The Hampstead Road Lock sits amid a throng of ethnic food stalls, with open grills filling the air with the smell of barbecued meat and Eastern spices. Crowds of onlookers gather around the lock, watching the boats rise and fall in the wooden hold and shouting words of encouragement to the crews, who sometimes struggle to open the heavy gates and exit the lock smoothly.
All it takes to drive a narrow boat is desire — that and an hour of practice before setting off. There will be bumps along the way, but the pace is slow and the dangers are few. On this trip, Brian opened the gates of a lock while I drove the boat in and out of the hold.
About an hour down the Regent’s Canal from Camden, the Islington tunnel makes for a spooky 10-minute stretch of total darkness. Just before arriving at the 960-yard black hole, we’d picked up three local friends and their three kids at the London Canal Museum for a joy ride and lunch.
I usually love the eeriness of long tunnels, but between the kids shouting with excitement and a couple of run-ins with the wall, we were all ready for a pint of British ale when the sunlight finally hit our faces. Relaxing on the balcony of the Narrow Boat, a waterfront gastropub overlooking the canal, we indulged in a proper pub lunch of fishcakes and sausages. People, dogs, bicycles and boats moved jauntily along this trendy stretch of water, vibrant with graffiti art, modern architecture and Old World charm.
Pubs and cafes all along the London Ring invite boaters to moor up and stay a while. From Little Venice’s Summerhouse to Camden and Broadway Markets to the Olympic zone’s Hackney Pearl, some of London’s most festive summer watering holes and eateries line the canals.
Back at the Narrow Boat pub, we set our sights on conquering the next seven locks leading to Limehouse Basin while we still had willing friends and happy children. On the way out, we shared a laugh over a sign perched on the bar, offering plastic “go cups” for those finishing their drink on the canal. I thought I’d better not, so I chugged the remaining half-pint of pale ale in my glass and headed aboard Carli.
We dropped off our friends a few locks later, at Mile End Road, and continued south to Limehouse Basin, a massive junction where narrow boaters have the option of picking up a pilot and connecting to the Thames, returning the way they came or heading farther east on a new canal.
When we arrived at Limehouse, the air had chilled and a misty rain was falling. We didn’t know exactly what was ahead, but we agreed to stay on the canals. As our boat idled in the congested marina, Brian worked out a new course that would take us slightly off the map and eventually bring us back to our original track near Islington or Shoreditch.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked, putting the boat in gear.
“Absolutely,” I said. “What do we have to lose?”