Regent’s Canal Festival opens the waterway to the public to protect London’s heritage

PUBLISHED: 13:05 28 June 2016 | UPDATED: 13:05 28 June 2016

Floral narrowboat at Regent's Canal festival

Floral narrowboat at Regent's Canal festival


The sun came out for hundreds of people celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Regent’s Canal in east London.

Bernard James at the helm of Laburnam club's narrowboatBernard James at the helm of Laburnam club's narrowboat

Narrowboats tied up along the towpath by Mile End Park for the Regent’s Canal’s weekend festival—thankful the rain held off till the evening.

Families with children and other visitors were invited to look round the traditional vessels and even go on short canal trips up to the Skew Bridge lock by Victoria Park and back again.

The boat trips were free—all laid on by volunteers from Laburnam Boat Club at Haggerston, which has been going since 1982.

Being taken for a ride... aboard Laburnam Club's narrowboatBeing taken for a ride... aboard Laburnam Club's narrowboat

“We began just teaching kids to canoe,” volunteer Bernard James, 69, a retired East End teacher, explained.

“But it got so popular that the club expanded over the years—and now we run three narrowboats taking people on trips up and down the canal and getting them involved with the canal locks.”

But he is concerned about the canal’s future and keeps a constant watch.

Catherine Whitefield's Littlest Museum narrowboatCatherine Whitefield's Littlest Museum narrowboat

“The Regent’s Canal is London’s heritage—but it’s always a battle to stop old canal-side buildings being knocked down,” James adds with some worry. “There was a suggestion when commercial trade died down in the 1960s to fill in the waterway and turn it into a road, but luckily that didn’t happen.

“It’s important to fight to protect the canal—it’s got such a strong history and is important for our heritage.”

One narrowboat was opened as “the Littlest Museum” showing the story of the canal with artefacts that used to be common everyday bits and bobs that canal workers used till the commercial trade declined.

Canal festival pond-dipping for water creaturesCanal festival pond-dipping for water creatures

It is owned by Emma Whitfield who grew up on the canal and loves it so much she turned her floating home into a museum inviting visitors on board. Her mum Catherine was looking after the boat for her for the day.

But the big hit with the kids was pond-dipping in a canal offshoot in the park.

They dipped nets into the pondweed to see what tiny creatures live there, lifting them into water trays to checking what they were from a picture guide, before putting them back in the pond.

The boy who fell in the drink... little Tom Cockerham, 5, from Bethnal Green, back on dry land pond-dippingThe boy who fell in the drink... little Tom Cockerham, 5, from Bethnal Green, back on dry land pond-dipping

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. One youngster, five-year-old Tom Cockerham from Bethnal Green, was netting water creatures when he toppled in himself.

“He over-balanced, fell in and got a bit of a shock,” his dad Paul said. “But we pulled him out quickly. All his clothes were soaked—luckily we had a spare shirt, although he had to carry on without his trousers.

“Tom is used to the water—but not falling in it.”

Messin' about on the Regent's CanalMessin' about on the Regent's Canal

Dad loves the canal and cycles every day along the towpath from Bethnal Green down to Limehouse to his job in a bank at Canary Wharf. It’s the best part of his day, he says.

Family activities were also laid on in the Art Pavilion, such as a painting workshop and a canal heritage exhibition, while further down the towpath the Ragged Museum in Copperfield Road was open all day.

The first leg of the canal opened in 1816 between Paddington Basin and Camden Town, before it was extended to Limehouse in 1820 to join up to the Thames.

Sunday’s festival was part of the East End Canal Heritage project by the Canal Museum at Camden Lock, with volunteers gathering photos and stories from people who remember the canal in its heyday. Some older folk even worked the boats, with horses and tractors which towed them, or worked in the factories and wharfs along the banks and remember some of the dodgier goings on.

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