I first discovered London’s canal network when I moved to east London in June 2016. I grew up in the south of the city, where the canal networks have largely been filled in but I was still surprised to discover this stone left unturned. That summer, my brother was also living east, renting the lock-keeper’s cottage on Regent’s Canal next to Broadway Market, and I spent several sunny afternoons sitting on the lock — east London’s beach — greeting passing narrowboats and doing what English people do best in the sun: smoking roll-ups and drinking cheap beer.
The canals spread over London and the rest of the UK like watery veins, extending the naturally existing river networks. In the years before the industrial revolution they linked supply and demand, narrowboats loaded with coal or steel were pulled by horses walking on the towpaths adjacent to the canals. Nowadays, there are over 10,000 people living on narrowboats on London’s canals and many land-locked Londoners enjoy the scenic towpaths all year round.
Canals sometimes have a nefarious reputation — Victorian relics used for dodgy dealings, dumping dead bodies and prostitution, and if you travel along any of London’s canal towpath late at night it’s easy to see why. Despite the fact that many of them are situated in central London there are corners here that are never touched by the bright lights of the city. However, I’ve found that this sense of being removed from the rest of the city can also lend itself to a sense of magic and uninterrupted nature.
One chilly and wet January day, I decided to take a walk down Regent’s Canal again. It’s immediately clear that towpaths in the winter are decidedly less jolly, the steely skies make the cold industrialism they represent even starker and more apparent. Starting at Granary Square, which used to be a water basin from which barges carrying grain would enter to load and unload, I headed west towards Little Venice via Camden Lock along the towpath. On this day the water, which you’d probably touch with a barge pole but that’s about it, looked particularly scuzzy — ducks and geese swum between discarded takeaway boxes and floating coke cans and a film of dirt and oil was clinging to the surface.
Equally as interesting as the history of the canals, I think, are the amphibious folk of London — people who have foregone plumbing and central heating for a quieter, damper life in a narrowboat on London’s waterways. Despite the inevitable inconveniences of living on a boat, there is something appealing about this lifestyle. A relic from the 19th century, the canals have remained at sea level even while the rest of the city has built up around them, because of this walking on the towpath can feel as if everything has slowed down, people walk slower, talk slower and greet each other hello. One warm evening last summer I was cycling home along this towpath and saw a man smoking a leisurely cigarette over an open fire on his stern, the flames the only light on an otherwise dark towpath. We could have been in the middle of the countryside, and this moment seemed almost absurdly peaceful considering that not too far away the rest of London was competing for square inches.
Anyone thinking of avoiding extortionate London rents by pursuing a romantic life on the water might be disappointed, though. You wouldn’t know it to look at them, and no doubt there are many exceptions, but weekly rent on a narrowboat is in the region of £400pw. Relatively cheap for some of London’s prime locations, but expensive considering you’d have to empty your own toilet. “It was a lot cheaper, especially to live in an area like Hackney” says Sam, a freelance illustrator who lived on a narrowboat near Hackney Wick for a year, “it would get freezing in the winter, but with the wood stove I found it could be quite cosy”. The worst bit, he says, was the hidden costs and jobs involved with boat ownership. “Emptying the toilet was dire and it would get blocked regularly. Also it’s quite difficult to get your post delivered and there’s no chance of wi-fi”.
On this typically grim and gloomy January afternoon most narrowboats I pass seem as if they could be empty, mournfully bobbing up and down, although the bags of litter on the roof of many of them suggests otherwise. It is 2pm on a Monday, but to take the logical conclusion that most of the residents are probably at their 9–5 seems a bit unsatisfactory. So much for bohemian living! Things look up as I approach the Camden visitors mooring spots, where a sign indicates any boat can moor for up to 7 days free of charge. Although like Sam, many narrowboats will stayed moored in one location permanently, some embrace a roaming gypsy lifestyle and cruise between temporary mooring spots like this one in Camden. Two young guys are fiddling around with something on the stern of the boat whilst reggae music plays out of some (battery powered) speakers, and on another boat a girl with bright green hair is preparing to leave.
Regent’s Canal flows through Regent’s Park and from the towpath there is access to the back of London Zoo via a water bus from Camden market. At the waterbus station, a sign says ‘do not moor when beacon is flashing! Animal escape procedure in operation’. A bit further along you can get a piece of the zoo for free as the path passes the enclosure for the Painted African Hunting Dogs. Five minutes later the green-haired woman passes me on her barge leaving a plume of toxic black smoke in her wake, although we are moving at the same pace for a minute or so. Canal barges are not known for their speed, pre-industrial revolution they were practical because boats could carry heavy loads — up to 40 tonnes of coal or iron — once the railways came along and made life faster forever (70mph faster to be precise) then canals quickly fell into disuse. A bit further down the canal I spot her reverse parking her boat into a small space near Little Venice.
Winter is not kind to the canals, what I remember as cheerful and charming has turned to sludgy and deserted. However, whatever the season, exploring London’s canal networks is a peek into Victorian London and the chance to explore the city from a new perspective.