The Leisure of Transport

I have had -broadly speaking- four large and interconnected set of research interests thus far: Palestinian commemoration of political violence -massacres and battles, heroes and martyrs; the counterinsurgency work of US, Israel and colonial militaries; the politics and political economy of leisure and pleasure; and now my transport stuff.  In a previous post I managed to connect my transport project to my first research concern… And now I want to briefly talk about the links between spaces of leisure and their transport links – but in London not in Beirut (where I “researched” bars and beaches. Really).

Last March, after some 15 years, I started running again.  I happen to live in a part of London that affords me loads of fabulous urban running routes. In fact, it is rather striking the amount of green space this city has.   Parks accessible to public form around 10% of the land, and if farmlands, wasteland with vegetation, private/neighbourhood parks and the like were included some 39% of London land is green space.

What has been striking for me though is that my most favourite running routes along/among/within these green spaces tend to be transport-related (surprise! surprise!).

The routes I love the best are those along the canals.  This city has A LOT of canals, which is unsurprising given the centrality of barge transport in the early 19th century for moving goods from the docks on the mouth of the River Thames inland, or from inland (and up north) via the Grand Union Canal southwards and outwards.  Regent’s Canal, for example, was intended to connect the Limehouse Basin to Paddington.  I try to run along that canal at least once a week, going from the Broadway Market either down to the Limehouse Basin or further east to Hackney Wick or the Olympic Park.  I love running along this route because one gets a sense of the variations in wealth, gentrification, neighbourhood character, and the post-industrial landscape of London before it becomes wholly twee (which it is doing at an unbelievable speed).

The endpoint of one of these routes is the now wholly gentrified Limehouse Basin which is probably occupied by bankers and other well-to-do younger people.  There is really no traces left of the working history of this basin on the Thames which was accessible from the sea. The Limehouse Basin was in the 19th century nicknamed “the collier dock”, via which coal was transported to gasworks and electricity grids along the river. But Limehouse Basin and the canals also kept the city’s food refrigerated.  I did a quick search in Jstor for “Limehouse Basin” and found this delightful item in The Journal of the Society of Arts from 1873 about ice transport.  Yup.  Ice:

The ice harvest, as conducted in America and on the Norwegian lakes and fjords, is an interesting operation. It commences when the ice is about a foot thick, and the first step is to plane off the snow, or rough surface ice, with an instrument, drawn by horses, called the ice-plane. When the required superficies is cleared, the ice-ploughs, which are like saws with plough-handles to them, and drawn by horses, set to work. Their business is to mark out the ice-field into squares of from two to three feet, like a chess-board, penetrating the surface from one to three inches. The blocks of ice, weighing from two to three hundred weight, are then easily detached by gentle taps on wedges, or by the use of a kind of crow-bar, and floated through an opening in the ice, or canals, to the ice houses, where they are stored most carefully with layers of sawdust between them, for shipment as required. Vessels carrying 500 tons and upwards bring them to London, where they are unloaded at the Surrey Docks, or Limehouse Basin, and thence conveyed to the different ice-stores, in barges on the canals, or other means of transport. The quantity of ice used in the metropolitan district annually has risen to high dimensions during the last few years. Perhaps it would not be an exaggeration to put it at 60,000 tons, not including the “rough” ice, collected from ponds, rivers, and canals in the neighbourhood of London. Some of the large merchants get rid of more than 10,000 tons in the year. The stores are immense, one belonging to Mr. Leftwich, for instance, being 44 feet across and 108 feet deep, and holding 4,000 tons. Yet our metropolitan consumption does not equal that of Boston or New York. It is only of late years, comparatively speaking, that we have taken to ice. Americans have long looked on it as a necessity, and not merely as a luxury. They use it almost as freely in the winter as in the summer. The moderate and, indeed, free use of iced drinks in hot weather is certainly wholesome, and, as a rule, there is no more danger in taking them when the body is very hot than in bathing in that state. It is a popular error to suppose that the shock in either case is dangerous. It is satisfactory to find that ices and iced drinks are now within the reach of the very poor, the former being obtainable at almost every street corner for the modest sum of a half-penny. Generally speaking they are wholesome, and even at this low figure it is said a very handsome profit is made out of them.

Independently of the personal pleasure derived from the use of ice as a luxury, it is a valuable article for a variety of purposes. Without it we could not have the supply of fish which now come in such large quantities from distant fishing grounds to our markets. It is true that its application does, to a certain extent, deteriorate from the flavour of fish, but it is better to get a good supply of fish with the use of ice than that it should be limited without it. Without ice it would be impossible to lay telegraphic cables of great length in warm latitudes, for the gutta-percha with which they are encased would melt. To obviate this, tanks containing ice are placed in contiguity to the tanks containing the cables. By the use of ice brewers are enabled to sell their beer cheaper. In former times, when ice was very dear, brewers generally could only brew once a week, in consequence of the time taken for “the wort” to cool. By icing the tanks this can now be done in a few hours, and brewing goes on every day. By the use of ice the ova of salmon and other fish, as well as the eggs of birds, can be transported thousands of miles ; and thus new and useful forms of animal life are diffused throughout the world. For medical and surgical purposes the value of ice is inestimable. For many affections of the head, such as sun-strokes, its application is most beneficial, and in numerous cases iced drinks produce the best possible results; while, for surgical operations, the employment of ice to deaden pain and arrest haemorrhage is now considered indispensable. Thousands of tons are used annually in our metropolitan hospitals. Such are some of the uses of ice, and we may, therefore, be grateful that such an abundant supply of cheap ice is always at hand for these and other purposes.

Soooo….   Limehouse Basin and the canals were crucial for carrying both coal and ice – and probably a million other things too.  Some of the sense of these places having been working places is preserved in the names of bridges and cottages on the canal, but otherwise, most of the route is gorgeous green gardens and beautiful Victorian warehouses that have been turned into posh lofts.

My other favourite run is the one along the south side of the Thames from Greenwich eastward (although a run in the Docklands is pretty amazing as well).  The flood barriers -which look like gorgeous space pods- are amazing to look at and their operations are of course also wonders of engineering – the technological sublime yet again.  And lo-and-behold, Costain engineering company had a hand in building them.  Costain, of course, was also involved in the dredging and construction of Jabal Ali Port in Dubai (and as I wrote in a previous post, was at one point partially owned by Muhammad Al-Fayed).

Finally, a new running route I have recently discovered (and yes, you can for ten years live less than a mile away from incredible gems such as this and not know about them) is the Parkland Walk.  The former railway along this wondrous disused rail path was first built in the late 1860s to connect the various bits of North London together.


The path went all the way to Alexandra Palace which was a kind of “people’s palace” – for the education, entertainment and edification of the masses.  But as the transport routes changed and motorways ploughed through the city, this particular railway was no longer needed.  The trains stopped rolling in 1970 and the tracks were removed a year later, according to the official history.  And now this lovely path goes from Finsbury Park through Highgate to further north.

But I mention these routes because I think it is rather amazing that such wonderful places of leisure exist in London – this is partially because I have been writing about leisure practices in Lebanon, and it is disheartening to read about the processes of enclosure going on there: beach after public beach being taken over by private concerns, and public spaces being closed off to the public.  The wonderful Dictaphone group’s work is all about this enclosure of public spaces and the accumulation by dispossession that accompanies it.

In London though, we are the beneficiaries on the one hand of capitalist accumulation and imperial extraction of resources and on the other hand of a brief shining moment during which private or commercial spaces could be taken over by the state and transformed into parks and green spaces.  Richard Drayton’s amazing book about Kew Gardens excavates the direct imperial links to one of the most important and well-known green spaces in the city.  But we would not have Limehouse Basin, or the canals system, or the massive reservoires, or the need to feed and electrify and refrigerate if London had not been the most important of industrial hubs, the banking destination for capital accumulated domestically and abroad, and the world metropole for the largest empire of its time.

The Docklands Museum and the Maritime Museum in Greenwich both highlight this history of imperial connections beautifully.  The former is housed the West India Quay warehouses where the sugar produced off the back of slave labour in the Caribbean would arrive by ship to be stored or distributed.  People could afford ice as luxury and fish that had been transported because this was a wealthy city whose wealth has been extracted from trade, slavery, empire, all of them in a way, theft.

But so much of this wealth was extracted and much of which is sitting in the coffers of the rich.   But what is fascinating is that in the aftermath of the Second World War, the resultant national pact not only led to the making of that great national institution, NHS, but also to the nationalisation of so much green space and parklands in the city and countryside.  We are the beneficiaries of this politics.  The alternative would be the Lebanese option, where access to the beaches is classed and requires the payment of a fee, public spaces and even memorials are privatised, the two ostensibly public parks are always closed or policed by private security firms, and one place that remains open to the public is the Corniche.  About which more later.