The Winter Neighbourhoods Along the Towpath

It’s the second day of the second month and I emerge into the light of a grey February morning. I’m in the Montreal neighbourhood of Saint-Henri, which exists sandwiched between highways, railway lines, a canal and an escarpment to the north, where the upmarket town of Westmount looks sternly down on the winding streets of its neighbour below.

An abandoned cinema or theatre sits on Notre Dame

The nature of the way Saint-Henri is boxed in by geography seems to give rise to its non-linear layout. Whereas other parts of the city have that familiar North American grid layout, down in this neighbourhood the streets meet at unusual angles which just makes for a fun place to go exploring. People often compare Montreal to Paris, but visiting places like this makes me think of Montreal being displaced from somewhere in Eastern Europe, especially in the Winter weather. I love it.

A cycle path runs through the centre of Saint-Henri

Place-Saint-Henri is the local Metro station, sitting in the middle of the neighbourhood like a deep bunker clad in the famous brutalism of the Montreal Metro. A short wander in a south-easterly direction will eventually bring you down to the Lachine canal near to Atwater Market, in my opinion the superior of Montreal’s two famous markets.

It’s a lovely thing to do on a warm day, to pop into the market to get a sandwich and then sit by the canal as the world does its thing around you. On a colder day, it’s best to keep walking and enjoy the towpath whilst on the move.

Down near Atwater Market, a freight line parallels the canal towpath for some distance

I’m fortunate to work for a company which gives European levels of annual leave rather than measly North American numbers. I try to take a day off in each of the first three months of the year. A self care day if you will, to help make it through winter.

The frozen Lachine Canal

I’ve tried to give winter a chance. At the start of every year I tell myself: This is the year! This is the year I make the most of winter and learn to love it.

And I was off to a solid start, until getting hit by the illness of the season which knocked me out and has taken a couple of weeks to fully recover from. I can at least console myself as we enter February that the days are beginning to get longer again, even if we’re at least a couple of months away from better weather.

There’s a conversation I keep having with people who love winter. I firmly believe they’re in the Winter-loving minority, although I don’t have the stats to prove it. The talk usually goes the same way. I happen to mention I don’t enjoy Winter, and they ask me why. I reel off the usual reasons: Lack of daylight, it’s hard to freely move around the city, everyone is ill, people are less inclined to do stuff because like me they just want to hibernate for four months, etc. Have you tried skiing they ask me? Why, yes I have. It didn’t click with me. Is there anything else I can do to enjoy winter I ask? Momentary silence… and then the conversation moves on to other topics.

I do wonder whether skiing is even a viable pastime for someone who doesn’t drive. The slopes are quite a long way from Montreal and as we all know regional transit in the province is scarce. That said, I once saw someone get on the Metro at Parc station with full ski gear including clothing and two skis which she had trouble wrestling onto the train. It made me consider if it was in fact possible to get to somewhere like Mont Tremblant using just public transport, and the fact this person had gotten on the Metro at Parc in particular made me curious as to whether they’d come down on the train from Saint-Jérôme. It’s conceivable if there’s a bus or coach which heads into the mountains.

Silos are a frequent sight along this historic canal

However, if skiing is the only winter pastime on offer, then I can’t help but feel Scandinavia does Winter better than Canada. They have Hygge and saunas after all.

To make myself feel better about Canadian winters, I checked the amount of sunlight we get back in London during winter. The numbers are grim… for Londoners. Being further north than Montreal, London gets shorter winter days, and being warmer has more overcast days. Even with the longer summer days in London, Montreal comes out on top.

Montreal -vs- London (source: weather-and-climate.com)

If you choose to go west along the canal from Atwater Market, you’ll find it’s quiet. Eventually you’ll end up near a lighthouse, by a park full of unexpected sculptures overlooking a lake where the Ottawa River meets the Saint Lawrence.

But not today as I’m heading in the other direction. Going East takes us towards Griffintown and into Montreal’s Old Port, bustling with tourists and sports cars in the summer months as it becomes the Monaco of Canada, it ends up strangely desolate in the winter as the tourists choose warmer climates for their holidays.

A view underneath the railway lines into Griffintown

The towpath is well cleared of snow and gritted. You’d maybe be surprised that it’s completely usable by runners and even the occasional cyclist, bar the odd ice lake – a common phenomenon in any part of the town after a short thaw.

The Lachine canal is one of my favourite places in the city. The juxtaposition of old industrial buildings next to modern constructs reminds me of the London Docklands which went through a similar transition in the 90s. Efforts there were also made to preserve the area’s maritime past.

Canals are two a penny in England as they criss-cross the country, but a sad rarity in Canada. I feel fortunate to have one to explore on my doorstep, let alone one with a lot of history and character.

A weir in the canal

We’re in a short pause in inclement conditions giving the snow a chance to thaw a little, and ensuring the paths remain free of the white stuff for a while. It’s still cold today, but far from unmanageable.

People who live in cold countries will tell you there’s different kinds of cold. Today it’s the damp cold which somehow seeps in under your layers of clothing and clings to your bones. In an odd way the warmer winter days can feel more oppressive than those where the temperature dips below minus 15 where the cold somehow doesn’t cling to your skin and drain away the heat from your body as much.

And the sky is overcast and grey, instead of the brilliant clear blue skies and glorious sunlight you get to experience on those really cold days. The dreary sky makes for bad photography, so I’m unabashedly filtering the hell out of these photos to compensate for my iPhone camera’s dislike of these dull weather conditions. I’m still in a haze following my fortnight of feeling under the weather, so it seems appropriate these photos to reflect that sensation.

One of Montreal's most famous landmarks

Trains; My own neighbourhood is somewhat devoid of them, which makes me sad. There’s something I like about seeing locomotives rumbling by to all destinations which makes me take stock that there’s a world outside of the city even when I haven’t left for a while.

The swinging rail bridge, long since rusted into place

Rail lines cross the canal in three places: By Atwater Market, over Griffintown and at Lachine near the western end of the canal – although you’re unlikely to see many trains passing over that last one unless you time it just right.

A freight train approaches a level crossing in Saint-Henri as a school bus patiently waits for it to pass

Freight trains running over the former two bridges really could be heading anywhere on the continent. You’ll see intercity trains shuttling between Quebec City, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto as well as the occasional commuter train.

The ancient Wellington signal box, juxtaposed alongside the ultra-modern REM light rail system

The bridge at Griffintown has especially come to life in recent months. Alongside the old Wellington signal box and all the trains going in and out of Gare Centrale, there’s now also modern light rail vehicles soaring high above, providing some of the best views I’ve ever seen from a train of any sort.

Sadly, it’s not possible to find a nearby station to just hop on and take in the sights as inexcusably the powers who built this new railway didn’t build a station for the Griffintown locals. Inhabitants of this neighbourhood have to watch those trains sail by without stopping.

A REM train approaches towards Montreal

When I was in the McCord Stewart Museum last summer, I came across a map of Montreal’s brutalist buildings. I couldn’t help but pick one up, as Montreal has lots of brutalist landmarks, and someone had the good acumen to gather them all together on a map and sell it in a museum gift shop.

Exiting the canal and entering Montreal’s Old Port greets you with the most famous of brutalist creations. Facing you from a peninsula across the water, Habitat ‘67 gazes across. As impressive as it looks was meant to be so much more. In a way we’re only looking at a snapshot of a much larger structure which never came to fruition.

Habitat '67

Turn north from the Old Port and up through the Old Town you reach City Hall. Adjacent to which is Vauquelin Square, a pleasant space but probably forgettable were it not for one unique feature. Even in the snowiest or iciest of weather, any passerby will notice there’s not the slightest evidence of precipitation on the ground.

Vauquelin Square

That’s not because someone is on 24/7 call to clear the public space, even as the snow is falling. No, it’s because the ground is heated. I’m not sure of the mechanism, but even on a cold day if you put your hand on the concrete whilst it might not feel exactly warm, it’s definitely a few degrees warmer than it should be, enough to prevent snow or ice from taking hold.

I remember excitedly tweeting about this discovery several years ago, wherein the opposition leader at city hall tweeted back to confirm my suspicions. I’d always wanted to see the concept of heated sidewalks expanded to other parts of the city, particularly well-trodden thoroughfares like the busy Saint Catherine Street.

I think there was was a missed opportunity for someone like Tom Scott, who filmed several videos in Montreal and could have stopped by to take a look. Having covered such Montreal greats including the highest olympic diving board in the world and the strange – but not unique to Montreal – plane-bus at the airport, surely this would have been right up his street? It’s a shame he’s retired. Or, he might have been better off heading to northern Japan where heated sidewalks are more common.

And so this journey draws to a close. I head to the Metro to make my way home. I hope I’ll never bore of this city.