He looks lonely. I say ‘he’ though, when it comes to swans, who knows? Something about the solitariness makes me think it’s a male. An assumption that I maybe need to question, but for now let’s call him ‘he’. He was busy while we watched. Preening himself, sinking his beak into the thick feathers on his plump haunches, pecking away, bothering out the dirt or scratching at a tiny insect that maybe nestles in there.

I sympathised. I had the odd scratchy moment myself on this gentle walk along the Grand Union Canal on a warm July Sunday. Minute insects fleeing the trees, shrubs and weeds that line the path had a nibble round my hairline on their way to the water, landing there to lightly pucker its surface. What do they do – drink, dunk, drown? 

The heat had built out of a cloudy, humid morning. We were walking the section of the Capital Ring between Richmond and Osterley Lock when we came across the swan.  A 75-mile trail, the Ring wanders through unexpected landscapes and marginal communities that hide around London. We pass people who live on the canal, their floating homes festooned with floral displays or littered with oddly decorative flotsam and jetsam that the water has yielded up. We pass others less used to the water and its ways, wrestling with the lock gates or shuffling their paddleboards alongside the bank. Though mostly a feast of green this time of year, moments like this remind you the city is just a breath away. Elegant, uncertain, preoccupied, the swan stands upright on a stranded clump of rubble, wood and greenery. Behind it a concreted wall, part-smothered in greenery, foregrounds a stout graffitied pillar propping up the M4 only a few metres away.  

I had blocked out the sound of the city until now.  The sculpted glass and steel of big pharma, the huge Glaxo SmithKline UK HQ half a mile further back on the far side of the canal, was quiet on a Sunday, seemed calm, benign, almost statuesque, not interrupting the sense of escape. In sight of the motorway, the sounds intrude again.

The swan is perfect juxtaposition. Calm, unhurried, enigmatic, poised here between still, ancient water and hot, modern concrete, he carries on his daily hygiene routine while the city bustles by at its business. Even on a Sunday, the traffic is unflinching. Is he thinking about what he will eat? Or planning where he will paddle – upstream or down – to get away from the noise?

About 500 metres further on the path runs out on the left of the canal. We must cross the old arched Grand Junction Bridge to pick up the path on the other side. From the centre of the bridge looking north I am gazing deep into England’s countryside from the heart of an urban landscape.  I know the trees conceal housing estates and office blocks and the water runs past industrial units and viaducts, railyards and dilapidated sheds further along. But that’s almost like hidden treasure. Juxtaposition is the joy of this trail.

  • Anna Campbell
    Posted at 00:50h, 09 July Reply

    What lovely photos, Liz. I didn’t even know about this walk. Love Osterley. Must go back there next time.

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