Travel Story Walking London's canals: "Like walking past a floating art gallery"

Photo of Andy Tyndall

Taking a stroll along a section of London’s canals reveals another world.

Years ago a friend of mine lived on a canal boat in London. Occasionally we would jump aboard the little boat and chug along waterways for a different perspective on the metropolis.

We encountered small riverside pubs, long grassy fields lined with blackberries and, in the autumn, sloes. (Did you know it’s fun to add sloe berries and sugar to gin? Allow to fester for six weeks, open and approach with caution around Christmas time.) All of this within a few minutes of Paddington, where my friend’s boat was berthed.

I’m reminded of all this as I peer over a bridge crossing a canal in Ladbroke Grove.

Beneath me is a big barge grumbling up the canal. It is laden with an assortment of red and blue gas cylinders and yellow bags of firewood. I had forgotten about the other world, a subculture beautifully integrated into London life — and most of us unaware of its presence. 

London’s canal system is easy to access and well worth investigating. As canal boats were once towed by horses around England’s network of canals, a wide towpath along the water’s edge makes it easy to navigate on foot and bike.

On a crisp, spring-like day, I set off on foot from Harlesden, which is easy to reach on public transport. I am heading for central London.

It is a lovely walk. Peaceful, too. As soon as you dip down and away from the traffic, you enter a different world. Ducks and geese paddle on the slow- moving waters, there are birds in bushes and the occasional clank of work on one of the dozens of boats moored along the canal. 

There is a still, almost lazy feel: people reading books in the sun on the deck or roof of their boats or cycling gently to or from work.

And the boats, too: most are neat, tidy, colourful and often ingeniously decorated with flowers and iron art. It’s like walking past an ever-changing floating art gallery.

Canals, of course, pass the rear of what people see from the streets: gardens, allotments, waterside factories still sprouting forlorn hoists in the hope of loading barges long scrapped.

Closer to town the semirural nature changes. Pubs, cafes, a supermarket, apartments now line the banks and, close to Paddington a pumpin’ canal boat cafe/restaurant. A perfect spot to finish this section.

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