Opinion

You See A Whole Other London When You're On A Canal Boat

You See A Whole Other London When You're On A Canal Boat

Boater and author of Barging Free: One Year On a Narrowboat, Alan Denman introduces us to London from a different perspective.

narrowboats lined up next to one another in limehouse basin, with newbuilds rising behind them
Narrowboats congregate in Limehouse Basin. Image: M@/Londonist.

When cruising the London canals, you see the capital as most never see it.

Mooring at the foot of ancient Horsenden Hill in Perivale, 12 miles from Trafalgar Square, where it feels like you're in the heart of the English countryside and where cows graze in summer. Gliding past restless hyenas and huge bird cages in London Zoo. Curling around to Camden where tourists seem in constant awe at the sight of sweating boaters and their narrowboats working their way through the old locks.

a very verdant hill with people stood atop it
Horsenden Hill. Image: m@/Londonist

Heading out west from Park Royal you reach the heady, sweet aroma of the McVitie's factory, pausing your boat on the North Circular Aqueduct with the yellow monument of IKEA eyeing you and the towering arch of the Wembley football stadium nearby. Traffic roars and thunders beneath at 60 miles an hour and knows nothing of what lies above it.

From Bulls Bridge in Hayes on the western edge to Hackney, Tottenham Hale and north to Cheshunt on the eastern side, the meandering canals of the capital offer a whole other experience of London. They contain remnants of the past: old bridges and warehouses, creaking locks and underground tunnels, as well as brightly coloured new builds and renovated areas such as King's Cross.

people skating on a graffitied concrete bowel
Meanwhile Gardens: the canals are full of surprises. Image: M@/Londonist.

The canals are full of surprises: Meanwhile Gardens at the foot of the iconic Trellick Tower in Westbourne Park, lovingly maintained by the local community, is a paradise of pools, trees and flowering plants. Lining the canal nearby stands 'Gerry's Pompei', a quirky assemblage of sculptures and mosaics put together over many years by local, Gerry Dalton, and now considered a national treasure. Stepping away from the tranquil canal, you discover Portuguese cafes, trendy boutiques and traditional stores in Golborne Road, and just around the corner stretches the world-famous Portobello Market with its buzz of Reggae music, pungent food stalls and vintage clothes market.

alan and his wife pose next to their boat, called follow your bliss
Alan with his wife and their narrowboat.

Every mooring spot on the London canals — and there are 145 miles of them in all — offers something new and different. Posh, elegant Little Venice, where boats costing less than thirty grand, can moor up opposite Richard's Branson's two storey behemoth of a houseboat. Turning off to Limehouse Basin, a massive steel lock is the only thing holding back the might of the tidal Thames, while a few hundred yards away stands one of the best old pubs in London, The Grapes, owned by Sir Ian McKellen (his Gandalf staff is kept securely on the wall behind the bar).

a heron strutting its stuff
On the canals, you share your space with beautiful wildlife, like herons. Image: M@/Londonist.

Boaters also get to share space with some of the city's beautiful wildlife. Silent herons, sitting like statues on a branch, cormorants diving for 30 seconds and more to the canal bottom, and white-helmeted coots casually drifting by on a piece of driftwood. Coots are creative 'waste-recyclers', building nests with bits of discarded plastic or inside tyres hanging from the side of boats.

Welcome to the canals of London, 145 miles of them.

Barging Free: One Year On A Narrowboat, by Alan Denman, is available to buy on Kindle for £4.99

Last Updated 12 November 2021

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