I’m still hankering after life on the water, after my delightful adventure on the Kennet and Avon canal. Luckily, Bloomsbury is a mere hop, skip and jump away from the London Canal Museum, just beyond Kings Cross on the Regent’s Canal. So that’s where I headed last weekend.
The Regent’s Canal is a lovely canal to walk. It stretches from the Paddington Basin in the west of London to the Limehouse Basin in the East, where the international Port of London traded in everything from spices to silks, tobacco to sugar, coal to opium.
The canal winds tranquil, through post-industrial landscapes and disused goods yards, then charming Regency terraces and genteel stuccoed houses in Little Venice, through London Zoo (really! You go right past the aviary, where peacocks and parrots chatter for your delight), the buzzy market at Camden Lock, hidden wildlife gardens, the lively Victoria Park in Hackney, all the way down to the Thames at Limehouse.
Nowadays, the tow path is the preserve of walkers, joggers, cyclists and dog walkers. But within living memory, the
path was trodden by barge men and canal boat children, with their big heavy horses drawing the even heavier iron boats. The London Canal Museum has fascinating films of these hidden industrial by-ways, and taped interviews with the bargees and their families. A preserved barge shows how tiny the living space was (far tinier than the narrowboat I’d enjoyed; most of the barge was of course given over to the cargo). There’s plenty of examples of the popular ‘castles and roses’ decoration that bargee families traditionally used to paint everything from boats to buckets, although sadly no-one quite knows why these motifs were chosen.
The museum itself is housed in a former ice store, and much of the museum explains the history of this pre-refrigeration business, which introduced luxurious ice-cream to the capital (spreading TB through the popularity of ‘penny licks’, quite as unhygienic as they sound). The ice was brought in enormous blocks from Scandinavia, hauled in barges up the canal from Limehouse, and stored in massive underground cylinders, including this one on the canal at King’s Cross. The size of the blocks kept it from melting away. From there it was distributed across London, by horse and cart, to houses and restaurants, where no doubt it finally melted away.
The museum now backs onto the Battlebridge Basin, a beautifully tranquil corner of the canal, overlooked by posh flats and trendy offices, but also home to dozens of residential narrowboats. We sat in the sun outside the museum, dipping our toes in the water and rhapsodising about the possibilities of joining this elite band of boaters. Subsequent inquiries confirmed that these moorings are gold dust, and rarely become available. Oh well, we live in hope (and with frequent visits to the British Waterways moorings-for-auction website.)