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Once considered dingy and dirty, a grubby relic of the capital’s past, Regent’s Canal has been undergoing a quiet renaissance over the past few years, in many ways being reclaimed by the ‘ordinary’ folk of London.

‘Idyllic’ is not often a word associated with the Big Smoke, but head down here and you’ll find something a million miles from the relentless urban throb of the city’s streets. Between the picturesque calm of Little Venice in Maida Vale and the emerging counterculture along the towpath linking Broadway Market and Victoria Park – where indie shops sell their wares from barges and hot, young things drink beers by the waterside – London’s canals have never been so popular. 

“The canal is a hive of creativity now and people have taken their passions to the water, setting up a wide range of businesses on board,” confirms Fran Read, of the Canal & River Trust, a charity entrusted with the care of England and Wales’ 2000-mile network of waterways. “It feels very different to the chain shops and bustle of London’s streets. It’s a haven in the heart of London.”

Dating back to 1820, Regent’s Canal stretches 8.6 miles from the Paddington arm of the Grand Union Canal, past Regent’s Park, Camden, Islington and Victoria Park, before joining the Thames at Limehouse Basin. Here, we meet a few of the folks at the centre of London’s new ‘canal cool’.

Paddy Screech, co-owner, Word On The Water

This floating second-hand bookshop first launched in 2011 and has been going from strength to strength ever since. It’s co-owned by Screech and two pals, John Privett (‘The Professor’) and a mysterious Frenchman known only as ‘The Captain’. The barge makes its way along the Regent’s Canal and the River Lea, mooring at various spots on the way. It also often hosts live music and poetry slams.

“We decided to open a bookshop on a barge as we realised that trading on the canal would not incur the crazy rents that have been killing bookshops recently,” Screech tells TNT. “We knew the canal is just the sort of place where people are strolling slowly enough to be able to concentrate on choosing an inspiring book. 

“People love [this dying breed of] peaceful old bookstores and personal service, cats draped over the shelves and moorhen chicks squeaking as they read.  

“The canals are popular at the moment because they’re arteries of countryside running through this mad, work- and money-obsessed city. Sustainable lifestyles and a real sense of community are fascinating to Londoners now, as they’re coming to realise how far normal metropolitan lifestyles have become divorced from those values.

“The future of London’s canals is unclear – either they continue to thrive and retain their quirky qualities, or they become dull corridors with office complexes and yuppie housing hiding the sunlight, and with only the most well-off able to afford to live on boats. The people of London will have to decide which future happens.”

More: Location published at  facebook.com/wordonthewater 



Tamsin Elliot, owner, Frocks A Float

Elliot has run her vintage boutique from a narrowboat on Regent’s Canal since 2010. You can find all sorts of treats on board, such as Sixties shift dresses at bargain prices (around £20), and there’s row-upon-row of shirts, shoes, sunglasses ... you just need to come prepared to rummage. Elliot can often be found moored by Broadway Market. 

“I was a rockabilly in the Eighties and had loads of clothes [that my mum had in storage for me] that needed emptying,” she tells us of how the business got started. “It was only going to be a temporary shop on my boat, but I loved it so much and I have a magpie’s eye for fashion, so I’ve carried on. I love how everyone leaves the boat with a smile, purchase or not.


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Canal culture: Floating cafes, boutiques, cinemas and bookshops are the latest London craze
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