It’s amazing how much the scenery changes once you pass under the A40 flyover, the 21st century is left behind as you emerge into a world of yesteryear. Skyscrapers are replaced by magnificent Georgian mansions, the noise of the bustle and construction give way to the delicate sounds of nature for we have reached an oasis of peace and tranquillity. We have reached, as the local resident and famed poet Robert Browning labelled it, Little Venice.
It is often said how the industrial city of Birmingham in the West Midlands has more miles of canals than Venice and I’d be surprised if London and indeed Manchester did not also surpass the fair Italian city.
Dozens of narrowboats, day trip boats and water cafés line this calm stretch where the Grand Union Canal meets the Regent’s Canal. The famous Little Venice mansions provide a stunning backdrop. And the triangular pool, complete with willow tree, is home to several floating businesses such as the Waterside Cafe, London Waterbus, a floating art gallery and a hotel boat.
Before we see what Little Venice looks like today, take a look at this lovely print from the year 1828. The bridge on the left is still there and the Grand Union Canal goes onwards 25 miles or so to my house and then another 100 or so to Birmingham and beyond. Meanwhile to the right you can see the beginning of Regents Canal.
In the print above, Little Venice is out in the countryside which is now 20 miles distant. The boats are being powered manually, by horses and one with a small steam engine.
Little Venice looks even more serene in the summer where the trees are in leaf and passersby enjoy this tranquil corner of London. The photo above is almost taken from the same position as the old print.
Looking back over Little Venice you can see the permanently moored cafe and information boat in the foreground whilst towards the back you can see the small island with a weeping willow tree from the Salix genus. It is said that Robert Browning himself rowed across to the island and planted the tree himself as he wanted to further beautify the scene from his house which is just out of view to the left of this photo.
Robert Browning was one of the most preeminent Victorian writers; he was regarded as a sage and philosopher-poet who through his writing had made contributions to Victorian social and political discourse. Unusually for a poet, societies for the study of his work were founded while he was still alive.
He was fantastically non-conformist and refused to follow any of the established career paths of someone so gifted both educationally and financially and stayed at home writing poetry until he was 34. He supported animal rights, suffrage for women and equality amongst the races.
Even after he found success, he was wilfully obscure in his writings which did a great deal of harm to his reputation amongst popular classes at least. One such work was Sordello which was published in 1840. The legendary Tennyson commented that he only understood the first and last lines of the work whilst Carlyle wrote that his wife had read the poem through and could not tell whether Sordello was a man, a city or a book!
How bafflingly marvellous, a true artist!
Here I am standing on top of the old bridge at the top left of the old print. On the left you can see the old cottages of the people employed to run and maintain this important canal junction, now used by the Canal & Rivers Trust. About two minutes up the road on the right is the house where Alan Turing was born.
Later February isn’t the best time to go to an open air puppet theatre, probably even less so on a canal boat but it gives a little insight of the genteel culture you can find around Little Venice.
In the next post we will veer right, leaving the Grand Union Canal and heading onto Regents Canal but in the mean time, tell everyone about the only private guided walking tour of Londons canals with Ye Olde England Tours.