This feature was first published in the Guardian’s Travel section
I moved onto the water almost three years ago, and one of the best things about living on a boat is being close to nature. This morning I opened the curtains to see a cormorant swimming west-wards, fish like and gleaming, slowly followed by a gaggle of foraging Canada geese. The whole of London’s canal network is designated a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation – it’s a great place for wildlife spotting as well as people watching, a welcome blue-green space amid the capital’s grey.
You don’t have to be a boater to appreciate London’s navigable waterways, but living like this has encouraged me to explore places along less well-trodden towpaths. The usual canal-side attractions couldn’t be busier. Camden Lock, Little Venice, Broadway Market, that flurry of artisan eateries close to Kingsland Basin – all are bustling every weekend. But it is still possible to find some peace and quiet on the urban canal network.
1. Walthamstow Marshes
This Site of Special Scientific Interest lies low in the River Lea’s alluvial flood plain on a bed of silt, gravel and London clay. Over 400 species of plant have been recorded here, with 250 considered regulars. There’s meadow, reed bed and wooded thicket to explore, as well as marshland. Always open, you’re free to roam its paths and boardwalks. It’s one of London’s wildest places.
2. Limehouse Cut
Opened in 1770, this is London’s oldest canal. The poker-straight cut is almost two miles long and connects the Lee Navigation to the Regent’s Canal. Built up along its entire route, it’s a shady and tunnel-like passage. It’s not a desert though – if you walk along its towpath from Bow Lock to Limehouse Basin, you might spot cormorants or great crested grebes. Commercial operations ended at the Basin in 1969, and a modern marina was established in the 1980s. It now hosts around 90 boats, from humble barges to flashy yachts and great sailing ships.
3. Islington Tunnel
A hill lies in the Regent’s Canal’s path between Angel and King’s Cross. Instead of climbing over it via several locks, the waterway cuts straight through. It opened in 1820 and was renovated in 2000. There’s no towpath in the tunnel and in the early days horse-drawn barges had to be ‘legged’ through. The horse was led over the hill to meet the boat at the tunnel exit, while the vessel was propelled through by bargees lying on their backs and pushing it along with their feet. Later mechanised tugs replaced leg power, and then barges got engines of their own. Just under a mile in length, the Islington Tunnel is only accessible by motor boat. A number of organised tours cruise through, including one with a London Canal Museum guide. It runs on selected dates only, costs £8.40 for adults, £6 for kids, and booking in advance is advised.
4. Camley Street Natural Park
This two-acre park sits on the site of a Victorian coal drop, sandwiched between the Regent’s Canal and St Pancras Station. The drop allowed coal to be transferred from train to canal boat, cart or lorry so it could travel onward to multiple destinations around town. The site’s dirty working days long over, it has now been a London Wildlife Trust nature reserve for 30 years. It’s an intricate jungle of pond, marsh, meadow and woodland that interweaves with the canal, expanding out into the waterway with floating platforms and reed beds. The nature reserve even has its own barge moored by St Pancras Lock, home to a floating forest garden of fruit trees, bushes and herbs. It’s open everyday until 4pm in winter, 5pm in summer.
5. Kensal Green Cemetery
One of London’s ‘Magnificent Seven’, this canal-side cemetery hosts the likes of Harold Pinter, Wilkie Collins, Antony Trollope and the Brunels. The canal was once an integral part of operations: coffins and mourners would arrive by boat, dropped off at a specially built jetty. Aside from the screams of resident ring-necked parakeets, the older parts of the cemetery are quiet, crumbling into a romantic, ivy-laced collapse. The Friends of Kensal Green run a guided tour every Sunday at 2pm until the end of October, for a donation of £7.
6. Cowley Lock
It’s hard to believe this picturesque part of the Grand Union belongs to London. Close to both the Fray’s River and the River Colne, Cowley is also within walking distance of Little Britain Lake, so called because of its patriotic shape. The Malt Shovel pub, which has a large beer garden, and the Tollhouse Tearooms sit right beside the lock.