EXPLORING the north London canal network used to be a question of strolling down towpaths, avoiding potholes and trying to ignore the litter and rubbish floating past.
But in recent years, through a concerted effort by British Waterways and narrow boat enthusiasts, Camden and Islington are well-served by a clean and safe waterway that meanders through the area, providing a haven for wildlife.
While many use the towpaths for jogging, the industrial heritage of the waterways themselves are of increasing interest.
There are various options for exploring the canals from the water.
The Tarporley, a community narrowboat that offers low-cost trips for clubs, schools and groups, is run by volunteers. Based in Kings Place, King’s Cross, it is also available for private hire.
The Tarporley was built in 1937 by a firm in Cheshire, commissioned by the Grand Union Canal Carrying Company by WJ Yarwood, and their experience and quality shows today – the boat has a steel-riveted hull and 12 berths for sleeping.
John Sheridan is the chairman of the Camden Canal and Narrowboat Association (CCNA), which manages the boat. It was bought by Camden Council in 1972 and had various uses when under Town Hall ownership. “As well as recreation for schools and community groups, they also held lessons on it for young people who today would have been sent to pupil referral units,” says John.
With a full-time skipper on board, groups could be taken out of London on weekend trips, up the Lea navigation towards Hertfordshire, or along the Thames, entering at Limehouse.
In 1998, a group of volunteers set up the CCNA and took over the Tarporley for community uses and is also available for private hire.
The 72-foot boat has all you need to explore the urban waterways, and you can enter the Thames at Limehouse and head upstream, before completing what is known as the London ring at Uxbridge and then heading eastwards again back to the start.
The Black Prince is based at Willow Tree Marina, near Greenford. A trip here takes you through parts of London that you will feel you know well – yet have never seen from this angle. It is like watching a golden oldie of a favourite film in 3-D – a strange and exhilarating experience.
Whilst the canal is often associated with a sense of urban decay, nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact it will make you consider the resilience of nature: the canal does not look like a man-made cargo highway, but now more of a Swallows and Amazons-type waterway that Arthur Ransome might have written about.
Furthermore, as with the Thames, the waters are now much cleaner than they have been for many years – in the case of canals, perhaps ever. Victorian industries no longer tip their waste directly in to the canal, and the proof is in the clear waters. At the Paddington Basin, you can see the bottom, 8 to 10 feet down, and shoals of fishes dart pass you: as we turned at Cumberland Basin – where the floating Chinese restaurant plys its trade – we watched anglers nonchalantly pulling large specimens from the waters.
At a leisurely rate, heading from Willow Tree Marina into Camden takes the best part of a day.
It’s a wonderful, gentle trip, without a lock to negotiate en route, and plenty of quiet stops for overnight stays.
The boats from Willow Tree are well kitted out and the driving is easy. Within minutes you’ll master the steering – my seven-year-old had a go and we quickly began bickering over whose turn it was. With large, comfortable beds, a power shower, a well-equipped galley and dining area and all other mod cons, the craft are homely boats that will allow you to indulge – in comfort – every Humphrey Bogart African Queen fantasy.
Boat owners Black Prince Holidays have marinas all over the country.
Already people are booking berths for next year’s Olympics – the canal goes right down to the Olympic Park. But for those in Camden and Islington, to be able to come into the area from another direction is a wonderful journey in itself.
Through Regent’s Park you get to gaze at the back gardens of John Nash Terraces, and admire the zoo from a fresh perspective.
For anyone with a passing interest in architecture, this is an extraordinary trip – from the tunnels and bridges where the sweat of navvies is apparent in the careful brickwork, to the numerous warehouses that have found new uses for 21st-century flats and offices.
At Paddington Basin, Sir Terry Farrell’s complex has created a new public space, while his work re-appears at Camden Lock, too.
If you have the time, travelling from Camden to King’s Cross and beyond brings you into an urban idyll that offers a strange tranquility.
Gorilla Flying Trapeze School
Look! No hands! Launched two years ago, the Gorilla Flying Trapeze School is one of only two flying trapezes in the UK open to the public, and the only circus school in London that takes place outdoors.
The school is currently in Regent’s Park, offering Try ’n’ Fly tasters – a single swing – and longer lessons where participants will learn a trick and have the chance to go for a catch. Gorilla Circus is also working with local authorities to run subsidised workshops for young Londoners.
The two-hour classes are open to all ages – the youngest students are aged 6, and the oldest (so far) 78. Students start with a warm-up then move on to practice a simple trick on our low bar. They then attempt the trick on the Flying Trapeze and towards the end of the class get caught by a catcher on a separate swinging bar.
Most classes are run on a one-off basis, the more classes you take the more advanced tricks you can perform. Those who discover they are born to fly may be able to join the weekly intermediate class.
• Gorilla Circus Flying Trapeze Classes, run until Sunday August 21, £22.50, Monday-Friday 4.30pm and 7pm, Saturday and Sunday 11am and 1.30pm, Regent’s Park, Chester Road, NW1, 020 8144 5329, www.gorillacircus.com
V&A Museum of Childhood
A series of Funky Fridays will run throughout the summer holidays. Choose from:
Mog with Judith Kerr (July 29, 2.30pm-3.15) Author and illustrator Judith Kerr talks about her popular series of Mog books and reads from The Tiger Who Came to Tea. Bookings taken from Monday 18 July. All ages.
Tiger Tea Party (August 12, noon-4pm). A "rip-roaring afternoon" based on The Tiger Who Came to Tea, with tea tasting, tiger face painting and tiger-themed arts & crafts.Drop-in (space is limited for some activities). All ages.
Feline Festival (August 19, noon-4pm). Feline fun, dressing up as a cheetah, tiger, lion or leopard, with music and games. And look out for a “Cat Walk” prize. Drop-in. All ages.
Sketch, Scribble, Squiggle (August 26, noon-4pm). And afternoon of sketching drawing, with inspiration from Rebecca Fortnum's pencil portraits of children. Drop-in (space is limited for some activities). All ages.
• V&A Museum of Childhood, Cambridge Heath Road, E2, 10am-5.30pm Monday-To book, or for more information about any of the events listed call 020 8983 5205 or email email@example.com
The museum in Camden Town is running a whole summer of children’s activities relating to the current exhibition, Entertaining the Nation:
Children’s Tour of Entertaining the Nation: Stars of Music, Stars and Screen exhibition (July 25, 27, 28, August 2), plus discovery trail to explore new things, look and draw and solve puzzles. 2pm, free with museum admission.
Messy Play (July 26) Creative play in a “mess-friendly” space, exploring museum objects with songs, stories, art and dressing up. Includes an under-fives “touch-tour” through the galleries. 11am, free with museum admission
Please Touch! (August 3, 10, 17, 24, 31). Touch, open and even smell objects as artefact detectives, using your skills to handle objects and find out about them. 11am, free with museum admission
Animate this! (August 10). Animation workshop with artist Emily Candela exploring the art of camera-less film-making. Cut and paste from old 8mm movies and draw images directly onto film stock, then enjoy a screening of our handmade cinematic masterpiece. All ages. 2pm, £10 including free entry to the galleries.
Puppet Making Workshop (August 17). Join artist Avigal Rachel Pommert to design and make a puppet character. Then take the stage in the Entertaining the Nation exhibition. Age 4-plus, 2-4pm, free with museum admission. Advance booking recommended
Young Film-makers’ Studio (August 22-24). Join filmmaker Kevin Biderman for three days of intensive film-making, and post the creation online. 11 to 15-year-olds. Take vegetarian lunch.11am-3pm, £50, advance booking required
The Circus is here! (August 25). Try your hand at some amazing circus skills including juggling, diabolo, spinning plates, stilts and poi, led by professional circus performers. 11am workshop for 4 to 8-year-olds, 2pm workshop for 9 to 13-year-olds, £10 including free entry to the galleries.
The Theatre of Recycled Art (August 31). Create your very own theatre, complete with actors and scenery, all out of recycled and reused materials – worth bringing boxes and plastic bottles. Age five-plus, 11am, free with museum admission. Booking recommended.
Sing Along Oliver! (August 28). Join singer and actress Claire Benjamin for an afternoon singalong to the famous songs from Oliver! 3pm, £8.50 adults, £4.50 children including free entry to the galleries.
Young London Navigators
London Transport Museum is running a six-week summer of fun with it’s Young London Navigators programme, starting on July 25. Families can complete a six-part challenge.
The event is part of the museum's new exhibition Sense and the City: smart, connected and on the move which explores how technology is changing the way we access and experience London and looks at past visions of the future.
Week 1 starts with building a vehicle using card, glue – plus a bit of engineering. In Week 2, using maps from the museum’s collection, plot a route across a gigantic map of London. Week 3 is a construction challenge to find different ways to cross the Thames. Week 4’s task is to build a mini observatory tower using household objects. Week 5 involves designing safety features for the vehicle built in week 1. And in Week 6 the challenge is to help build a city of the future, filling the giant map with buildings, vehicles, people and pets.
All the workshops – suitable for age 5 upwards – take place from 12-3pm.
Throughout the six weeks Mini London Navigators can also enjoy storytelling and singing sessions. Suitable for under 5s, 11am every Tuesday and Thursday from July 26-September 1.
• London Transport Museum, Covent Garden Piazza, WC2, Admission to the museum and family activities are free to accompanied children under 16. Adults £13.50 (£10 concessions) and tickets allow unlimited admission for 12 months. Saturday to Thursday 10qm-6pm (last admission 5.15pm), Friday 11am-6pm (last admission 5.15pm), 020 7379 6344, www.ltmuseum.co.uk
A summer season of activities at Keats House includes a charming Teddy Bear’s Picnic. Join in favourite songs, poems and stories in the Keats House Garden. But don’t forget to bring your favourite teddy bear! Suitable for children 5 and under. From 3-3.45pm on Wednesdays July 27, and August 3, 10, 17, 24 and 31.Free.
House Detectives can explore Keats House and follow a story trail, ending the afternoon with crafts and colouring in. This activity is free but must booked in advance. From 2-4pm on Thursdays August 4, 11, 18 and 25.
For green-fingered families, there is a series of Nature’s Observatory workshops exploring the Keats House Garden. Each activity will focus on a different aspect of the garden, from mini-beasts to birds, flowers to trees. Contact the house for more details. The workshops are free but must be booked in advance. Nature’s Observatorys take place from 11am-noon on Wednesdays August 3, 10, 17 and 24.
• Keats House Museum, 10 Keats Grove, Hampstead, NW3, 020 7332 3868, www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/keatshousehampstead
Y Active Playscheme
There’s more to Central YMCA’s Y Active Playscheme than keeping fit and active through multi-sports and swimming – it’s also is a great way to keep the kids entertained, with activities on and off the club premises including cooking sessions with the resident chef, jewellery-making, and an outing to Mudchute Park and Farm.
The Playschemes are designed for children 5 and 14 years, and are run under the careful supervision of qualified play leaders, trained staff and sports coaches.
The main Playscheme programme runs between 10am and 4pm with registration from 9.30am. There are two further options: Earlybirds, 8.30am-9.30am, involving children in “quiet” activities and watching films; and Twilighters, from 4-5.30pm. This last session of the day is spent playing board games, watching films and reading. These are available at an added cost.
The Summer Playscheme begins on Monday July 25, and there are still a limited number of places available.
Booking forms are available at Central YMCA’s reception or can be downloaded from the website below.
All children taking part in any Y Active programme must be a member.
Places can be booked either weekly or for individual days throughout the holiday. Prices start from £23.50 per day with weekly rates and concessions also available.
• Y Active Playscheme, Central YMCA, 112 Great Russell Street, WC1, 020 7343 1724, ymcaclub.co.uk/yactive
They were regulars in Mario’s Cafe on Kelly Street, Kentish Town – and even written a song in its honour.
• Camden Canals and Narrowboat Association offer the Tarporley for hire with a skipper, 90 York Way, N19, 020 8776 9890, bookings@ camdencanals.org, www.camdencanals.org
• Black Prince Narrowboat Holidays, 01527 575115, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.black-prince.com. London base is at Willowtree Marina, West Quay Drive, Yeading, Middlesex UB4 9TB, 020 8841 6585, email@example.com
• The Angel Community Canal Boat Trust run the Angel II of Islington, a purpose built 72-ft narrowboat. Suitable for all ages and abilities. Groups of up to 12 can book for a day or part-day; or residential bookings for one night to a week.Day trips from City Road Basin, Islington, to Little Venice, through a 960-yard tunnel dating from 1820. Stops off at the zoo, Camden Market, Victoria Park. Residential trips include going up the River Lee to Broxbourne, or to Denham Country Park, Uxbridge; longer trips take in Bishop’s Stortford. Angel Community Canal Boat Trust, 07983 319 752 / 020 7490 5125, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.angelboat.org
• The Canal Museum run summer tunnel trips from the museum through Islington tunnel and back on certain Sundays on the Tarporley; on every Tuesday in August the museum runs children’s activity days for 6 to 12-year-olds. Activities vary from a treasure trail around the museum, ice cream-making, art activities, and always include a short trip on the Regent’s Canal. The Canal Museum, Battlebridge Basin on the Regent’s Canal, 12-13, New Wharf Road, King’s Cross, N1. 020 7713 0836, www.canalmuseum.org.uk
• The Pirate Castle offers water and land-based activities for individuals and groups. They run a drop-in holiday activity scheme – just turn up on the day for canoeing, kayaking, bell boating, narrowboating as well as table tennis, pool in the club room which also has a computer suite. £8 per day, or £4 concessions (£2 for One Housing Group residents). Week days 10.30am-3.30pm. Saturday 2-4pm.
The Pirate Club and Comedy School will be joining forces from August 22-26, offering young people a challenging and creative week of acting, improvisation, stand-up comedy, video projects.
Full details of the holiday activity scheme and the special comedy school week from The Pirate Castle, Oval Road, NW1, 020 7267 6605, www.thepiratecastle.org
• London Canal Cruises run day trips to City Road and Islington Tunnel, Canal Museum and St Pancras, Camden Lock, London Zoo and Regent’s Park, Little Venice, Paddington Basin, and longer cruises. London Canal Cruises, 63 Salisbury Road, High Barnet, Hertfordshire EN5 4JL, 020 8440 8962 / 07710 420022,
Published: 14 July, 2011
by DAN CARRIER