London: Boating on London's canal system

"Give way to everything" is the crux of the safety briefing at GoBoat's headquarters in Paddington Basin. London's canal system might not be the industrial thoroughfare it once was but there are still plenty of things to trouble the first-time boater. Fortunately, the top speed of the vessel I'll be captaining is only 6.5 km/h, so even if I do hit something, I shouldn't do much damage. At least that's the theory.

Founded in Copenhagen, GoBoat opened this London branch last year. From its base near Merchant Square, it's a a five-minute pootle from the junction of two major canals. Turn right and you're on Regent's Canal towards Camden Lock; go left and you're following the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal towards Kensal Green. 

Surprisingly, you don't need a licence to hire a boat and you can BYO food and drink (although there are limits and the captain must remain sober). For those without the resources or inclination to make a picnic (like me), there's also the option to purchase a hamper of Scandinavian delicacies from local restaurant, Kupp.

Orientation complete, we set off, remembering to stay on the right side of the channel as we chug towards Browning's Pool, where the two canals meet. Given the potential for mishaps here, I'm half expecting traffic lights but instead there's a very English roundabout.

We turn right and follow a scenic stretch of the canal lined with trees and colourful narrow boats. I suspect many permanent house-boaters weren't too thrilled about the GoBoat invasion but to their credit they don't show it – most people nod affably as we cruise past. 

Soon we reach the trickiest part of the trip, the Maida Hill tunnel. This narrow 248-metre-long tunnel is only wide enough for one boat at a time so you have to ensure it's clear before entering. At first, motoring through the dark, dripping underpass towards a distant pinprick of light feels a little spooky. But gradually the experience takes on an intrepid Famous Five-esque air (well, as intrepid as is possible while travelling at walking pace and eating a smoked salmon sandwich).

Emerging from the subsequent 48-metre-long Eyre's Tunnel, we're greeted by Regent's Park and nine gorgeous riverfront villas, one of which is Winfield House, the residence of the US ambassador.

After passing under Blow-up Bridge (so named because a barge carrying gunpowder blew up here in 1874), the canal skirts a large aviary of exotic birds in London Zoo.

One important GoBoat stipulation is you can't stop or moor along the way. At first I thought this was unnecessarily restrictive but on reflection it makes sense (not only is mooring tricky but your boat could get nicked). And as it turns out, the real joy comes from the journey. On this autumn Sunday morning the canal path is busy with joggers and dog-walkers while on the water we encounter kayakers, stand-up paddle boarders and even a shirtless gondolier. There's a surprising amount of wildlife, too, including swans, Eurasian coots and Canada geese.

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When we reach the turnaround point at Camden Lock, we stumble upon an unexpected celebration. This fashionable part of London is a magnet for brunchers, boozers and – today, at least – Baptists. An enthusiastic congregation is singing and clapping while two young men are dunked in the canal. The things you see messing about in boats.

TRIP NOTES

Rob McFarland was a guest of GoBoat and Visit Britain.

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traveller.com.au/london

visitbritain.com

BOAT

Merchant Square, Paddington. Open daily, 9am until dusk. Boats fit up to eight people and rates start at £59 for one hour. See goboat.co.uk

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