Weird and Wonderful Life of London Canal Boats

Houseboats mooring on the Regent's Canal by Victoria Park, London
Houseboats mooring on the Regent’s Canal by Victoria Park, London © Art of Escapism

Barges, houseboats, narrowboats, canal boats – they go by many names and they are a permanent fixture of London’s towpaths and waterways, adding charm and uniqueness to the city. 

A barge is not just a place to live, it’s a commitment and a lifestyle. Walking down these towpaths will give you a great opportunity to get an intimate glimpse into the tight-knit canal community and see some unusual and arty things along the way.

A Bit of History

With roads unsuitable for large volumes of traffic, historically the UKs canal network served to transport commercial goods during the Industrial Revolution. Back then the boats were drawn by horses who walked along the towpath, but were later replaced with steam and diesel engines. However, as the railways gradually developed, the use of narrowboats for commercial transport disappeared by the 1970s.  

Today houseboats are mainly used for leisure and recreational purposes. For many people who can’t afford to buy a property in London it’s a more affordable choice of home and the number of licensed canal boats has been on the rise in recent years.

A towpath garden in Little Venice, London
A towpath garden in Little Venice, London © Art of Escapism

This lifestyle has its hardships – one of them is having to move the boat every 2 weeks if you don’t have a permanent mooring spot. While this can be challenging for boat owners (unless that’s your cup of tea), for the spectator it means an ever changing canal landscape where there are new things to see all the time.

Roses & Castles

Looking at the houseboats you will notice repetition of distinct style elements. Roses & castles is a traditional fork art style painted on narrowboats featuring flowers and landscapes, and more often, you guessed it, roses and castles. Other motifs can include lakes, animals, cottages and a variant of the harlequin check, but almost always brightly coloured.

A big part of the barge lifestyle is spending time and effort on caring for the boat and in the warm summer months you will notice boat owners working away on the towpaths. Historically, the artwork adorning the water cans and stern doors of these boats has been a great symbol of pride for the boatmen.

It’s hard to pinpoint the origin of the roses and castles style. One explanation draws on the similarities to the ornamental art of gypsy travellers, who would decorate their caravans in lavish colours and patterns. However, this wholesome and charming look is not the only one you will see on barges.

The Arty Barge

Whether a genius, contemporary art piece or the creation of a hoarding madman, there are things you will come across on barges around London that you can’t unsee. A plethora or weird and wonderful houseboat decorations and installations if you can call it that.

Some sporting rooftop allotments, others shabby-chic towpath-side gardens, no one can deny that there is a lot of creativity invested in the canal lifestyle. One quirky (or creepy) recurring element is mannequins, but you will also see a lot of found objects, bric-a-brac and figurines adorning many boats.

A quirky, decorated barge houseboat along the Grand Union Canal in Colne Valley, Uxbridge
A quirky, decorated houseboat along the Grand Union Canal in Colne Valley, Uxbridge © Art of Escapism

Where To See Narrowboats

The most accessible and pretty areas to witness the narrowboat lifestyle are around the Regent’s Canal near Victoria Park and Little Venice near Paddington

For fans of the Royal Family you might want to take a trip down to St Katharine Docks near Tower Bridge where you can usually find opulent and golden Gloriana – the Queen’s rowbarge commissioned for her Diamond Jubilee.

Gloriana - Queen Elizabeth's II rowbarge in St Katharine Docks, London
Gloriana – Queen Elizabeth’s II rowbarge in St Katharine Docks, London © Art of Escapism

If you do have more time however, it’s worth doing the 3,5 hr walk from Little Venice to Limehouse Basin along the Regent’s Park towpath. It’s a very picturesque walk with many great points of interest along the way as well as historic landmarks from London’s industrial past. And let’s forget the iconic Camden Market to stop by for food.

Other places to visit are the Hertford Union Canal, Limehouse Cut and Hackney Cut, although the latter two are significantly more industrial areas. Going further out of London, beyond the Hackney Cut you can follow the River Lea and the River Lee Navigation canal. This makes a rather lovely half-day hike and has more of a countryside feel. 

Narrowboats moored at the Limehouse Basin, London
Narrowboats moored at the Limehouse Basin, London © Art of Escapism

And even further out and very much in touch with nature, you can venture out to Rickmansworth and follow the Grand Union Canal through Colne Valley with a finish in Uxbridge. This is a nice and relaxed half-day walk with many canal locks and greenery.

Things To Do on A Barge

And there are plenty!

Barge businesses have become rather popular and you can find almost anything on them these days – from cafes and restaurants to barbers, cinemas and shops. If you want to find out more about specific ones read our article on the Fun Barges of London.

Another great activity is a canal boat tour and the oldest one, operating since 1951, is the Jason’s Original Canal Boat Trip departing from Little Venice.

Black cat sleeping on the roof of a houseboat along the Grand Union Canal in Colne Valley, Uxbridge
Black cat sleeping on the roof of a houseboat along the Grand Union Canal in Colne Valley, Uxbridge © Art of Escapism

You can also take a narrowboat trip through the 200-year old Islington Tunnel if you dare. There is a stretch on the Regent’s Canal around the Angel area, which does not have a towpath and you can only pass through the tunnel (alternatively walk on street level). It’s dark and spooky, an experience akin to finding yourself in a David Lynch film. There are many such tours, some more for a classic tourist, others for the party animal. Check out Hidden Depths Canal Cruises or Secret Adventures.

A narrowboat entering the Islington Tunnel on Regent's Canal, London
A narrowboat entering the Islington Tunnel on Regent’s Canal, London © Art of Escapism

For a refined experience check out Alfred Le Roy floating cocktail bar usually moored by Hackney Wick’s CRATE Brewery. Alfred is a restored wide beam canal boat and its name is a tribute to a 70s Belgian pub landlord. The boat is available for private hire, but on some weekends you can take a pre-organised cruise down the River Lea.

Canal boats on the River Lea in River Lee Country Park, London © Art of Escapism

And last but not least, if you’re up for a little adventurous stay, ditch the hotel and book yourself onto a barge. There are quite a few options on Airbnb, just filter your results for ‘Unique Stays’ and ‘Boats’. You can also check out some of the boats available on Beds Onboard.

For more London off-the-beaten-path itinerary ideas check out our list of Fun London Canal Boats to visit.

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