Wednesday 9 July 2008

Metroland on the Water

The Grand Union Canal follows the Colne Valley and passes through Rickmansworth, pearl in the oyster of Metroland, on its journey to Birmingham. The area around Rickmansworth is unusually watery, a legacy of 19th. century gravel extraction that gives the town one of its few notes of distinction. The arrival of railways rapidly diminished the revenue potential of the canal and its survival is almost exclusively as a leisure facility.

The canal banks are home to a linear community of a marginal character completely unlike the rest of the town which is commuter belt par excellence. The residents of the converted narrow boats and floating homes belong to a very different world from their near neighbours occupying sprawling residential estates of 4-5 bedroom detached homes. They have no space to park 4 by 4’s or executive cars and no large gardens to mow and weed and strim into submission. What they do instead is to colonise small pockets of land adjacent to the towpath and create modest flower gardens with outdoor seating areas. They use bicycles for overland travel and to the casual observer their environmental footprints are a fraction of that of their neighbours.

This is a territory where improvisation and eccentricity prevails. Some boat owners succeed in maintaining an uncluttered appearance and a high standard of decoration and trim. At the other extreme, some vessels are an agglomeration of miscellaneous shapes and forms haphazardly attached to something close in spirit to a floating contractor’s shed with patio doors. All this variety provides the visual pleasure to be enjoyed by the towpath flâneur.

The M25 is only 2 miles away and crosses the canal a few miles to the north at King’s Langley. In terms of environmental impact, it’s difficult to conceive of a greater contrast. The motorway is a raucous, convulsive, snarling corridor of road rage and particulates. The canal is an unfrequented, insulated ribbon of serenity and its continuing existence is certainly something to celebrate.

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