Twenty miles, 12 locks and two pints into our boat trip through central London, we needed a cozy place to moor for the night. We were motoring through the murky waters of Limehouse Cut, a small section of the vast canal network that striates the city, a metropolitan wasteland stretching before us. Foreboding brick warehouses, barbed-wire fences and graffiti murals lined the banks of the canal. The runners and bikers who had populated the bustling towpath throughout our weekend voyage had disappeared, and the landscape had taken a grittier turn.
“Are you sure we’re going the right way?” I asked my husband, Brian, who was at the helm of our 58-foot narrow boat, Carli.
“No,” he said, shooing away the map I was waving in his face.
We’d decided to venture into territory that was slightly off the map we’d been given at the marina, but we expected to reconnect with familiar waters at any minute. Slightly worried, I scanned the badlands, pockmarked with decommissioned smokestacks and abandoned buildings, for familiar landmarks: a bridge marker, a signpost, a spray-painted clue as to where we were headed. Nothing.
Then, from among the wreckage, a roller coaster appeared. Well, at first it looked like something plucked straight off the New Jersey boardwalk. But as we rounded the bend, we recognized the towering red jumble of metal, with a space-age observation deck held tight in its grip, as the controversial centerpiece of London’s Olympic park: Orbit tower. After Orbit, the sparkling tiara points of the Olympic Stadium came into view, and the rush of discovery invigorated my inner sailor.
Over three days of urban canal cruising, my family and I were experiencing something intoxicating: liquid London, an underworld of waterways, tunnels and locks coursing through some of the city’s most eclectic neighborhoods, from the quaint boathouses of Little Venice to $50 million mansions in Regent’s Park, through the hipster haven of Shoreditch and on to the Olympic zone in un-self-consciously cool Hackney Wick.
Few London sightseeing experiences are as unspoiled by crowds and commercialism as a ride in your own rented narrow boat. From the canals, you can hardly see any of the city’s iconic sights, such as Big Ben. Yes, you could arrange for a pilot to navigate the River Thames for a drive-by of London’s main attractions. But we enjoyed hiding away from the typical chaos associated with Big Bus Tours and delving deeper into London’s core. The long, skinny boat we rented was the perfect vessel for navigating centuries-old locks still operated by hand, allowing us to disembark at weekend markets, canalside pubs and lush parks.
My husband and I, with our 5- and 1-year-old daughters, had taken narrow boat trips through the British countryside before for a fresh-air-infused escape from the city. This time, however, we decided to splash down in the center of London for a weekend of urban saturation.
We began our recent voyage at the suburban outpost of Yeading, about 12 miles west of London. The London Ring, as the route we were going to follow is known, covers 44 miles along the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal, the Regent’s Canal, Limehouse Basin and a short stretch of the Thames.
The scenery on the Grand Union started off bleak, with miles of housing blocks and factories interrupted by stretches of unkempt wilderness and the occasional waterside grocery store.
Luckily, I’d just finished stocking the boat’s galley and was standing on deck when we sailed over our first point of interest, the North Circular Aqueduct, where boats float high above a sea of red brake lights flashing on the interstate below. From that point, the excitement built as we continued to drive our version of Willy Wonka’s wacky boat through the chocolate-colored waterway, where empty cans of Red Bull bobbed like metal marshmallows and the smell of Indian curry wafted through the air.
Once we hit the fringe of London at Kensal Green Cemetery, Freddie Mercury’s final resting place, the scenery sweetened. Peaceful straightaways hedged by leafy vegetation gave way to bursts of culture. Sleek modern buildings clashed with old-world masonry, and clusters of colorful boats crowded the water’s edge. Three hours after shoving off, we found ourselves giddy as we approached romantic Little Venice.
“Is that a spot?” Brian said, motoring past the only mooring left in the quaint pocket of waterfront restaurants. Two women dining in an open window of the Summerhouse canalside eatery waved to us as we passed, smiling as if they knew what we’d missed. Five minutes later, we were leaving Little Venice. But not before I could snap some pictures of the adorable houseboats, flower boxes and bridges that give the neighborhood its name.
“We’ll hit it on the way back,” we agreed.
This reminded us not to pass up a good mooring, because narrow boats are too long to turn around in the slender canals. Turning around means searching for a designated turning spot, known as a winding hole, where the boat has room to change direction. At top speed, narrow boats go only about 4 mph, so finding the next winding hole can eat up an afternoon of exploration.
Rather than sleep beneath the weeping willows in the Venetian-inspired setting, we tied up at Paddington Basin, tucked between gleaming towers of glass and steel just outside Paddington Central, a multi-use work-live-play complex.
Before venturing out for dinner, I watched from Carli’s tartan-draped portholes as groups of high-heeled, mini-skirted clubgoers teetered along the cobbled path toward the heaving nightlife surrounding Paddington Central. Considering our laid-back accommodations, I opted for my Adidas, a lamb burger and a glass of Malbec at Smith’s Bar & Grill, a one-minute walk from where our boat was moored. Two long, low boats parked in front of Smith’s showcased the traditional, austere narrow boat aesthetic, which hasn’t changed much since the early days of canal commerce.
Narrow boats first emerged in the 18th century as the primary method of transporting goods such as coal and flour throughout Britain. They were designed with a narrow hull to squeeze through 7-foot-wide locks, which control the elevation and slope of the canals. Today, these lanky leisure barges mostly carry a cargo of boating enthusiasts and rule more than 2,200 miles of British waterways through such historic areas as Stratford-upon-Avon, Dover and London.
One of the best scenes for narrow-boat watching in London is Hampstead Road Lock in Camden Town, which was the first of 13 locks we hit on day two of our canal camping trip. Camden Town has a decidedly punk vibe; every third bloke sports a mohawk, and neon-flashing tattoo and piercing parlors line the main drag.
The Hampstead Road Lock sits amid a throng of ethnic food stalls, with open grills filling the air with the smell of barbecued meat and Eastern spices. Crowds of onlookers gather around the lock, watching the boats rise and fall in the wooden hold and shouting words of encouragement to the crews, who sometimes struggle to open the heavy gates and exit the lock smoothly.
All it takes to drive a narrow boat is desire — that and an hour of practice before setting off. There will be bumps along the way, but the pace is slow and the dangers are few. On this trip, Brian opened the gates of a lock while I drove the boat in and out of the hold.
About an hour down the Regent’s Canal from Camden, the Islington tunnel makes for a spooky 10-minute stretch of total darkness. Just before arriving at the 960-yard black hole, we’d picked up three local friends and their three kids at the London Canal Museum for a joy ride and lunch.
I usually love the eeriness of long tunnels, but between the kids shouting with excitement and a couple of run-ins with the wall, we were all ready for a pint of British ale when the sunlight finally hit our faces. Relaxing on the balcony of the Narrow Boat, a waterfront gastropub overlooking the canal, we indulged in a proper pub lunch of fishcakes and sausages. People, dogs, bicycles and boats moved jauntily along this trendy stretch of water, vibrant with graffiti art, modern architecture and Old World charm.
Pubs and cafes all along the London Ring invite boaters to moor up and stay a while. From Little Venice’s Summerhouse to Camden and Broadway Markets to the Olympic zone’s Hackney Pearl, some of London’s most festive summer watering holes and eateries line the canals.
Back at the Narrow Boat pub, we set our sights on conquering the next seven locks leading to Limehouse Basin while we still had willing friends and happy children. On the way out, we shared a laugh over a sign perched on the bar, offering plastic “go cups” for those finishing their drink on the canal. I thought I’d better not, so I chugged the remaining half-pint of pale ale in my glass and headed aboard Carli.
We dropped off our friends a few locks later, at Mile End Road, and continued south to Limehouse Basin, a massive junction where narrow boaters have the option of picking up a pilot and connecting to the Thames, returning the way they came or heading farther east on a new canal.
When we arrived at Limehouse, the air had chilled and a misty rain was falling. We didn’t know exactly what was ahead, but we agreed to stay on the canals. As our boat idled in the congested marina, Brian worked out a new course that would take us slightly off the map and eventually bring us back to our original track near Islington or Shoreditch.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked, putting the boat in gear.
“Absolutely,” I said. “What do we have to lose?”
Rich is a freelance writer in London.