many excellent museums easily reached from the towpath between here and Limehouse. Its "Liquid History" exhibition looks at the London history of the River Thames, while other displays focus on canal art and the Norwegian ice-trade - imported ice was stored in two giant ice wells before the invention of mechanical refrigeration.

From here, it's south to Islington where the canal disappears into a tunnel before re-emerging 878 metres later at the Angel. If you are travelling on foot rather than by boat, the towpath can be rejoined at the bottom of Duncan Street, at the lower end of Upper Street. The colourful selection of exclusive-looking houseboats marks the end of the most obviously scenic section of the canal and is replaced by a starker, more functional beauty. Ducts, air-vents, pipes and a miscellany of industrial artefacts poke from the back of the warehouses which back onto the canal.

The Narrowboat pub at the bottom of Colebrook Road (Angel tube) has an iron spiral staircase leading down to the towpath - on warm days, the towpath is taken over by drinkers where they bask on concrete slabs and gaze at the dirty water like strange urban seals. Cyclists and joggers are the other main users of the towpath today, swerving past fishermen, winos and knots of OAPs.

The route continues past City Road basin, once an important access point for wharfs and factories, but now used by Islington Boat Club. The canal sneaks underneath Mare Street a couple of miles to the east, the site of Bethnal Green's Museum of Childhood, before reaching Victoria Park in Hackney, the world's oldest municipal park.

From here, a sign points back 7 miles to Little Venice and a mile-and- a-half on to Limehouse where the canal joins the Thames. A few minutes along, the Ragged School Museum on Copperfield Road, Mile End, is an evocative, if seldom open, celebration of East End life and the work of Dr Barnado.

As journeys to work go, the historic and beautiful trip along the canal from, say, Islington to Canary Wharf or Hackney to Camden, is one that anyone with two legs and a bicycle would be foolish not to experience.

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