writes Stephen Emms in The Kentish Towner, 14 September 2012
We love the canal here at KTHQ. East or west, we’ve walked it all. And every time, we stare longingly at the narrowboats and ponder a simpler life afloat.
So last month we decided to give it a go for a weekend. We didn’t want to waste our limited time queuing for locks (each of which is a strenuous 15-30 mins effort), so we devised a little-known route that would cleverly avoid every single one. Just under 25 miles in length, it stretches from Cowley Peachey Marina in Middlesex (on the map below, bottom far left corner) all the way back to Camden Town.
On a rainy Friday lunchtime we drove down to Willow Tree Marina in Yeading, Middlesex, the sole place in the capital where it’s still possible to hire a self-drive narrowboat. It’s a picturesque little dock in a distant part of suburban west London, so something appealed about traversing its alien waters right back to the more familiar Regent’s Canal. It’s the kind of adventure we like, seeing afresh what we already know.
We were shown the ropes by Pontus, a very patient and articulate Swede. Our barge was vast: two double bedrooms, a spacious kitchen-diner-living room (all kitted out in 1980′s executive decor) and, of course, two decks. Pontus made the prospect of handling the boat very daunting: he warned of a host of chores to tick off at the start and end of the day, from tightening the stern greaser to refilling water, to pumping bilge. Not to mention the small problem of the weed hatch and danger of things (maybe a ‘coat’) getting caught in the propeller. Additional concerns? How and when to use the headlight, the horn, the toilet (with stern instructions only to flush down what you have ‘eaten’). Yikes.
Once afloat, we realised maybe it wasn’t so hard after all. That didn’t stop a couple of early dramas involving the tiller, which you have to reverse steer – right means left and vice versa. And very quickly we discovered our Jack Russell, Pepper, was not a sea dog, as she quivered below deck, tongue hanging out, needing constant reassurance.
We picked up the boat at 2pm Friday, the earliest start time available. Our intention was to travel on the Grand Union canal to Little Venice (four to five hours) and stay in Paddington Basin the first night, where there are plentiful visitor moorings, then have an easy day on Saturday moored in nearby Primrose Hill. The return trip on Sunday to deepest Middlesex would ensure we handed back the boat back by a rather strict 930am, Monday morning.
We quickly learnt some tips. Going slower meant more control, allowing us to see nature close up. Herons perched on tyres, swans, coots and mallards swished fearlessly past with tiny babies. To start with, the scenery was surprisingly verdant, Mississippi-like, even. I could do this forever, I thought, as we passed rusty barges with names like Silver Lining, Serenity, Bojangles.
And not a soul about, apart from cyclists and a couple of off duty coppers. Plastic tables and chairs lay abandoned in makeshift gardens. Playing fields were empty, solitary men sat fishing, the odd family with buggies paused on a bridge. The meditative qualities of the water became clear.
Greenford, Acton, Harlesdon: the quiet poetry of suburban west London at its most industrial – railings, graffiti, boarded-up warehouses, corrugated iron shacks, chimneys, barbed wire. This, it seemed, was the land that no one visits unless they live have to. Yet willow trees lined the bank, the wind rustled through rushes, the falling rain rippled the water.
In Alperton we passed Piggery Wharf, now a Sainsbury’s but once a Victorian leisure destination – until its great stink earned its title as the ‘dusthole of the metropolis.’ And near Harlesdon we were astonished to cruise over an aqueduct (left) which carries the canal over the North Circular (when it leaked in 1962 it caused chaos on the motorway below).
As we approached central London bright green algae – or what we termed pea soup – started to appear, oddly scenic but toxic to humans, and lethal to pets and animals. At Kensal Green the gas works, built in the 1880s, and cemetery (home to Freddie Mercury amongst others) provided a dramatic backdrop to the algae as the boats became shinier, and cafes and pubs backed onto the water with crowds laughing and drinking.
We were now cruising inner-city, alongside Harrow Road, Ladbroke Grove, the majesty of Trellick Tower rising on the right (built by Erno Goldfinger in 1972, who famously hosted champagne parties for the other residents). As the evening bore in, the Westway loomed overhead and we passed Little Venice, where the Regent’s and Grand Union canals meet, towards Paddington Basin.
We moored opposite St Mary’s Hospital, around 7pm: as darkness fell, and neon and floodlights flipped on, it felt very urbane, quite glamorous even – Hong Kong, as we kidded ourselves. Torrential rain pummeled the roof as we tucked into a cold chicken and avocado salad and plenty of red wine.
Next morning was my birthday. But as we navigated the tight stretch of water lined by pretty boats and prehistoric quarter mile Maida Hill tunnel; as the sunshine bounced off the water, past Regency houses, jetties and private moorings, we had no idea of the drama that was about to hit us.
We had already decided to turn the boat around at Camden Lock (an hour or two from Paddington Basin) and just as we were struggling with the huge vessel, Pepper decided to make a leap for it onto the bank: hundreds of tourists watched as she missed her footing, fell in, and disappeared underwater. Luckily she managed to swim to the side where I hauled her out, panting, covered in toxic green algae. A quick shower, and she recovered: but that, we concluded, was her brief relationship with the canal over.
We pulled up to rest in a pretty mooring by Gloucester Avenue in Primrose Hill, and as torrential rain set in for the day, friends joined us for a drink as ducks huddled dignified in the storm, and party boats cruised up & down, up and down, into the dead of night.
On Sunday morning we woke to the shriek of gulls, quack of coots – and bright sun. How beautiful is the stillness of the canal in morning, I thought. We set sail for the long return trip to Cowley Peachey, a beauty spot in deepest Middlesex over 20 miles away – six hours’ cruising.
We had lunch near Northolt Country Park, and continued past Southall and Bulls Bridge to our destination, a pretty residential mooring island and tributaries, complete with ‘ye olde’ pub and curved brick bridge. This was the last point west before a lock, so we had finally completed tour intended 23 mile stretch. Mooring on Packet Boat Marina, we enjoyed a decent steak at the Water’s Edge, and sat listening to Bruce Springsteen on the bow as the sun set over the marina. All around us groups gathered on deck, drinking and celebrating the warmer night. Magical.
Next morning, in the low sun, we cruised the 90 minutes back to the marina. We realised it was preferable to travel the quieter suburban and semi-rural sections; the inner city canal is harder to navigate and quite intense in its concentration.
Stepping back onto the dock at Willow Tree, it had been a memorable – at times fraught – weekend. But, we agreed, it’s an experience that is quietly addictive. On our next trip we’ll be doing a lock or two. And, of course, leaving the dog on dry land.
Our Top 5 Tips
1. You lose control if you turn up speed too quickly
2. Plan in advance where there are visitor moorings
3. Plan water stops
4. Long stretches without food or drink stores so buy supplies
5. Bridges and urban areas require more concentration!
Stephen Emms was a guest of Drifters Waterway Holidays. Canal boat hire at their London base (run by Black Prince Holidays) starts at £534 for a short break and £821 for a week on a five-berth boat.
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