The Abandoned Barges of Maple Cross

It is just a skeleton of a building.  The old Harefield Limeworks on the bank of the Grand Union Canal.  It is the haunt of urban explorers; sometimes described as one of the creepiest sites in London; popularly known as the Hanging Monkey Building, because of the vast, stuffed primate, which inexplicably hangs from a hoist, high up, overlooking the canal.  Google cites the Limeworks as ‘temporarily closed’.  It would take something more than an optimist to imagine that this building will ever return to being a going concern in the foreseeable future.

The Harefield Limeworks is not the only sign of an old industrial past along this stretch of the Grand Union Canal, close to Maple Cross, between Rickmansworth and Denham.  It can be witnessed in a painting of a horse towing a barge, running the full length of a wall of one of the longest tunnels on this stretch of the waterway; also in the numerous old transport barges, which line the canal bank, many rusting from disuse; several waterlogged and filled with rubbish, gradually disappearing under the surface of the canal’s waters.

There is something more picturesque about these ruined barges than their work-a-day neighbours; the idea of the ‘ruin’ a familiar romantic trope of European art, literature and aesthetics since the 18th century.  Then, artists and poets admired the crumbling castles and churches of a previous age; today, graffiti artists and Instagrammers choose for their backdrops the harsh metal and concrete wastelands of our industrial heritage.

However, this stretch of the canal is not all about industry.  Nature is never far away.  Indeed, adjacent to the Maple Lodge Sewage Treatment Works––“Is it just me, or can you smell that?––is the largest area of reedbeds in London: Springwell Reedbed.  This is a home of warblers and, at the time I visited, a family of baby coots, their bright red furry heads in marked contrast to their sleek black parents.  There are swans and mallards on the canal; several cormorants in the high branches of the trees; and a red kite ever-watchful, circling overhead.  Colourful butterflies flit across the towpath, and white cherry blossom and fluffy catkins grow along the bank of the canal.

I don’t dally too long; I have my own rendezvous ahead with some culinary and cultural heritage: a pint of cider and a sausage roll.  At a point where the Grand Union Canal, the River Colne and Pynesfield Lake run so close together that dry land is at a premium stands the welcomingly solid edifice of the Coy Carp Inn.  I cross a bridge to enter, taking my victuals to an outside table overlooking the water, where another coot sits on a nest of reeds, tutting at me irritably.  In a field opposite, a rider ties up her horse, both equally wide of beam; and, overhead, the sun penetrates around the edge of my table’s umbrella.  The abandoned barges might belong to a near-forgotten past, but it suddenly feels as though an English summer is not far away.

© E. C. Glendenny

E. C. Glendenny goes easy on the cider, remembering she’s got to retrace her steps along the towpath.

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