The river continues to curl deeper into Essex and on towards Bishop’s Stortfort, but the rain continues to fall and the levels are rising. The pitter patter on the roof isn’t creating the cozy, comforting, snug feeling it usually does. The locks are neither here nor there, at 13.25ft they’re wider than single but not enough space for two boats meaning that roping is a certainty as the paddles are pretty sharp. Opened in the 1780’s the canalised navigation was originally part of grander plans to link London to Kings Lynn, main cargos included: wheat, beans, peas, flour, coal and pigeon dung.
On past Parndon Mill that’s been immaculately restored since the 1960’s and serves as a creative place for artists with all sorts of skills. With a long history dating back to a mention in the Domesday Book the mill has fallen victim to numerous fires, due to the combustible nature of the flour milled from the grain produced from the rich surrounding farm land.
…And then we came to Harlow.
Moored just by the station, with a waterpoint just a boat’s length back it wasn’t rural idylic but there were plus points. Plus the town is just a short walk away. Brain child of world-renowned architect Sir Frederick Gibberd, the town’s promoters promise, ‘Whether you’re planning a few hours, a few days or a lifetime here, Harlow won’t disappoint.’ A New Town, built after World War II to ease overcrowding caused by bombing during the Blitz it boasts Britain’s first pedestrian precinct and ‘modern style’ residential tower block. With rail links to London Liverpool Street and proximity to the M11 it has secured itself as part of the London commuter belt. Like it or not, you can’t argue with anywhere that offers up Poundland, Wilkos, 99p Store AND Savers all one after the other.
It was set to be a quiet night since the trains have all but stopped but a car has rolled up, crammed full of passengers who seem to enjoy listening to the same thumping beats, over and over and over. Okay bring back the rain.
Forget asking to share mooring rings, guarding your offside from moor alongsiders and expecting any sort of gap between your boat and the next, London is a whole different ball game – one continual loop of musical boats where everyone ropes up to anything that keeps them roughly secured to the towpath, it’s not that people aren’t nice, everyone gets along well enough, it’s just the way it is.
So, writing from a different patch of water from the one we’d expected to sleep on, we took advantage of this evening’s boat shuffle and hooked up to the nearest waterpoint before settling in for the night – possibly.
A couple of days discovering and re-discovering London we’ve come across all sorts: NFL on Regent’s Street (good, but the drains were oh so stinky), Covent Garden, a lively Speakers’ Corner (not one for you SFR), Kensington Gardens, Trafalgar Square, the National Portrait Gallery (loved that)…
The house boats across the water and the enormous Georgian houses beyond make for a pretty good view, meanwhile they get to look a stack of us boaters; one big cocktail of people all getting something from the canal, somehow it seems to work.
Despite far less boat travel than normal we seem to have been all over the place this last week, thanks to legs and trains. Our mental web of London continues to gradually grow and some roads are magically beginning to link up, making a few convenient loops.
Unfortunate enough to take navigational advice from SFR, AJ and UM arrived at Paddington having traipsed through most of London on foot – this wasn’t made any more enjoyable by a very large roll of rubber we’d asked them to bring along. It was lovely to catch up with the ‘la famille’ and with London dangling off tube stops it doesn’t take too long to get right back down to the Thames and onto the South Bank. The tower poppy display is spreading, apparently the appeal for volunteers to plant the ceramic flowers was overwhelming.
‘Home’ in terms of family is now just a 30 minute Southern Rail ride away (when there hasn’t been a fatality on the line that is), which feels so local compared to Manchester or Birmingham. Swiss Family came up trumps with a great book to aid our London adventure and it was brilliant to see so many familiar faces in one place!
Having maxed out our stay in Paddington Basin we untied and headed out for water in Little Venice followed by a mega shop at the mammoth Sainsbury’s at Kensal Green. Boats boats boats everywhere, every shape, every sort, pretty much anything goes. Little Venice is twinkling tonight, breasted up and not far along from our lovely neighbours from Paddington Basin, so far so good – although the far end, beyond the designated visitor moorings has some pretty nasty bags of grot on the tow path and so much rubbish dumped in the water it’s actually impossible to moor.
It’s been a bit of a whirlwind last few days, but London life is beginning to shape up nicely.
Boris bikes definitely seem the way to go as at the moment we are walking our legs off. It was another sunny morning so we set off in the direction of Little Venice and ended up in Portobello Market. The market dates back to 1870 when traders gathered to sell their horses. Busy streets, splashes of colourful houses, out of the ordinary things for sale and an energetic atmosphere made for an interesting wander. A long list of films, novels and songs have sprung from various doors and shops – not least Paddington Bear who enjoyed elevenses on Portobello Road with Mr Gruber each day – resulting in clusters of flashing cameras in various locations.
Legs hanging, we opened the door to a fresh and fully fueled Murk, eager for a walk, so after a very quick lunch we were back out – off through Bayswater and down to Hyde Park.
The moorings have busied up as the weekend has gone on, tonight was especially busy with boats circling in search of a space.
Limehouse Basin was a lovely place to stay, boats coming up and heading out into the wider water provided regular entertainment, one especially beautiful yacht moored opposite – complete with a muesli eating, wholesome yacht boy. Originally known as Regent’s Canal Dock, in 1865 1,500 ships and 15,336 barges entered, it was expanded several times and often so busy you could walk the water by hopping from one boat to another. Changing water levels were interesting as with high tide the deep lock we rose in shrivels to barely a lock at all. The Thames effectively provides one large lung for London with stale air being pulled out and fresh bought in on the tides.
Leaving the basin we faced our first double lock since the Huddersfield Broad. It was great to share with a couple we’d been moored next to, the ride up towards Camden has endless (mainly stationary) boats and people all around everywhere. Split from our lock buddies for a while we headed separate ways for water – turning up at St Pancreas Cruising Club it was clear that Nicholson has slipped in a not totally public waterpoint; luckily the guy was very nice and let us hook up, despite the tap not being the ‘free for all’ variety for over 30 years.
After passing the bridge where King Robbo and Banksy staged their well documented graffiti war, we arrived in Camden and worked through the two locks we first had a go at on a days training in 2012. It was a messy affair back then.
Through Maida Hill tunnel and past Regents Zoo, we entered Little Venice before moving on to Paddington Basin. Incredibly lucky to find two moorings available we pitched up with the crew from Black Bart who own chairs – and we like them – that’s the second lot of chair owners we‘ve enjoyed spending time with now!
Loving London life so far, Hyde Park has Murk’s seal of approval and Oxford Street, Park Lane, Marylebone and Mayfair are all around a ten minute walk away.
It began as a tiny thought yesterday afternoon, it grew during Bake Off and was squished again after reading the ‘London Tideway Guide: Downstream Addition’ – at 24 pages it’s a whopping eight pages longer than it’s upstream counterpart and with lines like ‘It is very important to appreciate that making the passage downstream to Limehouse from Teddington or from Brentford is considerably more challenging that coming the other way,’ we decided it was no go. So we went to bed, happy with the knowledge that just a short trip down to Brentford lay ahead.
But the sun was shining this morning, and the water was calm, and the tides were perfect. There was no way we could go though as we hadn’t given Limehouse 24hrs notice – so emphasising our lack of booking we felt safe to ask the Teddington lock keeper, expecting flat no, meaning we could at least tell ourselves we tried. We weren’t expecting him to say ‘It should be fine, phone Limehouse,’ and we really weren’t expecting Limehouse to say come on down…
Waiting with a nervous hireboater on his way to Brentford wasn’t the most calming start, then out of the blue another narrowboat sped along to Teddington Lock, he was going all the way too. Yay. Out into slack water nothing seemed any different to the non-tidal section above Teddington, in fact with so little rain and a low tide the river was way calmer than our previous Brentford journey. As the hireboater veered away into the safety of The Grand Union Canal we ploughed on, the tide was beginning to pick up and it was no struggle to keep good time. Miles and miles passed, the water grew wide, the Boat Race finish came and went, the Boat Race start came and went, Harrods Depositary, Battersea Power Station – other than the odd City Cruiser the water seemed quite quiet. Then London came in waves, thick and fast. The traffic busied up and the landmarks were hard to keep up with in between negotiating the best angle to direct the boat in order to tackle the ever-increasing rolls of wake. Suddenly London was all around, we were a teeny-weeny boat muddled in a big city snow globe – even a crazy Dazzle ship used extensively in WW1 added to the mad whirl wind.
The grand finale came in the form of Tower Bridge – built from 31 million bricks, two million rivets and 22,000 litres of paint that all opens on average three times a day…no need for our passage, we just about squeezed under, before radioing our position into Limehouse.
As the sights decreased the reality of the turn into Limehouse Basin hit home. The main rule being: travel on to get a good view round the bend before attempting to turn to the wrong side of the river…the Clippers come quickly, which they did, two of them just as we wanted to turn. Eeek. So we waited, the boat pitched and rolled in their wake. In reality there’s not an awful lot of time that Clippers aren’t zooming at you from one direction or the other, flashing their ‘making life easier’ sign writing – really? We bit the bullet and turned. Willing the boat to come round the waters were all over the place – people talk of ‘back-Eddys’ – perhaps that’s what it was, but one things for sure it’s our trickiest lock turn to date, smashing Selby out the park. Safe and sound we moved into the lock and up into a gloriously sunny Limehouse Basin.
An adrenalin fuelled start to London for all three of us, having had an axe fall on him during the turn Murk was pleased to stretch his legs – which he did in Canary Wharf as though he owned the place.