Branch
IWA North & East London Branch
Published

22 December 2020

IWA Towpath Walks guide Charlie Forman gives his perspective.

I’ve been with Towpath Walks for five years, although the scheme itself has been running for much longer than that, since 1977. I joined as a newly qualified guide, realising it would be a golden opportunity to have a ready-made audience of walkers expecting a professional service, as well as to indulge my love of the waterways and social history.

I’m very much fascinated by what makes places work, and canals were a critical part of the infrastructure of our cities. Understanding how they operated and supplied the city and the people who worked on them was my way in, rather than being interested in the boats themselves.

I don’t go on the canals that often, but I do walk alongside them regularly. I’m a volunteer at the London Canal Museum too, so a lot of the expertise from there has filtered through and helps when guiding the walks. I think I’ve got more interested in some of the boating and warehousing details as a result.

London locals

Our groups contain quite a mix of people. There are a few dedicated members of IWA who come along, and you have to be careful that you get your facts right! They sometimes know more than I do. And a lot of people are London locals who are just keen to explore their own city. They’re a great audience to have. You also get a number of tourists.

The canals are effectively a linear path cutting through the middle of our city, so for the tourist it’s an amazing way to see the capital without the noise and pollution of walking the streets. Obviously the towpaths themselves can also get quite busy, but it’s certainly a very different perspective they offer. Thanks to the quality of our guiding, I think all our customers leave feeling satisfied they’ve gained an insight into London that they would never otherwise have had.

Challenges

Because they’re based on a towpath, our walks aren’t difficult to follow, but they can be quite hard to manage because there isn’t a lot of space.

Sunny weekends can be particularly problematic – a combination of lots of other people out enjoying the canal, and big groups on our walking tours. The two together can be challenging. Throw cyclists into the mix and it can become even more problematic. I don’t want to demonise cyclists (I can’t, because I am one myself), but a bit more courtesy and common sense from some of them would certainly help. Most, fortunately, are very respectful.

King’s Cross to Camden and Little Venice to Camden along the Regent’s Canal are probably our two most popular walks, but you often get surprises. It’s hard to predict. You can do the same walk twice and on one occasion get five people and the next time 25 or even 30, despite the weather conditions being apparently no different.

Other walks that can pull in a big crowd are West India Docks and the Olympic Park. The way the Olympic Park has developed is very much intertwined with the history of the waterways that are running through it, so that’s always a good story to tell.

Personal favourite LONDON WALK

As a guide, one of the walks I enjoy most is Kings Cross to Camden. You can chart more of the history of the canal in that walk than in any other. It’s all there. The great success of the planning of the area has been the preservation of some of the old goods yards and infrastructure, which you can highlight as something that connects the canal with its past.

Of course, there are also disputes about how successful the whole development is, but I personally think it’s one of the areas that has been done best. The restored gas holders, for example, and the nature reserve. You’ve got everything in one spot, almost.

It’s a great walk and I always enjoy it. At the moment we offer somewhere between 15 and 20 different walking routes. Some are a bit difficult to get to so aren’t run very often. We’re always looking for new places.

The walks are relatively flat so can be excellent for people whose mobility isn’t good. Not all the access points to towpaths have ramps (some require getting up or down quite steep stairs) and sometimes the surface can be rough. Having said that, I’ve guided people who aren’t strong walkers and have still managed to finish pretty much on time. And I’ve done walks with people using mobility scooters, which is perfectly manageable if you can plan ahead.

Weather woes

Our service is a partnership with London Walks, which has a year-round programme and under normal circumstances, gives us a guaranteed slot every other Sunday afternoon.

The quid pro quo is that we always have to be available, whether it’s a lovely day in June or a snowstorm at the beginning of January. We’re there come rain or shine and, in one case, fog. On that particular occasion, in the Lee Valley, I could basically only offer an audio commentary. I had to describe what people would have seen had there not been such adverse conditions. Thankfully they all got into the spirit of it. The fog was so thick that when I went home at the end of the walk I got lost twice myself! We never cancel. What I say to people on a really bad day is that I’m going to carry on doing this walk until there’s no one left to listen to me.

Something for everyone

There is something in the walks for everybody, from primary school children right up to people who have memories of the canals as working, industrial waterways. It’s one of the things that make the walks come alive and keep them fresh for me every time.

Another thing is that the canals are changing quite fast, so you have to stay alert to that. Part of their story is this change, and how we’ve managed to save the canals over the last 40 years from potentially being infilled and built over with new office blocks, specifically around City Basin.

Finally, it’s important to recognise that another motivation for all of us guides is the fundraising aspect. If you’ve got 25 people per walk, you’re probably going to pick up the best part of £200 or more. That’s quite a significant contribution to IWA. Add all that together over the years and it’s a terrific sum we’ve raised – over £48,000,

Join the team

Towpath Walks is looking for volunteer guides to join the existing team at the IWA Towpath Walks Society, in London. The society, in partnership with London Walks, carries out a regular series of guided walks along London’s canals.

The walks last just over two hours and take place on two Sunday afternoons each month starting at a tube or DLR station. They’re a great way to introduce people to the waterways, and to raise money for IWA.

All that is needed is an interest in waterways, an enjoyment of sharing your knowledge with others and a love of walking. A full briefing will be provided for the series and each individual walk. You will be part of a team so you can do as many or as few walks as you like.

There are a set of walking routes already planned and being carried out, so there is little preparation to be done. However, if you would like to add more walks to our programme then this may be possible. If you would like to help, please contact londonwalks@waterways.org.uk

Take yourself on a self guided London walk