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Walking by Water – the art of going with the flow in London


Islington Tunnel, London's Regent's Canal 

Out of Africa writer Isak Dinesen once said that the cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea. In London, the water can be salty or fresh, brackish, or choked with duckweed, but seeking it out and walking by it can have unexpected effects.

When I first moved to the city, over ten years ago, I found myself pining for the sea. Before the move I had been living in Sydney, a short walk from its iconic Bondi and Tamarama beaches. I could look out of the sliding glass doors of my living room while sipping my morning coffee and see whales leaping out of the water! I’d gone through some tough times there, but the sight of a whale breaching or blowing a jet of water into the air brought me joy. London was never going to compete with that, but that’s where I was living now, and I had to find a way to come to terms with my new environment.

Walking is my preferred method of exploring my surroundings. I like to experience a place on a human scale, stopping to admire a purple wisteria dripping over a red door, peering through a lit window at a beautifully arranged interior, sniffing frying garlic wafting from a kitchen. The Tube is disorienting. It turns the commuter into a mole, burrowing underground and popping up in a strange new location without any sense of what happened in between. Driving can be exhilarating, offering a cinematic sweep across space, but colour and movement replace detail and meditation. There’s no substitute for walking from A to B, or even better, A to B, via XYZ.

So, in the early days and weeks living in my new home, I alternated between uninspiring commutes to work via the 73 bus at 7.30am, and more leisurely weekend strolls around my neighbourhood of Islington. I also got out the A to Z and tourist maps, and consulted Google, looking for potential walking routes of interest. It wasn’t long before I came across the Regent’s Canal.

I asked around. Had anyone walked the canal? What was it like? Responses varied. Londoners who had lived in the city for decades crinkled their noses. “It’s polluted,” they said. “It’s dangerous. It’s full of shopping trolleys and dead rats and worse.” It didn’t sound very inviting. Then I encountered an adventurous Australian who had been living in London for a while and walked everywhere. “The canal is great!” he said.  He could barely contain his enthusiasm. “It’s really fantastic to have a waterside walk in the centre of London,” he added. It was water-music to my ears.

I headed there straight away, and I was not disappointed. The Regent’s Canal is a manmade waterway, built in the 19th century to transport goods around London. It runs just north of central London, and links to a series of other waterways, including the Grand Union Canal, the Paddington Basin, Limehouse Basin, and eventually, the River Thames. I started off walking short stretches of the canal, first East through Hackney, then West to Kings Cross and Camden. The entire canal stretches 8.6 miles (13.8 km) and passes through building sites, tunnels, markets, and a zoo. I’ve walked it all.

Eric Ravillious, Rye Harbour

First, it’s important to say, it isn’t all idyllic. There are abandoned shopping trolleys, and the odd rat scuttling out of sight. I’ve come across sections where it seems like you could walk across the water it is so choked with duckweed, bottles and rubbish bobbing in the murk. But credit to the Canal & River Trust, in the time I have been walking the canal I have also seen dramatic improvements in the water and the towpath. There has been dredging, landscaping, and gardening and sections of the canal feel like a stroll through one of Ravilious’s serene rural watercolour landscapes. As for other parts, a bit of urban grunge never hurt anyone.

The canal is also filled with history, linking the walker to the great Industrial Revolution, when bargemen used horses, and sometimes their own legs, to drag their narrowboats full of coal, bricks, cargo from the docks, and even ice, from one end of London to the other. Today, the narrowboats are mostly recreational vessels, and it’s easy to let your mind wander, and imagine an idyllic life drifting along the canals in one of those brightly painted boats, like floating doll’s houses.  

What I like most about the canal though, is the sense of connection with other waterways. The water you walk beside flows east to Limehouse and the Thames, and eventually flows into the sea. When you realise that, your mind is drawn away from your immediate surrounds, your immediate thoughts, and connects you to something greater.

A murkier section of the canal, choked with duckweed.

A 2013 study on the relationship between happiness and natural environments asked 20,000 smartphone users to record their feelings of wellbeing in the immediate environments where they lived and worked. The results showed that people felt better in natural environments, and those living on marine and coastal margins experienced some of the strongest feelings of well-being. I don’t know if rivers and canals were measured separately, but I am sure they also inspired positive feelings.

People enjoying the good vibes along Regent’s Canal.

When I see people strolling by the water, gliding past in a kayak, sitting on fold-out chairs fishing, I know this must be true. In the summer, I bring friends to enjoy a picnic on the banks of the canal tow path, overlooking the old mill and its quivering willow tree. The ducks, geese, moorhens, and swans make the canal their home, golden carp flicker through the tea-coloured water. One day I walk all the way to the banks of the Thames and see whole families mudlarking, prodding the ooze for lost treasures, seagulls wheeling overhead. I recall messing about in puddles as a child when time seemed infinite and life full of possibility.

I think the combination of walking and water is also key. The pace of walking helps the walker tune into the natural elements – the movement of our bodies matches the gentle flow of the water. We tap into a mental state that humans have refined over millennia, becoming both immersed and at the same time, more alert. At moments I have felt that I can read the water.

Artists are familiar with the ‘flow state’. After the hard work, the struggle to settle on an idea, chipping away at it, we might be lucky enough to fall into a trance. It is a blissful experience, losing track of time, when words, music, images “just flow out”. Runners, climbers, even chess players have described similar phenomenon, a sense of being at one with the rhythms of the universe, if you will.

I am not a psychologist, but a psychogeographer. I do not know all the scientific reasons why we might have these experiences, only that walking in certain places can provoke these sensations in us. Walking along the Regents Canal, the clatter of the city fades. You might find yourself in Kingsland Basin, contemplating the waterlilies opening or closing, the fluffy grey signets darting anxious after their mother swan, a heron, still focused, stalking a fish. For a moment you forget yourself, your worries, your to do list. You experience the sensation of being part of the life that is all around you, not separate from it, as if every breath, every flicker of your eyelid affects everything else. Maybe you lose track of time, maybe the melody of a song comes into your head, or the opening of a story. It is all part of the art of walking by water.

The canal is also filled with history, linking the walker to the great Industrial Revolution, when bargemen used horses, and sometimes their own legs, to drag their narrowboats full of coal, bricks, cargo from the docks, and even ice, from one end of London to the other. Today, the narrowboats are mostly recreational vessels, and it’s easy to let your mind wander, and imagine an idyllic life drifting along the canals in one of those brightly painted boats, like floating doll’s houses.  

What I like most about the canal though, is the sense of connection with other waterways. The water you walk beside flows east to Limehouse and the Thames, and eventually flows into the sea. When you realise that, your mind is drawn away from your immediate surrounds, your immediate thoughts, and connects you to something greater.

A 2013 study on the relationship between happiness and natural environments asked 20,000 smartphone users to record their feelings of wellbeing in the immediate environments where they lived and worked. The results showed that people felt better in natural environments, and those living on marine and coastal margins experienced some of the strongest feelings of well-being. I don’t know if rivers and canals were measured separately, but I am sure they also inspired positive feelings.

When I see people strolling by the water, gliding past in a kayak, sitting on fold-out chairs fishing, I know this must be true. In the summer, I bring friends to enjoy a picnic on the banks of the canal tow path, overlooking the old mill and its quivering willow tree. The ducks, geese, moorhens, and swans make the canal their home, golden carp flicker through the tea-coloured water. One day I walk all the way to the banks of the Thames and see whole families mudlarking, prodding the ooze for lost treasures, seagulls wheeling overhead. I recall messing about in puddles as a child when time seemed infinite and life full of possibility.

I think the combination of walking and water is also key. The pace of walking helps the walker tune into the natural elements – the movement of our bodies matches the gentle flow of the water. We tap into a mental state that humans have refined over millennia, becoming both immersed and at the same time, more alert. At moments I have felt that I can read the water.

Artists are familiar with the ‘flow state’. After the hard work, the struggle to settle on an idea, chipping away at it, we might be lucky enough to fall into a trance. It is a blissful experience, losing track of time, when words, music, images “just flow out”. Runners, climbers, even chess players have described similar phenomenon, a sense of being at one with the rhythms of the universe, if you will.

Walking by the water can get you ‘in the flow’.

I am not a psychologist, but a psychogeographer. I do not know all the scientific reasons why we might have these experiences, only that walking in certain places can provoke these sensations in us. Walking along the Regents Canal, the clatter of the city fades. You might find yourself in Kingsland Basin, contemplating the waterlilies opening or closing, the fluffy grey signets darting anxious after their mother swan, a heron, still focused, stalking a fish. For a moment you forget yourself, your worries, your to do list. You experience the sensation of being part of the life that is all around you, not separate from it, as if every breath, every flicker of your eyelid affects everything else. Maybe you lose track of time, maybe the melody of a song comes into your head, or the opening of a story. It is all part of the art of walking by water.


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