The water laps up against the hull of our canal boat, which is puttering along at its maximum permitted speed of 4 miles per hour. Noses pressed against flat glass windows, my family watches the world go by: gentle weeping willows, stone bridges, grand brick mansions with iron gates, cyclists, the odd splash of graffiti and even a calm, long-skirted woman seated at a easel, painting a watercolour. And boats – so many boats!
As part of a family holiday in London, my husband and I and our two kids, aged 9 and 4, are experiencing a secret, peaceful, magical London that we never knew existed, on a journey from Little Venice to Camden Town, by water.
At Paddington Station, we follow the signs to the Hammersmith and City Line, and find an exit marked “Little Venice”. This is an exit that not many international travellers see on their way through the Heathrow-Paddington network, so already we feel like we’re on an adventure.
As soon as we exit we find ourselves in an exciting new development called Paddington Central, an area designed to offer busy Londoners a work-life balance with excellent restaurants, plenty of benches, flowers and art. There is even a set of table-tennis tables, which we amuse ourselves with briefly, before continuing our journey.
Already we notice that there are actually many ways to travel along the Regent’s Canal or its towpath (it’s called a towpath because, in the days gone by, canal boats were towed by horses). Tourists and locals can stroll, take a water taxi, rent a Santander bike, or even try the new GoBoat – a boat with an outboard motor and a picnic table.
After Paddington Central is Little Venice. This is where the Regent’s Canal meets the Grand Union Canal. It’s so charming and quiet, we hardly feel that we are in central London. Behind us are streets of one of London’s poshest areas, Maida Vale, which has seen many aristocratic and celebrity residents including entrepreneur and businessman Richard Branson, and pop stars Robbie Williams, Noel Gallagher and Björk.
Little Venice boasts an attractive basin with stunning willow trees and some charming places to eat and drink. The Waterside Cafe is a sweet place for a quick cup of coffee or an “ice lolly” (popsicle) for the kids before our journey.
Since the journey to Camden Town lasts 50 minutes (or about 30 minutes to the Zoo) we take the recommendation to visit the bathroom before we board our vessel. There are no conveniences in the cafe, but conveniently, there are some public toilets about 5 minutes’ walk away.
In Little Venice, it’s hard to miss the signs for the London Waterbus, which only accepts credit cards. If you you are going to the Zoo, you must buy your Zoo ticket from the Waterbus (i.e. don’t pre-buy Zoo tickets). Today, we actually have pre-booked zoo tickets (in retrospect, a mistake!), so we decide to go all the way to Camden, and then continue on to the zoo by foot.
The London Waterbus has three vessels in its fleet: Milton, Perseus and Gardenia. Our skipper and guide tells us that the Perseus was made by the same shipping company that built the Titanic.
Each Waterbus has a skipper and a guide, who also collects tickets. There is an audio commentary on some boats. If there is no commentary, ask for the information sheet which explains some of the history of canal life during the industrial revolution.
Before boating became a leisure activity, life on the canals was hard. In the early 1800’s the Regent’s canal was hand-dug with picks and spades as an alternative to roads, which were bumpy, slow and unreliable (the age of steam train was yet to come). Hard-working captains, or “number ones” would ferry and other supplies across the country, using the canal system. Often, wives and children would join them, living in a tiny room at the front of the boat.
The London Waterbus has plenty of seating (but remember – no bathroom for the 50-minute journey!) It is essential to keep an eye on small children, who might be tempted to stick their arms or heads out of the window. This is extremely dangerous because on one side, walls and tunnels appear suddenly; on the other side of the boat, there is passing traffic including other barges, the inexpertly skippered GoBoats, and even novelty boats like The Music Boat.
Milton stops briefly to drop off passengers who have bought zoo tickets off at the back door of the ZSL (Zoological Society of London) London Zoo. At this time, a young family who did not heed the warning to “have a wee before you board!” duck into the bushes briefly and then re-board the boat!
The London Zoo is well worth a visit. Our favourite attractions were the Penguin Pool and the The Reptile House, where one of the first scenes of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was filmed!
We aren’t stopping at the zoo right now, so we just sit back and relax and enjoy the rest of the journey. At the speed we are going, there is plenty of time to watch the world pass by, and so much happening along the towpath. In reality, it’s just Londoners just doing their everyday London thing, but to us suburban Canadians, every scene we pass is foreign and exciting.
The kids are fascinated, and as chronic people-watchers, we are in heaven.
At Camden Town, the atmosphere becomes truly exciting as the boat moors right next to an impressive international food market, where we find everything from Nasi Goreng to hot dogs. London is pretty fantastic at catering to diverse tastes, and this market indulges all, including vegans.
As we munch on noodles and sip smoothies in this coolest of markets, we reflect that we have just spent a good part of the day in London with our family, without facing one train, one bus, one crowd or one queue!
This afternoon, we have discovered a secret, quiet London.
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