London's little secret

For those of you who have never been to London or don't know what to see next or are looking to get away from the hustle and bustle from the City for a quiet moment: I'd recommend Jason's Trip.
No, it's not a little hidden, clandestine shop in Camden selling hallucinogenic mushrooms.
Jason is the name of a century old canal boat that was used as a cargo transport before it was fitted with an engine and converted to hold passengers. Before they were driven out of business by the faster means of transport by railway. Absolutely anything was shipped by canal (Coal, gunpowder, timber, grain, ice,...). Canal boats could carry an average 30 tons at a time with only one horse pulling (more than ten times the amount possible with a horse drawn cart over land). If you want a little sample of how it looked in those days, watch the The Wench Is Dead episode from the Inspector Morse series, or alternatively visit the London Canal Museum.

You can either board Jason at Jason's Wharf (in Little Venice) or at Camden Lock (stop off opposite Cafe Crema). A one way trip takes about 45 minutes. If you are too early for departure, take a short stroll down to the Little Venice basin and stop at The Waterside Cafe. They do excellent egg rolls and have delectable no-nonsense coffee. In a large mug. And plenty of it.

The narrow boat tour starts out with a little information about what a narrow boat is (not a barge), why it was used, a brief history on the canals and how a boat was propelled prior to the invention of the diesel engine...

As you glide into the Regent's Canal you pass a toll point. Fees for using the canal and horses had to be paid here. Most are privately owned now, but there are still a good few of them scattered along the canal.
About half a mile east towards Camden, underneath the picturesque Café Laville, the Maida Vale Tunnel is located. This small tunnel is just big enough to let a single narrow boat navigate through. When we wanted to enter, a garbage scooping contraption from British Waterways was already traversing the artificial underground passage and we had to wait to give way.
Those floating garbage collectors always remind me of the scene in Amsterdamned where a similar canal maintenance device drags up a body. But not in this case. Not a hack saw job by a mad diver in sight.

In the early days of the water highways there was no engine to propel the narrow boats, horses drew them along the towing path (last one as late as 1956). When the vessels had to enter the tunnel, the stepper could not follow (there is only one tunnel with a tow path inside along the route we sailed). So in order for the boat to get through people had to 'leg it'. They had to lie on their backs on planks and keep the boat moving by walking; pushing on the wall with their legs.
There are still a lot of marks left by the horses' ropes in stones on bridges. Some have metal plates to protect the brickwork, these display similar wear stigma.

The urban planning for the Regent's Canal was designed by John Nash.
He first intended to have the Regent's Canal run through the middle of the Regent's Park. According to folklore he thought the bad language of the Navvies (short for nautical engineers) might offend the sophisticated residents of the area so he changed his plans. He intended to build over 50 villa's, only eight were actually built.
As we glide onward amid the quiet green rustling leaves and picturesque jetties, a cluster of beautiful white mansions appear to our right. These were built according to Nash's original designs but executed decades after he had first drawn them. Built during the late 1980's and early 90's, these properties are off the mark when talking about lease prices.
Next bridge to pass under is officially called Macclesfield Bridge. Its nickname 'Blow Up Bridge' derives from an incident in 1874. A boat carrying gunpowder blew up beneath it. Althought the bridge was destroyed, its supporting columns were saved. Rope marks indicate the columns were placed upside down, the grooves can be seen on both sides.

We continue our nautical adventure. As we cut right through London Zoo, no animals are visible. Only some signs warning us for 'Dangerous Animals'. The only mammals to be seen are humans. To the left the famous Aviary, now listed as a Grade II, designed by Lord Snowdon.

St John's Wood church trickles through the trees. Some anglers are enjoying the nice warm sun. The water flow of the canal is controlled, water quality is excellent and the canal is teeming with fish and very diverse wildlife.

It is striking how different the pace of life is here on the canal. The boat's top speed is around 5 mph. While we are boating along at a gentle pace, London traffic is standing still just a couple of yards away.

Before mooring in Camden Lock, we pass the Feng Shang, a hidious floating Chinese restaurant and the famous The Pirate Club. When constructed a license to crennelate (put crenels on top of the building) had to be sought from the Queen.
The canal hasn't changed at all since last time I took this boating trip, and that has been well over a decade now.
After a short while Camden Lock pulls into view. Boating folk are operating the lock, another narrow boat from the Waterbus Company turns and manoeuvres just in time for us to see just how much skill is involved in turning the boat around.
Weather is fine and I am looking forward to an invigorating pub lunch and a pint of Strongbow...

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