For some reason boats have always captured our imaginations, and it’s hard to envision anything more nautically romantic than a meandering canal-ride through the heart of London.
So when we received our London Passes in the mail* and started planning our excursions, priority number one was fitting in a boat tour of Regent’s Canal.
The U.K. has a surprisingly robust canal system connecting most of the country. The waterways were built in the early 1800s as a transportation network to support the burgeoning Industrial Revolution, and they were still commonly used to transport goods well into the 1950s.
The system was set up before the steam engine, so the narrowboats were originally pulled by horses walking on a towpath beside the canal. The horse walked quite a ways in front of the boat, with a rope stretched out behind it, and even today you can see indentations on all the old bridges where the ropes rubbed against the stone as horses entered and exited the underpass.
Despite the decline in horse traffic, even after all these years the old towpaths still exist; now they’re enjoyed by pedestrians, bicyclists… and apparently bobbies on the beat.
The canals were almost filled in and lost completely as evolving technology rendered it cheaper to ship goods overland (via truck or rail), but luckily a resurgence of interest has helped preserve them for leisure activities.
Today many of the old industrial boats have been converted into tour boats, like the eponymous Jason of Jason’s Canal Boat Trip, or live-aboard houseboats, like these lining a section of the canal:
Interested in living here?
Apparently buying a canal boat will set you back about £100,000, and where these are moored you’ll also have to fork over an additional £7,000 or so each year to tie up. Then there’s insurance and various registration fees, and on top of all that these aren’t exactly maintenance-free homes…
If that’s too much of a commitment for you, though, there are “visitor docking” sites provided for people just floating through, and if you’re feeling adventurous a number of these boats are available as vacation rentals.
Anyway, back to our tour:
Our forty-five minute ride on Jason, one of London’s oldest converted canal boats, took us from Little Venice to Camden via a very diverse section of Regent’s Canal. We passed beautifully ornate houses, green parks, battered industrial buildings, the London Zoo, the second-largest private gardens in the city, a stylish floating restaurant nestled in a little alcove along the canal, and of course a Pirate Castle.
Overall I was amazed at how peaceful and secluded the canal felt; I couldn’t believe we were traveling more or less through central London!
Our journey ended right before the famous Camden Lock. We were initially a little disappointed we didn’t get to traverse the lock itself, but it’s such a time- and labor-intensive process that if I were running the tour I’d probably opt to skip it too. We did get a great view from the top, though!
If you’re in London and want to try something a little out of the ordinary, I would highly recommend taking a canal boat ride! The history was fascinating, the pace (legally limited to a tranquil four mph) relaxing, and the views amazing.
For years now we’ve been tossing around the idea of living aboard a boat – be it of the sail, river, or canal variety – and this tour certainly added fuel to that fire. Now we just have to wrangle up £100k…
* The London Pass provides free admission to a wide range of attractions throughout the city, including Jason’s Canal Boat Trip (adult tickets are ordinarily £8 each). We received two complimentary passes from the folks behind the London Pass in return for sharing our experiences here on the blog.