Our departure is briefly delayed by a rogue swan who's taken up residence in our watery parking space, despite the ample signs warning that this is a reserved mooring. Swans, eh? You don't get that on other London buses — but this is no ordinary bus. The London Waterbus is a boat service that shuttles between Little Venice and Camden on Regent's Canal, through London Zoo.
First things first — you can't use your Oyster card on the waterbus. Despite its moniker, it's run by a private company and has nothing to do with TfL. It has taken up TfL's cashless mantra though, as you could previously only pay for your ticket with card, something we imagine caused problems for foreign tourists (the ticketing system has changed slightly due to Covid — latest details on the website)
The boat appears on its inward journey and the sizeable crowd surges forward. We'll be honest, we thought we might have the boat to ourselves on a Thursday lunchtime in October, but at least 20 eager passengers were obediently lined up by the wall when we arrived, and five more have since joined us.
So who uses the Waterbus? Today, our fellow passengers are Portuguese, Spanish and Chinese tourists, including young families. We think we're the only Londoners aboard, which makes sense as it's not the fastest way to get between two points. For us, it's a way to slink among the mansions and tree-lined streets of Marylebone and Maida Vale. It's almost voyeuristic, people above going about their business with no idea that we're there. It's also a nice little escape from London for a while — where else could you travel 2km across central London without encountering a bus, traffic lights, angry walkers, beeping horns, and everything else that's part of daily city life?
As we chug away from Little Venice, doing a half lap of that island in the middle, we're introduced to our vessel, Milton. Previously used to carry pottery, it has now been fitted out with old bus seats to carry over 50 people, lined up and down each side of the boat like an actual bus.
We find ourselves sunk disconcertingly low into the water. A peep outside of the boat reveals the water level is in fact up to our knees, and it's surprisingly clear. Alright, we wouldn't drink it, but the layer of recently shed autumn leaves — and the odd drink can and crisp bag — lying on the bottom suggest it to only be 5ft deep.
It may not be a regular bus, but we've only been chugging along for five minutes or so when an all-too-familiar problem gets the better of us; traffic. We pull over to one side of the canal to allow another boat to come through the Maida Hill Tunnel, and obey that widespread rule that anyone on a boat must wave to anyone on another boat. Then it's our turn.
A sign warns that it'll take about five minutes to get though the tunnel, which runs under the streets of Lisson Grove. Almost as soon as we enter, the light at the far end is visible, casting an eerie glow over the dripping, moss covered walls which have been standing for over 200 years. It may be dingy, but it's weirdly peaceful — and a bit ethereal— the water lapping against the sides of the boat as the light at the end becomes larger.
Back in daylight, it's not long before we find ourselves among the mansions of Regent's Park, home to various foreign ambassadors and embassies. We weave our way through the gardens of Winfield House, the second largest private gardens in London depending on who you believe, home to the American Ambassador. Then we hear the tale of Blow Up Bridge (an occasional commentary alerts passengers to interesting sights such as this — informative for those who want it, but subtle enough for those who don't want a commentary to block it out).
Just metres down the canal, it's a completely different outlook as a graffiti wall dominates our view — there could be no surer sign that we've crossed the border from Primrose Hill into Camden.
From there, it's a short hop to London Zoo. Our position so low down on the canal means we don't get a glimpse of many animals, but the listed Snowdon Aviary, soon to be home to monkeys and parrots, towers over us. The Waterbus previously had its own aquatic bus stop within the Zoo grounds, but this has now been withdrawn. Shame, not least because you can no longer get a glimpse of what was probably our favourite sign in London:
The Feng Shang Chinese restaurant is our cue to turn sharp left on the home run to Camden Lock. Once again, we're among some rather grand residences, this time peering into their back gardens rather than seeing them from the front.
Trains rattle past overhead on the railway bridge that conveys hundreds of trains a day into and out of Euston station. Locals enjoy their lunch by the waterside, making the most of the autumn sun, and cyclists weave skilfully among dog walkers.
This is the Regent's Canal we know and love. The tourists love it too — on the final approach to Camden Lock, that famous willow tree and bridge come into view, and cameras begin snapping away. Don't miss the opportunity to peer into those rarely accessible catacombs underneath the warehouse as you go past.
You can get a return journey if you so wish, but we decline. We're Londoners through and through, accustomed to moving at a much faster pace than this. It's a pleasant enough way to while away an afternoon, but by the time we dock in Camden, we're itching to get back to every day life. We'll be back though, when we need an hour away from the tube.
The London Waterbus runs between Camden Lock and Little Venice. Check the website for seasonal timetable and latest booking information.