Luckily, I’d just finished stocking the boat’s galley and was standing on deck when we sailed over our first point of interest, the North Circular Aqueduct, where boats float high above a sea of red brake lights flashing on the motorway below. From that point, the excitement built as we continued to drive our version of Willy Wonka’s wacky boat through the chocolate-colored waterway, where empty cans of Red Bull bobbed like metal marshmallows and the smell of Indian curry wafted through the air.
Once we hit the fringe of London at Kensal Green Cemetery, Freddie Mercury’s final resting place, the scenery sweetened. Peaceful straightaways hedged by leafy vegetation gave way to bursts of culture. Sleek modern buildings clashed with old-world masonry, and clusters of colorful boats crowded the water’s edge. Three hours after shoving off, we found ourselves giddy as we approached romantic Little Venice.
“Is that a spot?” Brian said, motoring past the only mooring left in the quaint pocket of waterfront restaurants. Two women dining in an open window of the Summerhouse canalside eatery waved to us as we passed, smiling as if they knew what we’d missed. Five minutes later, we were leaving Little Venice. But not before I could snap some pictures of the adorable houseboats, flower boxes and bridges that give the neighborhood its name.
“We’ll hit it on the way back,” we agreed.
This reminded us not to pass up a good mooring, because narrow boats are too long to turn around in the slender canals. Turning around means searching for a designated turning spot, known as a winding hole, where the boat has room to change direction. At top speed, narrow boats go only about 4 mph, so finding the next winding hole can eat up an afternoon of exploration.
Rather than sleep beneath the weeping willows in the Venetian-inspired setting, we tied up at Paddington Basin, tucked between gleaming towers of glass and steel just outside Paddington Central, a multi-use work-live-play complex.
Before venturing out for dinner, I watched from Carli’s tartan-draped portholes as groups of high-heeled, mini-skirted clubgoers teetered along the cobbled path toward the heaving nightlife surrounding Paddington Central. Considering our laid-back accommodations, I opted for my Adidas, a lamb burger and a glass of Malbec at Smith’s Bar & Grill, a one-minute walk from where our boat was moored. Two long, low boats parked in front of Smith’s showcased the traditional, austere narrow boat aesthetic, which hasn’t changed much since the early days of canal commerce.
Narrow boats first emerged in the 18th century as the primary method of transporting goods such as coal and flour throughout Britain. They were designed with a narrow hull to squeeze through 7-foot-wide locks, which control the elevation and slope of the canals. Today, these lanky leisure barges mostly carry a cargo of boating enthusiasts and rule more than 2,200 miles of British waterways through such historic areas as Stratford-upon-Avon, Dover and London.
One of the best scenes for narrow-boat watching in London is Hampstead Road Lock in Camden Town, which was the first of 13 locks we hit on day two of our canal camping trip. Camden Town has a decidedly punk vibe; every third bloke sports a mohawk, and neon-flashing tattoo and piercing parlors line the main drag.