Sunday 3 May 2015

London Wanderings #3 - Canals and Camden

Yesterday, I went wandering in a more literal sense. I was at King's Cross and I had a little bit of time, so I thought I'd walk to Camden. I've never walked that way before. So I walked down Caledonian Road and took the route down Regent's Canal.

One of the things that I love about London is that you always discover new things. You realise that there are connections you didn't know about between areas that you knew about. I've walked down Regent's Canal a few times, back when I worked in St Johns's Wood, but I'd never gone further than Camden. This started the opposite way, taking me round the backs of areas that I knew a bit better. Down a long, winding path and underneath dark, low bridges that caused even a short-arse like myself to have to stoop.

There's a wildlife sanctuary there. And a large canal community. They're doing work in the area, so a lot of the walk is via temporary walkways, which wobble as people walk on different sides and you get to see cyclists nervously making their way past as it wobbles. As I walked past, it dawned on me that this is a vibrant, busy area of London that I just haven't experienced before, in much the way that most of London is a vibrant, busy area that I haven't experienced yet.

My favourite point of it, other than walking past a couple of guys sat in their barge, comfortably arguing with each other while the smell of pot and alcohol wafted out, was finding a small barge cafe.

There's a small sign near King's Cross for it, and the barge is tiny. It's a small red barge and an old woman runs it and lives in it. You look down into the little kitchen window that she trades out of. She makes teas, coffees and cakes and sells them for a small amount of money. I didn't stop, as I'd just had something before walking, but what struck me about it was the sense of longevity.

This didn't look like a new venture. It looked like she had been doing this for some time. Making her mark on a small part of London and becoming part of it.

In a similar way, a little earlier, I'd seen a small nature reserve next to an estate. It was obviously a community thing, and something that people had worked to put together.

I talked in the last wandering about the sense of anonymity in London, and the exhileration and fear that I find in it. But it's also a place of small, tight communities and people make their way in it. Small, but important things as people live their entire lives in an area and both become part of it and add something new to it.

The walk ended, sadly, on a down note, as I got to the Camden Lock market (if you're walking from Camden Town station to the market, it's the bit on the right by the canal). It's been completely bulldozered and brought to the ground, with only occasional shop signs and walls with large paintings of marijuana leafs still standing.

Back in 2008, a large fire gutted part of the area. I remember going down the next day with my then-partner, to spend money in the parts of the market that were still open - we couldn't do much, but we did what we could to support. There was no electricity, and most of the stalls were lit by candle-light (which I found a little ironic). But Camden survived and thrived like it has always done.

Until now. Until a large swathe of it is bulldozered in the name of development. We'll get some nice, flashy, branded stores instead of the individuals that have kept it alive for so long. It's going to be turned into expensive private homes (of which only 14 out of 170 will be affordable) and offices, which doesn't leave much space for the markets. Sure, there'll still be some stalls, but I somehow doubt it'll be the same people who have been working there for years. Some are going to have to move on. Or just leave.

To me, this doesn't feel like development. It feels like cultural war. It feels like homogeneity destroying the unique and the counter-culture. I'm all for money being pumped into London, but a lot of these developments, to me, feel more like money being sucked out of it.

In my eyes, urban development is doing to Camden what the fire failed to.

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