‘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.
“The bad reputation the canals had of being stinky and dangerous has lifted. It does help that the waterways are more populated nowadays as this makes [the area] much more homely. Renting and buying in London is impossible for young people these days and buying a narrowboat seems an easier, cheaper option. This new young demographic has only helped the success of the trading boats and the image of the London canals.
“I’ve been on the water for almost 10 years now and the populace has perhaps quadrupled in that time. It’s getting very difficult to find mooring spaces and the newbies are a bit rubbish at canal etiquette. But on the upside, a growing, vibrant community is always a good thing.”
More: Location published at facebook.com/FrocksAFloat
Emma Underhill, director, Floating Cinema
The Floating Cinema returns to London’s canals this week with a programme of films about the extraordinary in everyday life.
“There is something very magical about the idea of a floating cinema which captures people’s imaginations,” says Underhill. “When looking at the rapidly changing landscape [of London], the canals are one of the few things that remain constant. The Extra-Ordinary theme [for this year’s Floating Cinema] focuses on the extraordinary and overlooked in daily life. The canals and what they can offer are part of that.”
The Floating Cinema’s 10-week programme features an eclectic collection of shorts and features, from specially commissioned work, such as a film about the River Lea, to more commercial offerings, including a ‘Horror Weekender’.
As well as on board screenings, there will be larger scale outdoor screenings for bankside audiences and even floating tours, such as ‘London Lost’, led by experts in human remains and London’s burial grounds from the Museum of London Archaeology. There’s a mix of free and ticketed events, so check the website for more details.
“We want Floating Cinema to encourage people to appreciate the canals and experience something unique in an unusual location,” Underhill adds. “As we navigate the waterways, we‘ll attract people to areas of London they wouldn’t ordinarily explore.”
3 More To Try
Souk On The Water
The tow path by Mile End Park will host this floating market throughout August, although it’s often on the move, sometimes mooring by Broadway Market or City Road Basin. See Facebook for updates.
The Sandwich Barge
This ‘organic cruising cafe’ serves up homemade cakes and drinks as well as renowned sarnies and is currently moored on the River Lea at Springfield Park in Upper Clapton.
The Palm Tree
It don’t float, but this awesome East End boozer (with gold wallpaper!) is the epicentre of canalside cool, right next to the water by Mile End Park. Plus, being all the way out on the eastern edges gives it an even stronger sense of being a secret idyll. 127 Grove Road, E3 5BH
Photos: Facebook and supplied