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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.