One of my favourite areas of London is Little Venice, the meeting point of Regent’s Canal, Paddington Basin and the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal. It’s a lovely neighbourhood with the canal, its bridges, shady trees and patches of green surrounded by elegant town houses. There are several fine ale houses and a small theatre. Little Venice is a short walk from the Warwick Avenue tube station.
During summer, the canal here hosts small flotillas of brightly painted narrow boats, many of them lovingly detailed with traditional picture landscapes, ornate calligraphy and flower-filled pots decorating the decks.
I find seasoned mariner Andrew Watts busy adding spit and polish to his 18m narrow boat The Anna. He’s sailed to London from Penkridge in the country’s far north, a trip that took a fortnight. “I’ll probably take much longer to get back,” he tells me while applying a new coat of paint to his boat’s coal stove flue.
Timeless tinkering is an essential part of life aboard a canal boat. Anther hallmark of owners is an unbridled enthusiasm for matters traditional. “Much of the ornate decoratif seen on narrow boats dates back to the 17th Century,” Watts says, then shows me the tiny boatswain’s compartment lovingly recreated in period style, each wooden panel painted with a wildly colourful scene in miniature.
A couple from Cumbria are moored in nearby Paddington Arm. On board they have a fitted kitchen, bunks, comfortable armchairs, a dining table, a bar and a TV. They’re able to moor their quaint little home for 14 days at no charge, making it the best and cheapest way for them to visit London. “And if we stayed in an expensive hotel we couldn’t bring the dog.” Their terrier’s tail thumps the deck in approval.
White-whiskered Ron Andrews lives beside the Canal in tiny “Junction Cottage” beneath the Warwick Avenue bridge. “It’s a lovely sight”, he says, indicating all the boats moored nearby. “Things have changed. It’s now very fashionable to have a boat here. But I remember when all London’s rubbish came past here on its way from Paddington Basin to incinerators up north. That was not a pretty sight.”
Information and maps of the area are available from the British Waterways Canal Office in the former toll house beneath Westbourne Terrace bridge, a spot known as “Paddington Stop”. A water bus sails regularly from Little Venice through Regent’s Park to Camden Lock.