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.

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?