As the towpath of the Regent's Canal narrows to duck under the Camden Town Road bridge, I was trailing a Scottish family. Picknic basked in hand; their two wee lads are engaging in banter.
"What would you name your boat?"
"Hands" comes the reply from his brother, and he thrusts his hands enthusiastically in front of himself. Not a usual name for a boat, but to give him credit, I later heard him say his favourite dinosaur was "hands" too. So he might have had a fundamental problem with understanding hands. At this point, my mind had wandered and as I was walking past the rows of canal boats with decorative names painted diligently onto the sides, what would my boat me named. "Hands", "Lady Aperture", or "Unsinkable 2". The question in and of itself is irresistible to both young and old. To name a boat is to have a boat, and to have a boat means you can go anywhere! It is an adventure navigating the twists and turns of the canals, climb up locks and down rivers. It gives the expression 'armchair traveller' a whole new meaning when you can literally take your armchair with you travelling. And this wishful thinking is one reason I love the Regent's Canal so much.
Running from the River Thames, the Regent's Canal cuts across London's Northside. It traverses Mile End and along Victoria Park, into a tunnel at Islington before popping out near the back of King's Cross. It continues to Camden and eventually connects to the Grand Union Canal and Little Venice. From here the Grand Union Canal will link you to most parts of England. From Manchester to Greenwich, and Bristol to York there's not much you can't reach by canal boat.
The Regent Canal towpath has all sorts of walking, running, cycling and sitting to be had along it. Families out for a walk, tourists who have wandered off from the Camden Markets, friends having a picnic, houseboat owners coming home with shopping from the market. I lose count of the number of different languages I hear from those walking the path. Ahead of me, a couple of boats are awash with activity. Live music is playing, and people have spilt out of the boat and covered the towpath. Ahead of me, I read a sign saying "slow down, event ahead" and you had better heed their warning as their beautiful dog sometimes reaches the limit of its leach and creates a trip wire for the unexpected. Two boats that have been travelling in tandem for the last six months are at the heart of this hive of activity, the Village Butty and the Record Deck.
The girls working at the Village Butty are pressing oranges and lemons, creating wonderful cocktails from their fully licenced bar. A banjo playing friend of mine has asked me to pass the hat as they busk from the back of the boat. Casual strollers stop as they walk past for a few songs, grab a beer or homemade ginger ale and dance along to the music. Boats and gondolas slow down as they pass to take in the atmosphere and I try to spiderman my way across to them to elicit a coin in my hat from them. One of the owners lays down a wooden stomping board and starts to dance. The atmosphere is really communal - which makes sense when you realise they're more like a floating Village Hall than a bar, and not only do they host musicians, vaudeville acts and storytelling events, but they also have boat fire safety talks and tips on composting.
As I speak with the Record Deck, he tells me that he has been floating in tandem with the Village Butty for the past six months. Their styles seem to match, and they enjoy each others company. When I ask him what it is like to live on the canals a wry smile washes over his face. You can tell he loves it, and one needs to, life on the canals isn't always as glamorous as it looks. There is a lot of upkeep to stop the boats from ending up at the bottom of the canal, they're poorly insulated and need repainting every three years, drydocking every seven, and he does mention the small living space. I take a look inside and think back to when I used to live in 13m2 (140ft2) in Japan, or a girl I dated in Paris who lived in 8m2 (85ft2)... it really wasn't that bad in comparison. However, they both had running toilets. The biggest insult you could ever give a houseboat owner would be to use their restroom.
Downstream of Saint Pancras Lock, past the collection point for canal party boats (which always looks like they are decidedly not fun whatsoever) my desires were tingled. I caught a beautiful smell, from a somewhat unexpected place. The Hancock and Lane serve delicious coffee from a converted garbage collecting boat. The colourful Hungarian barista tells me the secret to their blend comes from the fact they use the canal water. All jokes aside though, it was one of the best cups of coffee I have ever had in London.
It has been quite a hot couple of days in London – yes, yes, even London gets hot sometimes – so I was quite happy to see a sign reading "Ice Lemonade - £1". I took a glass as the owners of the canal boat were readying their store; bringing chairs and books out of the hull and onto the roof of their boat, the Word on the Water. For years they were subjected to the same trading boat licence that saw them need to shuffle on from wherever there were moored every two weeks. In summer it wasn't too bad, but in winter they often ended up in industrial areas, soaked, and without a customer in sight. With such an array of eclectic books, it is sad to leave them boarded up. Luckily they were able to pressure the Canal Trust (not without some help from a few prominent authors), and they're now permanently moored at the Granary Square, a stone throw from King's Cross station. When the weather gets nice, they have poetry or musicians performing on the roof. You'll see tourists and locals alike riffling through the pages of Jack London or Noam Chomsky right from the quayside. But don't be surprised if the owners aren't paying much attention in their deckchairs, life flows slower now that they're permanently moored.
If you enjoyed the photography on this article and would like to learn from a professional photographer how to get the most from your camera, then join Aperture Tours who offers three and six-hour walking tours with a professional photographer along the towpaths of Regents canal, and all across London.
Author and Photographer: Alexander J.E. Bradley
Alexander is the founder of Aperture Tours: professional photography guided tours, designed to help you get the best out of your camera whilst exploring wonderful cities with a local. A professional photographer for over a decade Alexander enjoys shooting the surreal by mixing dreamlike qualities into his conceptual images.