Book Review: The Regent’s Canal

Image: David Fathers, ‘The Regent’s Canal’, Frances Lincoln

One of the best aspects of David Fathers’ new guide to the Regent’s Canal is the way that it clearly brings together what can otherwise seem like a quite disparate system of canals that run through London. This process commences from the very start of the book, with the inclusion of a map showing the full extent of these waterways, from Maida Vale’s Little Venice to Olympic Park. As the way the Regent’s Canal links up with the Hertford Union Canal, the Limehouse Cut and the River Lee Navigation is not always immediately obvious, this guide helps facilitate exploration of what is a fascinating and diverse – and often over-looked – route through our fair city.

Image: David Fathers, ‘The Regent’s Canal’, Frances Lincoln.

Author David Fathers trained as a graphic designer and now works as an illustrator, so it’s no surprise that his book is full of delightful illustrations and images and has an attractive yet practical layout. Every page follows a section of the waterways across London from west to east, with the closest tubes or rail links clearly marked. Fathers doesn’t just stick to the major points of interest either – fascinating historical snippets and glimpses into the lives of famous residents are also included. For example, the house where playwright Joe Orton was murdered is listed, as are details about the accidental explosion of the Macclesfield Bridge (near Regent’s Park) in 1874 – all of which makes for a pleasantly idiosyncratic guide.

The guide’s handy size also means that it is easily carried with you on the trek you should now be inspired to take along London’s waterways. The Regent’s Canal: An Urban Towpath Route from Little Venice to the Olympic Park is published by Frances Lincoln on 4th October 2012 – just in time for the 200th anniversary of the first cutting of the canal.’s_Canal.html

Image: David Fathers, ‘The Regent’s Canal’, Frances Lincoln.


Crossness Pumping Station

Those Victorians definitely didn’t do things by halves. I don’t know about you but if I was designing something highly practical like, say, a sewage pumping station, I’d probably be inclined towards a design that was fairly basic, plain and, well, practical. Not so with the Crossness Pumping Station, whose highly ornate cast iron belies a decidedly less pretty purpose…

In the unusually hot summer of 1858 the Thames became so unbearably polluted with sewage that Parliament hung special curtains soaked in chloride of lime in a effort to hide the smell and the politicians realised they finally needed to act – this became known as the Big Stink or the Great Stink. The engineer Joseph Bazalgette (who also engineered most of the embankment of the Thames) was tasked to find a solution, and designed 85 miles of new sewers to replace the many that emptied into the Thames. Part of this new system involved the construction of a number of new pumping stations, the only one of which surviving in any reasonable form is Crossness, near Thamesmead, which opened in 1865.

Left to decay in the 1950s after the current sewage treatment works opened next door, a team of mostly volunteers has worked to restore the this gem of Victorian industry. The painted cast iron decorating the station is truly stunning. Interestingly, although Bazalagette is usually given credit for the entire structure, it is possible that the building itself was designed by Charles H Driver, who was renowned for his decorative cast iron work. There is a section that has not been re-painted and it’s interesting to see the comparison, though the old industrial sections also have their own appeal.

This surprisingly large complex holds open days most months, with the final one for 2012 slated for Sunday 21st October, 10:30am-4pm, £5. They hope to have more regular openings next year – keep an eye on their website for details. The pumping station is also open as part of this year’s Open House weekend – which is on this weekend – on Sunday 23rd September only, 10:30am-4pm, free of charge. If you’re arriving by rail I highly recommend using their free, regular shuttle bus service from Abbey Wood station.

Turner’s House

The Londonphile has been out to Twickenham again, this time to visit Sandycoombe Lodge, the former house of Britain’s renowned landscape painter, JMW Turner. This fairly modest Regency house in St Margarets is thought to have been designed by Turner himself, with a little help from his close friend John Soane. Today, Turner’s former abode is surrounded on all sides by houses, but it once sat on a plot of land that stretched all the way to the Thames, where Turner strolled, went fishing and gained inspiration.

Turner bought the plot of land in 1807 as a country residence for himself and a permanent residence for his father, Old William, a Covent Garden barber and wigmaker who had long had a hankering to play farmer. The house itself was not built until 1812. Although his father generally maintained both the house and garden for him, it was Turner himself who snuck into Pope’s nearby derelict villa to steal a cutting of the poet’s famous willow tree for his own garden. Some lovely Soanian touches are still evident in the curved walls and decorative roof light in the stairwell.

Turner’s father also looked after his son’s West End studio – it’s not known for sure whether Turner had a studio at Sandycoombe Lodge, but at the very least he would have sketched here. Old William lived at Sandycoombe Lodge – his quarters were mainly in the basement area – until poor health forced him to return to central London. Even today the house is clearly still very damp. Interestingly, Turner’s mistress and two daughters never visited this house. After his father’s departure, Turner sold the residence in 1826 for £500.

Having served as a secret factory during the war (producing pilots’ goggles), the house was bought by one Professor Livermore in 1947, who was interested in preserving it as Turner’s former home. He certainly undertook very little modernisation during his time and the house is now awaiting a substantial restoration, overseen by Turner’s House Trust. This means that current visitors are allowed a rare opportunity to see the ‘before’ picture of what promises to be a significant project.

Sandycoombe Lodge has been open on the first Saturday of the month since April and will have its last opening of this year on the 6th of October from 10am-1pm (last entry 12:30). £4 gets you an informative guided tour of the premises. It will also be open for free guided tours as part of Open House on the weekend of 22nd and 23rd of September, from 10am-3pm both days, on a first-come, first-served basis. The Trust is still seeking donations towards restoration and maintenance so do get in touch if you can help out at all, or show your support by paying a visit.

2013 update: this year the house will be open on the first Saturday of each month from April-October. 10am-12:30pm, no booking required, and still only £4! It will also be open 10-12:30 on Saturdays June 8th, 15th, 22nd and 29th as part of the Twickenham Festival.