PS on last year’s Round London

I have just watched a delightful programme in which actors Timothy West and Prunella Scales circumnavigated central London in a narrow boat from Black Prince, the same as the holiday we blogged on last year. It was, however, surprising when Timothy announced in Limehouse Basin that hired narrowboats are not allowed on the river: not so.

We went up the Thames from Limehouse at the same time as  several other Black Prince boats last May. The only condition was that someone on board had to have a VHF/DSC licence and a handheld radio hired from the company, which was fine, as three of us had licences. At least one of the other boats, a group of Norwegian holidaymakers, hired a pilot, and I assume that was negotiated with the company.

So don’t be put off: the exciting river passage was perfectly possible unless they drastically changed the rules between May and the summer when the episode of Channel 4’s Great Canal Journeys seems to have been filmed.

Timothy and Prunella met Andrew Sachs – Manuel from Fawlty Towers to Prunella’s Sybil – on a Regents’ Canal stop, an excuse for old clips from the show. From Limehouse, they did the Thames section of the circumnavigation in a fast river launch.

Circumnavigation complete – back to base via the River Brent

This is the day we complete the circumnavigation of London by returning to base (though south Londoners might take exception to putting it that way). We cruised slowly up the canalised River Brent, which was green and leafy, the birdsong interrupted only by the roar of traffic as we approached the bridge carrying the M4 over the canal.


Soon, we were into the locks, tackling 10 altogether, 6 of them in a single flight. We had lunch in a basin between two locks.


By the time we got to the top lock, we had a pretty good system going, with two people walking ahead to prepare the next lock. At the top lock we paused for a group photo (below). The two boats crewed by Norwegians were close behind, racing through the locks, almost catching us at the top.

Finally, we stopped half a mile from the marina and walked 10 minutes to the restaurants of Southall where, after a stroll to look in the windows of the fabric, jewellery and cake shops, we had a splendid meal in Gifto’s Lahore Karahi.

Next morning we moved the boat into the marina, packed and left. We discovered that the Norwegians had come specially for the round-London cruise. Black Prince has bookings for London from as far afield as South Africa and New Zealand.

Altogether a great holiday on our own back doorstep, seeing London from a completely different perspective.

Limehouse to Brentford with the tide

We’ve booked the lock into the Thames for 1130, to catch the last couple of hours of the tide, which will sweep us up the river. (The boat goes so slowly that it would hardly move if it tried to fight the tide). Three other Black Prince boats head for the lock, with a shared professional pilot, but one turns back because of engine trouble. We head out into the Thames, giving our plan to Thames VTS (traffic control) on VHF channel 14, and head for Tower Bridge.



We intend to go through the centre span but as we approach a white light starts flashing which is the signal that a large craft needs it, so we divert to the right hand span as a small coaster looms behind us.

We pass the Tower and all the other sights of central London’s riverside, while concentrating hard on the currents which swirl round every obstruction and moored craft, at the same time reading the bridge by bridge pilotage guide – sadly no longer in print.

Ben took time off from work nearby to take pictures of us as we went past HMS President.

Then we passed the London Eye and parliament, where there is a 70 meter exclusion zone for boats.

The bridges became easier as the traffic eased and the number of darting river buses fell – their stops alternate sides of the river. The first complication was Battersea Railway Bridge, where we had to call Bridge Control for permission to pass because of the extensive work being done on the bridge.

Two Black Prince boats rented by Norwegians, which had left Limehouse with us, overtook as we approached Chiswick.

Chris steered the last leg up to the entrance to the River Brent and the tidal lock.


We wound our way up the narrow river, crowded with moored barges, to the Gauging Lock at Brentford, where we went through into the canal basin and moored for the night. Susannah brought Tom and Ella-Rose to see the boat.

And this is the photo Ben emailed of us passing The Globe.

Dinner on board.

Parkland route to Limehouse

Rainy, grey start, up early but not before the joggers, charging along the towpath at 6.30.

Some curious little places carved out of the Hackney canal bank, such as this tiny terrace under an arch leading to a filled-in basin, seen through rain drenched windows. As we passed the delightful Victoria Park, we saw these ramshackle but pretty back gardens on the other side.

Then we turned down the short Hertford Union, and went along another side of Victoria Park towards the Olympic site.


We turned right into the River Lee, where there are cool looking cafes opposite the stadium and a transformed salmon smokery (below), now with a restaurant.

Later, we passed under a piece of engineering that saved uncounted lives by making the city healthier: Bazalgete’s 19th century main sewer, which took (and still takes) London’s waste to be processed at Bacton.

Shortly after we got a glimpse of the match girls’ factory, scene of a famous strike in the 1880s, now an apartment block.

Somewhere near the photo below, we were told, the arch of Euston station was dumped after it was demolished.

Below is Europe’s largest tide mill, part restored, with much original machinery. It is on Three Mills Island and volunteers open it to the public on Sundays.

We reached Bow Lock, which joins the navigation to the tidal River Lee, but rather than take it we turned down Limehouse Link, a short straight canal leading jnto Limehouse Basin,where we will stay the night.

Chris at the helm as we come into Limehouse Basin. We were met by Ian, an engineer from the company that built the barges, and he sorted out the electrical problem that has stopped the lavatories working – great relief, as it were, all round.
Georgia joined us for dinner at The Grapes, a small ancient pub on the river’s edge with a splendid view of the river. The actor Ian McKellen is part owner of the pub.


For once-poisonous industrial backwaters, the London canals have developed into a haven for fish, birds and waterside plants. The most striking thing is the enormous numbers of Coots, with a pair breeding every couple of hundred yards in some parts. In the messier places, and especially the River Lee and the Limehouse cut, they were retrieving all sorts of floating rubbish to build their nests, so they were cleaning the waterway. What is it that makes them so successful in London? Why are they much more numerous than moorhens? Have the bigger coots driven them out?

Through Islington tunnel

We went through the Islington Tunnel, 960 yards long, running under Chapel Market.





…and then lunch at the Narrowboat near City Road Basin, once a traditional pub but now a restaurant with bar. Here are five of the crew back in the cockpit getting ready to head for Hackney.

The area round City Road basin is being transformed:

Past Kingsland Basin – a few years ago a rather scruffy basin full of narrowboats, now a smart new development of flats with the narrowboats moored neatly to new pontoons – and on to Broadway Market, which has bars, bookshops and small restaurants. We moored by a graffiti-strewn wall close to the bridge.
Good dinner in The Dove, a pub on Broadway Market with the longest list of beers (mainly Belgian) I have ever seen. They do moules frites among other dishes. Will and Faye joined us after dinner and came back to the boat for a drink.
Forward lavatory pump not working – the bane of all boating holidays.

Little Venice to The Guardian

Three ex-Guardian journalists on board, so where else can we head for than Kings Place, the new offices overlooking Kings Cross marina and the Canal Museum. Skipper’s son and grandson joined the crew for a while. Here they are going through the Maida Hill tunnel.

Next, behind the line of new fake classical mansions in Regents Park (for oligarchs?).

Then past Lord Snowden’s aviary in London Zoo and a sharp left turn by the floating Chinese restaurant.


Finally, to Camden Lock, our first on this trip, where we met Brian and Linda Reynolds (left and centre, with Chris) cousins from Las Vegas, who are on holiday in London.

Lunch was from the market stalls – between us we chose Ethiopian, French, Spanish and Thai. Special note: I overheard a tourist explaining to his girlfriend how complicated the locks were “but these people have been doing it all their lives”.
After lunch we waved goodbye to the Reynolds and went through three locks to a towpath mooring between the University of the Arts, in its newly converted canal side buildings, and the Guardian offices at Kings Place. The garage opposite our mooring, now called The Filling Station, is for the moment a smart pop-up bar and restaurant.

Chris and David take us through the lock before Kings Cross. The preserved (and listed) gasometer is behind.

Rainy Day in London Town – or A Splendid View of the North Circular

Rain forecast all morning, so wet weather gear and a stoical attitude called for, with half hour watches steering. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to find that there are no locks until Camden, which we won’t reach until tomorrow. Camden is the end of a 27 mile lock-free stretch before a gradual descent to the Thames at Limehouse.
The best surprise was that far from cruising an industrial wasteland we were actually spending much of the time in a green corridor through London, sheltered by trees, with a profusion of wild flowers, certainly as far as Wembley and Alperton. Even in the industrial and retail parks of the North Circular and further in, there’s a May-time profusion of greenery and flowers along the canal itself.

And what can be more detached from normal London than standing on the boat above the North Circular (did you know there was an aqueduct crossing it near Hangar Lane? I didn’t) watching the traffic below. To complete the drama, there was a flash of lightning and a gigantic crash of thunder as we stopped the boat to take the photo.

Little Venice: quiet night moored three boats out from the shore, because it is so crowded here – not surprising, because it is so pretty. We ate at an excellent little Lebanese restaurant called Amoul’s Hideaway.
Subtle changes in the neighbourhood with high walls and gates appearing and security guards outside some of the houses. (Russian owners?)

Cruise by tube

The London circuit
The London circuit

This is a map of our next cruise: a circumnavigation of London using the Paddington Branch and Regents canals, with a detour to see the Olympic Park via the Hertford Union, the Lee Navigation and Limehouse cut, then the River Thames from Limehouse to Brentford and back to our starting point via the Grand Junction Canal.

We have just had the cheapest ever holiday fares – zero – as we got the tube to Greenford and a bus to Tesco’s car park using our Freedom Passes, before a short walk to Willowtree Marina. We were expecting an industrial backwater, but nothing of the sort: a neat marina with a bar and restaurant, surrounded by trees. Evie is the barge’s name, 70 feet long but still a squeeze at 7ft 6 in wide.

Here’s the captain (David, right) and crew, waiting for what turned out to be a splendid takeaway from an Indian restaurant in nearby Southall.