The Guardian - August 2011

The boat that rocks.

No ... could it be true? Has the ultimate nerd’s getaway really been transformed into holiday heaven for hipsters?

Gemma Bowes reveals all from London’s canals


Of course this would happen. It was inevitable. It happened to camping, and to caravanning, holiday camps, real
ale and beach huts … Canal boating, the holiday preference of bearded retirees, eventually had to succumb to the cool treatment and, yes, it seems the first signs are there.

Urban canals may be synonymous with vandalism, stabbings, the pushing-in of cyclists, but over the past couple of years, the stretch of London waterway between Islington and Hackney Wick has developed into one of the capital’s most fashionable locales. Hot youngsters in Wayfarer shades, fl atteringly unfl attering clothes and brogues swarm there at weekends, spilling out from London Fields to drink lattes at the Towpath Cafe, or gathering as if at a festival, to sit on the canal edge outside The Narrowboat , sipping pints and swinging their legs above the green-brown water.

Never mind that the dingy depths are full of carrier bags and Coke cans, that the paths are peppered with poop
or the bridges graffi tied; what was once an industrial dead zone is the place to be this summer.

Canal boats themselves are changing too: new owners now reach for a spray can and stencils, not brass polish;
windows are hung with kitsch curtains and display Blu-Tacked posters for karmic yoga classes, arthouse cinema
events and indie gigs. In east London, a new generation of twentysomething houseboat owners pose on deck with
roll-ups , a grotty British equivalent of the St Tropez yacht scene , with party boats are moored near the hottest
ticket in town – in this case, not Nikki Beach , but The Dove pub at Broadway Market . The canals even worked their way in to some of this summer’s most groundbreaking arts events – in Hackney, Folly For a Flyover featured
cinema and performance in a building beneath the A12 and beside the Regent’s Canal , while the Floating
Cinema ( ) is a customised canal boat created by architects Studio Weave and artist duo
Somewhere (Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie) .

The boat hosts arts events across London: on 18 August, at Bow Locks, there’s a screening of fi lms made by Somewhere over the past decade; on 19 August Fantastic Mr Fox will be projected onto the banks at the 3 Mills
studio in Bow , where the film was made ; and on 24 August there will be a “botanical busk” nature tour starting
from Old Ford Lock .

A Book Barge (, an independent bookshop that hosts workshops and bookclub nights, travels around the country, and is currently on its way to Bath, before heading for Bristol.

With all this in mind I wondered if a canal-boating break wasn’t perhaps the ultimate way to parachute oneself
(slowly) into the centre of this hot London scene. As luck would have it, just as I began investigating, a company
called Drifters opened a new canal boat holiday rental centre in Yeading, Middlesex. The closest base to the capital, it would offer, for the first time, the possibility of a circular tour through the city by boat, in just three
days. Surely this wasn’t coincidence?

Had not Drifters astutely cottoned on to this burgeoning trend? Would it be reinventing its fl eet of Black Prince
barges for a youthful new market? The information pack that arrived by post suggested maybe it had. A list of food that could be pre-ordered onboard included tins of stewed steak, Bovril, wine that was “red or white” (no mention of origin) – this had to be irony in the fi rst degree. Drifters must have recognised that luxury organic hampers were old hat and had leapt ahead to embrace the retro 1970s food revival. Clever.

Collecting the boat from the Willowtree Marina with my buddy involved travelling far, far away, along the Central line to Northolt , in deepest suburbia (do hipsters shrivel up and die if they come to zone 5?). Pontus, a friendly Swede , welcomed us on board Caroline and set about demonstrating how to use the windlass to open locks,
how to clean weeds off the propeller, and how the toilet pump worked. This didn’t feel very glamorous , but it was
clear the vessel had all the makings of a glamping-esque reinvention: a small, boxy environment that smells a bit
funny and feels uncomfortable ? The in-crowd are on their way! And yet, the decor (cheap carpet, depressing
furnishings, plastic bathroom) took the old-fashioned kitsch vibe to such an extreme that I didn’t even get it.

After some practice under Pontus’s guidance we were off , cruising east along the Grand Union Paddington
Branch towards the good times. We slammed into the bank a few times, then opened a beer because, rather
insanely, there are no drink-driving laws on narrowboats. We felt elated. The freedom of the open waterway!
Then it began to drizzle. A Sainsbury’s was signposted from the canal and had a parking space for barges, so we
shopped then wheeled our trolley straight on to the boat.

The scenery through Northolt, Perivale and Alperton, in north-west London, was a grim (perhaps hipsters like that) mural of office blocks, garden walls topped with broken glass and sad parks, but occasionally we spotted a cheery sight – an Elvis statue on a roof, a diving heron, some Rastas playing dominos in the sun . At last we slid between Paddington’s mirrored skyscrapers, as if in a scene from a New York disaster movie. Trying to turn around to park for the night in Paddington Basin , we got stuck, but were rescued by a couple of genuine canal boating hipsters, who invited us on board the Bobby Dazzler for a platter of cheese. Jesse, a New Yorker, and his Argentinian boyfriend Max , poured shots of a Hungarian spirit (acquired when they lived in Budapest) and explained how they had taken to the narrowboat life after tiring of Shoreditch flats.

“We were cycling around one day and ended up on the canal,” said Max. “We didn’t even know the canals existed. We were amazed. We noticed the narrowboats, and realised, ‘Wow, people live on them!’ Then
we happened upon one that was for sale, looked around it and bought it immediately.”

A funky fl otilla of boats strung with fairy lights was bobbing by the pub garden “We didn’t have a clue when we
fi rst got the boat,” added Jesse, “but everybody helped us. It’s such a friendly community. Now we always
moor our boats in groups, for safety .” By living as “continuous cruisers”, like many boaters (6,000 in the UK), Jesse and Max don’t have to buy a permanent mooring, as long as they move on every fortnight . Holidaymakers, too, can moor anywhere along the public towpath .

The continuous-cruising lifestyle is under threat, however. British Waterways , the public corporation that manages the nation’s 2,200-mile canal network, wants to change the rules. According to Mark Walton, who has helped form a campaign group among London’s boating community: “BW says London’s canals are getting too congested, that numbers have gone up 39% in the past three years, and visiting leisure boats can’t find a space to park. Yes, a growing number of young people are buying boats , many to use as party boats rather than to live on, but we think we can find our own solution to congestion.”

At the moment, the continuouscruising law is ill-defi ned: “You’re supposed to move to a ‘diff erent place’ every 14 days,” said Mark, “but some people were taking the mick – just swapping positions with another boat. Most people abide by the rules , and there are fines for overstaying, but what’s crazy is, for the past two years no one has enforced this rule. Now BW want to change things without proper research or even speaking to the community .” The new proposals would reduce stays in some areas to seven days, increase the size of official areas and make boaters travel further around the system before returning . “It would be impossible,” said Mark. “ People will
be forced way out of London – no good for those with jobs in the city or kids in local schools, plus there aren’t enough water points in these new areas.”

There seemed to be a feeling among the authorities, he added, that continuous cruisers are a threat, are ne’er-do-wells , but he says it’s the opposite. “There are people from all walks of life, and it’s a fantastic, friendly community. Our presence actually makes the canals safer– joggers and cyclists feel less at risk if there are houseboats around.”
The community’s other worries include the Olympics. With the site located along the Lee Navigation, a little further east, the towpaths and surrounding areas are being improved, but there are plans to ban continuous cruising during the Games and rent moorings to visiting or official boats.

The eastern stretch of the Regents canal hosted our own fun and games the next day. After travelling east from
Paddington , through Little Venice, Regent’s Park and Camden’s crowd drawing lock, beyond the architect designed apartments of King’s Cross and through Islington tunnel, we had lunch at the trendy Towpath Cafe –
delicious courgette and feta fritters and wine, served from a hatch . We texted friends, put some mini speakers on
deck, opened some bottles and soon had our own floating party, right at the end of popular Broadway Market .

We moored at Victoria Park next, and while someone fetched fish and chips from the Fish House in the chichi
village we nipped into the Palm Tree, one of London’s greatest traditional pubs. East London cool canal-boaters
were here in force, with a funky flotilla of boats strung with fairy lights bobbing at the end of the pub garden.

Pushing through the final few locks after dark to Limehouse Basin was gruelling, and it was 1am by the time
we’d tied up to an Olympics 2012 tour boat, among the luxury yachts and tall ships. Other boaters might have
visited Gordon Ramsay’s Narrow pub ( ) in Narrow Street, Cable Street Studios
nightclub (566 Cable St) or the all-night warehouse parties of Hackney Wick.

But we had an early tide to catch. You need a special VHF radio licence to take a narrowboat down the Thames, but Drifters can provide you with a pilot. Keith got us through the lock onto the river, and drove us for two
hours, back west, a spectacular voyage under Tower Bridge , past Westminster, and the luxury houseboats of Chelsea. I was doing the washing up when Battersea Power Station drifted past the kitchen window. Returning to the canal at Brentford (definitely no place for hipsters), only a green stretch and the hellish Hanwell Flight (six locks in a row) remained , and by early evening we were back to base, cooking sausages in the fading sunshine, and watching passing moorhens and geese.

We had taken canal boating to our hearts, but I wasn’t convinced this was a holiday for the truly trendy. What a
shame more wasn’t made of the boat itself, for the slow drudgery of the suburbs would have been negated by a
fabulous narrowboat. The industry was missing a trick.

Or so I thought until two weeks later, when an email landed, promoting a new place to stay in Regent’s Park – On
the Water, a boutique, self-catering , bespoke canal boat! Events organiser Davina Stanley originally designed
this double-width Dutch barge to be her Primrose Hill offi ce, then turned it into a space for glamorous parties. Now she also off ers it as a holiday let – the fl exibility of the large, minimalist space allows for both.

Other houseboats may have claimed to be “boutique” in the past, but I’ve never been convinced, until now. On
the Water is the real deal – from a rain shower in the mosaic-tiled bathroom, the discreet white blinds, cupboards
and furniture, to designer armchairs and thick grey rugs. Prosecco filled the fridge, a Mac stood on the white
cocktail cabinet . One bedside table’s “lady’s drawer” held tampons, pillow mist and pre-stamped postcards; the
other, condoms and an iPod charger. See you later, Black Prince.

Despite the huge upgrade in canal boat, I was sad not to be able to indulge my newfound tillering skills. Overnight
guests must stay put (unless you hire a skipper, and they will happily drive you to a Little Venice pub for tea).
During the Olympic Games, though, the boat will be part of the Jubilee flotilla travelling down the Thames, and then moored close to the stadium .

Being grounded enabled me to enjoy the stunning little corner of canal that we had passed straight through before,
and I sat with a glass of Prosecco, looking across at the big red Chinese showboat opposite (that houses a
restaurant), watching kayakers paddle by to the sounds of London Zoo . We ate dinner at The Engineer in Primrose Hill , and a luxury breakfast hamper from local deli Melrose & Morgan (no Bovril!) was delivered to the door in the morning.

And there you have it: cool canal boating is happening, people. I still await a stylish boat that you can actually move, but this trend is defi nitely (slowly) making its way towards you.