We're all familiar with the idea that roads are the arteries of a city. Despite the difficulty of using them in London, it still holds true. The canals mean something else. They're more like the intestines of a place: slow moving, hidden passages, often full of effluent. But if you can get past the smell, you'll find they're a home to unfamiliar fauna; they are the silent connections between startling places.
Canoeing usually lights up your mind with healthy images of white water, beaches and lakes in the sun. Perversely, that's exactly what this trip isn't about. It's a journey through London's East End by canoe to see just how bleak it is. But surprisingly, if you look hard enough, there are gems twinkling in the mud.
First off, the kit. Driving round London is testing at any time, and more so when you've got a kayak strapped to the roof of the car. It's exactly the right occasion for an inflatable canoe, which are far more than just posh dinghies. At the lower end of the market you can pick a new one up for between $170 and $275 on eBay, and though still an inflatable, they're stable and rigid enough to take on the surf and the gentler end of white water.
The route is a six-mile loop around the East End, from Hackney in the north, south to Limehouse Basin on the Thames, then back up the Lea via Stratford
THE JOURNEY BEGINS
Victoria Park in Hackney is a classic of its time: bounded by canals on two sides, with a whacking great lake, wrought iron railings and statues at the gates. There's also a packed community of canal boats dwelling by the waterside - one of the more offbeat and affordable ways to live in the city. The park itself has echoes of the upmarket Regent's Park - partly because the designer of the latter, John Nash, was teacher to James Pennethorne, designer of Victoria Park.
Taking a straight route south on the Regents Canal, you're on the final leg of a waterway that arches all the way across North London, in its final snaking progress through the old manufacturing base of the city. Among the 1960s brutal blocks of flats, reclaimed scraps of park from old bombsites and more modern buildings, there's still a solitary chimneystack. It could be all that's left of a demolished factory - but it's actually a vent shaft for two major sewers.
After three locks, the canal ends in Limehouse Basin - a huge marina for yachts and cruising boats, overlooked by the monolithic presence of Canary Wharf. Here's where the dowdy, grubby canal opens to reveal luxury, money and space, with a perimeter of development that puts the rest of the route to shame. It's a sharp contrast with Limehouse's historical reputation. During the 19th century, the docks here were London's original Chinatown, and thanks to the Imperial trade in narcotics the area was synonymous with opium dens. Putting ashore here looks hopeless - you'll have to take a sharp left, ignoring the first left-hand fork to a loading bay and instead plough on east up the Limehouse Cut.
Limehouse Cut was London's first canal, connecting the Lea River with the Thames. It's long and very straight - 2 miles- and if the wind is coming from the east, very cold indeed. It cuts a channel through Tower Hamlets, and the banks are peppered with offices and dwellings, between run-down and disused factories and warehouses: the finest is a block emblazoned with 'Spratt's Patent Limited'. It's got a great history: the company began the modern dog food industry single-handed. In 1860, Mr Spratt came upon the idea of taking hard meat biscuits that were normally given to soldiers as rations and selling them to dog-owners.
THE RIVER LEA
Eventually The Cut takes a northbound turn and joins the River Lea at Bow Locks. To the east of the river are a series of channels and islands that have been deepened and closed off: they're the site of the Olympic Park for 2012. Once you reach Old Ford Lock, the ground rises by two or three metres and reveals the outline of the new stadium behind a screen of trees. The construction unfortunately means you can't now get near the Lock Keeper's Cottages - home of TV's 1990s bacon-sarnie favourite The Big Breakfast. It's an unappetising stretch of creek here, bounded by the smell of A12 car exhausts on one side; a vast gasworks on the other. They stopped holding gas there in 1960, but the massive structures remain - they're Grade II listed buildings now.
Once past the blue Olympic hoardings and - yes - more smashed-in factory buildings, the route takes a left into the quieter, more residential stretch of the Hertford Union Canal. A commercial failure, it was closed by 1850, twenty years after being built. Resurrected by the Regent's Canal Company, it's now an attractive, wide stretch, with unspoilt listed cottages on the banks that lead over a mile back to our starting point. Here's where the scruffy, aimless graffiti tags give way to large-scale, ambitious wall art. As you pass Lock No. 3, you'll see a pub, the Top of the Morning. It's where in 1864 the victim of the first ever railway murder died, one Thomas Briggs. He was stabbed and thrown from his train near Hackney, robbed of a gold watch, and his attacker, a Mr Muller, gave birth to a brand new cockney verb: to 'muller' a man now sits firmly in the language as a byword for violent assault.
THREE MORE SWEET CANAL SPOTS
NORTH ENGLAND: LEEDS & LIVERPOOL CANAL SUMMIT
At 487 feet above sea level, this is as high as canals get. And it feels like it - right in the middle of the wind-blasted Pennines, the canal seems wilder than the two major northern cities it connects.
SOUTH ENGLAND: REGENTS CANAL - LONDON ZOO
One of the cheapest ways to see wild animals in the capital. Join the canal at Camden and walk westwards and you'll be rewarded with free views of the London Zoo aviary, the wild African dogs enclosure and if you're lucky the warthogs will come out.
SCOTLAND: CALEDONIAN CANAL
22 miles of man-made waterway that connect the mighty Loch Ness with Loch Oich and Loch Lochy, creating one huge watery corridor from Inverness in the northeast to Fort William in the southwest. Mountains, valleys and a glimpse of the wilderness you won't get anywhere else in the country.