Saturday, August 15, 2015

Jolly Good! London's Canal Journey

The goddess Nike, drawn on by a quadriga, caps the Wellington Arch near the entrance to Hyde Park. Could a better place exist in greater London to start a 20 mile early sunny Sunday run?  I did not think so, and thus started a 3 and ½ hour run past monuments and buildings, along the Thames and then into a 13 km canal that I did not know existed until twenty four hours previously.  Join me on a photo journey of this awesome mid-summer saunter.

Aligned on an east-west axis, the Hyde, Green and St James parks form a greenway to the River Thames include some spectacular sites.  Whenever I journey to London, I run some combination of this triple parkland.  Numerous paths at various angles allow for any amount of variety in running routes from a mile to probably more than 20 miles.  My goal today was further afield though - I wanted some truly new territory under my feet.  I found that and more.

Just across the circle from Wellington’s Arch, and my next highlight of the run stands Memorial Gates.  Compared to the 150+ years of Wellington’s tribute, this memorial to the territorial armed forces of the British Empire who fought in the World Wars opened in 2002.  Maybe the planes in the sky are coming from one of the listed places: Africa, the Caribbean and the five regions of the Indian subcontinent (Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka).  The memorial sits at the western end of Constitutional Hill.

Less than a mile further comes Buckingham Palace.  The flag, limp in the windless morning,  indicated Queen Elizabeth II was in residence.  (Though apparently not out for a Sunday jog.) 

My travel schedule has been quite hectic of late, and pretty much every place I go, I try to get out and pound the pavement.  I find that the exercise keeps me normal, and it allows me to see places in ways I previously had not.  You can feel the connection of areas to one another when you traverse on the ground (running, walking and even biking if safe).  I have found this in Madison Wisconsin and Kyoto Japan.  Small towns in Iowa and big ones in Europe. The bigger ones have more photo opportunities.

What I love about running in London is how much green space was retained by the city builders.  Growing up in Los Angeles, dearth of more than a few and those, I never found you could easily connect one to another.  In London, nature still finds a way to co-exist amidst the sprawls and bad air and sound pollution.

This Sunday in London overlapped with a training goal of 20 miles, and thus I was blessed with the distance needed to explore further than I usually do.  My initial notion feels pedestrian in hindsight.  I was going to run from Hyde Park to the Thames and then just run east along its northern bank, returning on the southern one.  Nothing wrong with that, but, frankly, commonplace.  Yet, I knew I wanted to dash along the river because the air is better and the sky visible.  

I thought about running to Kew Gardens (or taking the Tube to it), but that added time and fears that lots of that course might be dicey.  Could I run to Emirates Football Stadium, home of the Arsenal and site of the game I was attending later in the afternoon?  Again, dicey running conditions, no River and just a one trick pony - the lone highlight being circling the stadium exterior.

A simple web search quickly revealed a base plan.  I Googled “Great London long runs.”  While there are a lot of running sites where paths are shared, finding good long runs is hard.  Yet, just a few listing from the top I found an article about running in London.   The witty (if not tired) title tantalized tracks to try.  “Six in the city: London's best running routes” by Hayden Shearman.

"Hmmm.  I bet I know most of these," I thought to myself.  But maybe Hayden will reveal a new one or two, and I can then combine a few to reach my 20 miles?  So, I started to scroll down the page.  They all started near Big Ben which was only a mile from my hotel - that boded well for linking a few.  Big Ben is surrounded by monuments as can be seen in these photos.

First listing - the Diana Memorial (Run).  I had seen the embedded markers in various paths, and to be honest, I thought they just pointed to her Hyde Park remembrance fountain.  However, I recalled curiosity with how far afield these were from that - especially in the other parks.  Turns out, as part of her memorial, there is a 7.2 mile path marked out on the pavement.  That solved a mystery I did not even know I cared about.  But I’ve run all of those paths before, and someday I will run the official circuit, but not this past Sunday.  Yet, starting out with a 7.2 mile run gave me hope something longer awaited me.

Run 2 - 7.7 miles up to Regents Park. Mostly city. Pass.
Run 3 - 9.8 miles for a tour south of the river. Done that.
Run 4 - only 3.4 miles over a few bridges and back - well, maybe I can combine Runs 2 and 3?

But heck Bridges are cool.  Tower Bridge next to the Tower of London feature on the London Marathon course and if I stuck to the River for part of my run, I would pass both (which I did). 

Still, two more runs to read about.  

Run 5.  Glorious Run Five.  A Canal and A River.  (Canal, London has canals?)

Whoa…17.8 miles!!!!  That’s nearly 20!  I knew I could add a few miles in Hyde Park to achieve my goal.  And what?  A canal system in London?  I had lived in greater London and had no idea about this.

And moreover, Hayden had not only described these running paths, but he has written a book on London running. Literally.  The RUNNER'S GUIDE TO LONDON tops 300 pages of 120 routes.  Crazy!  (I’ve ordered a copy.)  And moreover x 2!  There was a link in the article to the run coursed out on  After a bit of fussing, I was able to modify the run to start near my hotel at the Wellington Arch and to adjust the end in Hyde Park with a few loops to push the total just over 20 miles.  All of this then got loaded onto my Garmin GPS watch which slaps your wrist when you get off track too much.

Back to the run itself, after leaving Big Ben, I proceed Thames-side mostly east.  Past classic British phone boxes, and various statues and memorials.  The Dragons marking the entrance to London proper.  I love how much history and art is packed into these public spaces.  Washington DC has this as well.  See my post from a few years ago on a photo safari I did there.

I loved seeing one of my heroes, Winston Churchill towering above me.  Never give in!  What a contrast between the Shard in the distance and St Paul's peeking from an opening.  The old and the new I suppose.


The Embankment path is well marked, and even when it deviates from water’s edge around a building or under a bridge, ground lighting shows the way.

I found this fountain just past the Tower Bridge.  The early morning sun picks up the water droplets as the playful “Girl with a Dolphin” shines against the blue sky.  David Wynne created this in 1973 but it is really timeless.  And joyous, which also describes how I was feeling after my first 5 miles.

As I moved further east, I started to run through old streets (incongruous with the parked automobiles) and past 500 year old pubs (well at least one). But the range of centuries I was seeing was really remarkable and why old cities are great.    

All this foreign running has heightened my ability to spot paths and areas designed for foot traffic.  Make no mistake that running in towns you do not know contains an element of risk.  But armed with my iPhone, some local currency and today a credit card and Tube pass (given the run length, I was covering all bases).  So, when my Garmin started complaining I was off track amidst a very busy intersection, I must admit confusion.  How did I get off track?  I had experienced this at the Tower of London, but there I knew I had run around the westside to see the front as compared to between the Tower and the Thames.  Now I was in the docks area and I no longer could see the river or my next turn.  You can view a detail of my run track (which does not exactly align with the street due to GPS inaccuracies) my missteps and corrections. 

The large U-turn was the most worrying.  I was completely unaware where I was.  I probably would have figured it out if I looked at my map app.  My GPS watch shows the path, but nothing identifying streets.  It just beeps and flashes “Off Course.”  A lot.  You only can feel like a loser when it does this.  Where should I be going?  Did the course really point into a building?  Did I mess up editing the route before loading it? Plus, I was still madly searching hither and thither for the Thames path continuation.  I dashed across the street at a crosswalk.  Now the watch was happier but I remained bewildered.  I began to retreat.  Better part of valor and all that.

And then I saw a nondescript stairs.  I did not think in three dimensions!  I could not see the path because I was actually above it.  Still, the stairs had no signage, and the way they turned hid what lay at the bottom.  They could just go back under the street I just traversed from one side to another. 

Like Bilbo approaching entering the Lonely Mountain, tentatively I stepped down, peering around the corner.  The stairs opened up, and they did reach a platform next to water allowing a passage back under the street.  But the path before me also went the other way away from the street.

I had found the Regents Canal!  

(Which admittedly wasn't lost; I was guilty of that.)

I started running along its bank, the path not more than a few feet wide, but still clearly the trail I was meant to be upon.  Soon, I started to see canal boats, the variety I had spotted in other parts of England and even on the Thames near our 2003-4 home more inland.  About 15 feet below street level, this glorious canal cut through the urban jungle.

Soon, I found other runners and signs to tell me the history.  A secret garden perhaps to me, but not to many runners and cyclists.  The going was easy although occasionally I had to go up over a street before rejoining the trek.  The worst of this was about a mile in Ipswich, but the path was mostly well marked with Queen Jubilee notices.  Apparently the running track for the canal was done to mark her anniversary of ruling.

A tiered esplanade appeared at one bend, and more and more runners zipped by.  The paths under the roads were low bridges, so I took them slowly lest a biker heading the other direction might plow me down in the narrow space.  But my overall pace was fast - sub 8:30 for sure.  A cool wind kept the sun from overheating.

This was great.  My watch clicked off the miles, 10, 11, 12, 13.  I was looking forward to seeing Regents Park as I had never run in that.

And that’s when it hit me about the downside to this canal.  Because you are 15 feet below London, unimpeded by busses and taxis and pedestrians, you cannot see anything!  Graffiti filled some areas.  Dilapidated fences bordered other sections.  These blotches were mostly near the Limehouse area, but still you could tell neglect had seeped in perhaps because nobody above could see it either.  So, I passed through the edge of Regents Park without even knowing it!

Reaching Little Venice with its broad triangle centerpiece of water, my run was nearing an end.  I skirted the western edge of the water ways and emerged on streets behind Paddington Station.  When you travel on the Tube to Paddington, you do not realize how close it is to Hyde Park.  In fact, it’s less than a mile, so after that, I was back into parkland and near the famous Long Water.   

One reason I chose to pad out the run with loops in Hyde Park was in case I had added distance by getting lost prior to this.  I entered Hyde Park at about 19 miles, and by cutting out one of my loops, I was able to aim to finish at 20.5 miles.  Still, I had time to pass Kensington Palace fronted by Queen Victoria’s statue, see an arch based on a bone that was recently reinstalled after two decades of awaiting repair and pass the charming Peter Pan statue as mom watched grandfather guiding junior to be a lost boy (or something like that).  I liked how they all had blue sweaters.

And then I was done.  Three hours of thirty minutes of running.  Would I run this again?  For sure!  I might add some elements of exploration off the Canal - for example, I could go in the opposite direction and enter the canal at Little Venice, and then jump out at Regents Park and circle that.  Or combine it with Diana’s course.  And who knows whatever is in the London Running book for me to try?

As I like to say, every run is a good run.  And some like this are great.