'Secret London' Can Be Glimpsed From a Canal Boat

Network of waterways that powered the Industrial Revolution now carry tourists

Eight-year old Sam, eyes gleaming out of his face as the "narrow boat" Jenny Wren chugs past a pair of African antelopes on the fringe of Regent's Park Zoo, exclaims: "Hey, this is secret London!"

If our craft - 70 feet long and 7 feet wide - had continued along the Regent's Canal, joined the much longer Grand Union Canal, and headed north for about a week, Sam might just as easily have declared: "This is secret Birmingham!"

For it is now possible to hire a narrow boat and steer yourself the 200 miles or so from the heart of London to the midst of England's second-largest city, using a network of waterways that a century ago helped to make Britain the world's first industrial nation.

Our trip along the Regent's Canal - named for the Prince Regent who opened it in 1820 - is modest in length, but in the space of 90 minutes we can see the British capital in a way - and from a perspective - few people (including Londoners) have.

We board the Jenny Wren at Camden Town, a colorful part of north London replete with street markets. Very soon we are waiting as a lock fills with water to lift us to a higher level. Then, as the lock gates swing open, we are cruising past a bright red floating Chinese restaurant I never knew existed.

We get a view of London's huge gold-domed mosque from below ground level, and drift past Lord's cricket ground, where "flanneled fools" of the highest international caliber play the game the English adore but few others understand.

"Now this is really fascinating," Marco our boatman says as we approach an iron bridge with Doric columns that spans the canal. The column capitals bear names showing they were cast at Coalbrookdale in Shropshire.

"It's called 'Blow-Up.' In October 1874 the narrow boat Tilbury was carrying a cargo of gunpowder which exploded and destroyed the bridge."

Marco points to a plane tree rearing high above the reconstructed arch of the bridge. "Look at the vertical gash in the trunk. You can still see the effect of the blast."

He is giving us a reminder that Britain's canals and waterways - 6,000 navigable miles at one time - are a central part of the nation's industrial history.

Narrow boats like the Jenny Wren, able to haul cargoes of up to 25 tons, used to carry coal hundreds of miles from pithead to town and city; iron from forge to factory; and food from farm to kitchen. Ice from Norway was landed at London's docks and ferried by narrow boats along the 8-1/2 miles of the Regent's Canal to vast ice wells in the heart of Victorian London.

Soon we are approaching the mouth of a tunnel. In the heyday of the canals, narrow boats had no motors - they were pulled along by horses on tow paths. When a tunnel was reached, the horses were unhitched and led over a hill to the other end. It was then the task of two boatmen to "leg" the boat through. They lay on their backs, one on each side of the boat, and pushed with their feet against the tunnel walls. In long tunnels, the process could take three or four hours.

These days there are only a few "working" canal boats - some take coal, wood, and other commodities short distances. Canal travel is overwhelmingly a leisure pursuit, and it is increasingly popular. Narrow boats and similar craft have easy-to-operate inboard motors. You can hire a canal craft complete with bunks, kitchenette, small sitting room, and observation deck for days or weeks.

You putter along, stopping if you like where a canal widens and allows room for other boats to pass. After tying up, you might drop in at a local restaurant for lunch or supper.

Operating canal craft is simple, Marco says. "You get about an hour's tuition, then off you go. Passing through locks is the hardest part but is easily learned." It may require patience, he adds.

We are entering the tunnel's dark mouth. The Jenny Wren slips along, its sides nearly brushing curved brick walls that still bear footmarks where boatmen of a past era laboriously legged their way through, a candle at the bow.

THREE-HUNDRED yards and two minutes later we burst out into sunshine and encounter yet another little-known facet of the British capital. On either side of the canal are dozens of craft - some narrow boats like our own, others longer and wider, a few short and stubby.

They are houseboats with names like Thistle, Serendipity, Crazy Jane. Many are painted in reds, blues, greens, and yellows bright to the point of brashness. A few are decorated with rose and castle designs recalling that the families who operated the first canal boats were often of gypsy origin and brought their Romany art with them.

We are approaching Little Venice. Here, many Londoners have chosen to live in boats moored at the canal side or on the edge of a placid lagoon where the Regent's Canal joins its mighty cousin, the Grand Union.

If London life on the water takes your fancy, a fair-sized houseboat (or pied--l'eau) can cost as little as 15,000 (US$22,650). Add 1,000 a year for mooring fees and a 400 annual license, and you can live in the shadow of white-painted mansions costing 1 million or more.

What's more, with a narrow boat you'll have a mobile home fit to travel nearly 4,000 miles of waterways, and explore the hinterland of the country where the Industrial Revolution began.


The Jenny Wren Canal Cruise boards at 250 Camden High Street, London NW 1. (In-Britain telephone: 0171 485-4433.) Service runs March through October - several trips daily in late spring and summer. Round-trip from Camden Lock to Little Venice is 4.60 (US$7); children are 2.40.

If you want to explore the canals of England and Wales deeper inland, typical off-season rental of a four-berth narrow boat (April through May) is about 400 (US$600) per week. In the high season (July through August), expect to pay about 500 per week. Some companies will deduct 20 per unoccupied berth.

To receive general information about canal cruising in Britain, contact: The Association of Pleasurecraft Operators (an industry-wide trade association), 35A High Street, Newport, Shropshire, TF10 7AT, UK. Telephone from the United States: (011) 1952 813-572.

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