The waterway at Little Venice
Weeping willows sway and bend in the breeze as they lap at the water’s edge of two meeting canals. Canal boats, offering both tours and accommodation to those who make the water their life, move through the calm waters. It’s as though we’ve found a hidden city, tucked away inside the busy roads and residences at Maida Vale, just north of Paddington. This is the London version of Venice.
We had been to London many times before I finally realised I hadn’t really seen the canals. Locked away in the annals of my memory somewhere was an image of a hidden canal that we stumbled upon during a visit to Lords near St Johns Wood some years ago.
This time, I was determined to go and check them out. My investigations lead me to the discovery of London’s “Little Venice”. On reflections, it’s an area we’ve quite certainly circumnavigated before, without realising what was there.
Little Venice London
It’s a great find, tucked away in this busy city, and usually not something you’ll find on any first timers guide to London. This makes it a perfect “off the usual beaten path” activity for those who want to explore more of London.
The area is immediately surrounded by some very fancy looking mansions, with incredible gardens. It’s hard not to peer through the fences as we pass.
We start on the pretty light blue, wrought iron bridge, overlooking the area where the Grand Union and the Regents Canal meet. The Grand Union canal runs for 220 kilometres north-north-west of Little Venice until it reaches Birmingham. Regents Canal is almost 14 kilometres long, linking the Grand Union Canal to the Limehouse basin in the east, and ultimately, the Thames River.
In summer, this is the perfect place to be and if the weather is behaving itself, the area is alive with people. We were blessed with reasonable weather on the day we were here, so everyone was out enjoying a little sunshine. The towpaths, alongside the canals, were a hectic mix of bicycles, skateboards and people.
People running, strolling, walking with intent, reading, chatting, eating, and queuing. The queues belonged to the canal boats that run groups of people up and down the canals, mostly toward Camden Lock.
It’s quite a business to queue for these boats as they fill up fast and there’s a rather antiquated, inaccurate process of booking your voyage. More on that later. After some initial inquiries about the booking process and some observations both of numbers of people waiting to board the boat, we elected to go and find somewhere to eat lunch.
Places to eat in Little Venice
Whilst there are a number of places to eat close by, we couldn’t pass up the English pub, The Bridge, located just off the Westbourne Terrace Road Bridge. We were happy to try the beers from the local Camden draft range,
As always, I’m partial to a pale ale, full of hops, whilst Stirling went for a traditional lager. These ones actually came off a tap that was cold too. I love beer, but I’m not at all happy to drink it how the English do….warm.
The caesar salad was a good version of a modern salad with crunchy full slice croutons, moist chicken breast and a good supply of crispy bacon, amongst other additions.
The pea and watercress soup was light and full of flavour, the pepitas adding an unexpected crunch to it all.
Where: 13 Westbourne Terrace Road, Maida Vale, London
If you want to really get into the mood, the Waterside Cafe occupies a moored canal boat, right near the bridge. Elsewhere, the Prince Alfred offers more pub food and the Summerhouse does seafood. They can be found at:
Prince Alfred Hotel
5A Formosa Street, Maida Vale, London
60 Blomfield Road, Maida Vale, London
Regents Canal history
Long before motorised road transport and railways, canals were used as the transportation methods for many industries. Horse-drawn boats were pulled along the waterways, hence the name “towpath”. The Regents Canal was built to link the Grand Junction Canal through to the River Thames at the Limehouse Basin. The name Regents Canal was used to honour King George IV, who prior to his coronation was also known as Prince Regent.
Legislation was required to be passed first, in order to allow the canal to be built. The Regents Canal Act was formerly passed in 1812. The first portion of the canal, to Camden Lock (known officially as the Hampstead Road Lock), was opened in 1816, with the remainder opening in 1820.
During the 1840’s canal traffic started to decline, as the use of the railways ramped up. However, during World War Two, the canals were once again used as an alternative and contingency to trains. The towpaths ceased being used for horse-drawn boats in 1956, and by the 1960’s the canals had become a redundant commercial highway.
Today, like most of the canals in the UK and Europe, they are used as an important part of the tourism sector.
Regents Canal boat trip
There are three boat companies that run canal boat trips up and down the Regents Canal, but only two of them stop at Little Venice.
Jason is not the name of the tour operator, it’s the name of the 100-year-old canal boat. The canal boat season runs from roughly April to November but will be seasonally dependent. Jason will take customers up and down the canal, with a one-way trip taking approximately 45 minutes. A commentary is provided on board to highlight the key points of interest along the way.
The trip is direct from Little Venice to Camden (and return). There are no stops along the way where you can disembark.
Tickets may be purchased on the boat, with cash only or using the London Pass. No pre-bookings may be made. The internet site is useful only for updated timetable and pricing information.
London Waterbus Company
Moored across the canal from Jason’s Trip are the boats belonging to the larger business of the London Waterbus Company. The only real difference with taking these narrow boats for a ride is there is a stop along the way for the London Zoo. Tickets may also be purchased onboard for the zoo.
Their payment method is also the reverse, with no cash being accepted. Payment is by credit card only. They operate a similar timetable, no pre-bookings can be made and tickets are bought on the boat. Similarly, their canal boat website is only useful for updated timetables and ticket prices.
Tips that apply to both boats
If possible, know which boat you want to get on and the time it leaves either Camden Lock or Little Venice. Plan your trip to arrive here as early as you can as the queue gets out of control fairly quickly. I know it is customary for English people to queue, but others, like us, would prefer to sit in the pub and have another drink than wait for an hour in a queue.
The problem is if you don’t get into the queue line early enough and therefore get near the front, a few things can happen.
- With no pre-booking system, it’s a matter of first in, first served.
- Summertime is busy as are the weekends.
- There’s no efficient process for measuring the number of people in the queue and therefore unless you count them all yourself, you never really know whether you are going to make the cut or not.
- The queue you can see might not be the final queue. Family members and friends “hold the fort” for those who aren’t able to stand up or be out in the weather, and just come to the queue when it’s time to board, This makes it difficult to get an accurate gauge on how many are in front of you.
- The operator who is working with the queue and assisting with questions makes a concerted effort to continually count but we watched as her own numbers kept changing.
- We watched a family who was attempting their second time at queuing, having missed the cut on the previous boat, once again miss out.
- The boats only go from each location about four times a day, so if you miss one, it will be another 1.5 hours until it returns.
- Jason’s Trip has an overhead shade structure to protect those in the queue but the London Waterbus Company does not. There are also no areas to sit whilst you are waiting so if you have mobility issues this needs to be understood.
- The boats are narrow, two seats each side, with some side bench seats up the front. The boats seat about 50. If you want a better view, especially to take photos, again, it’s highly recommended to get on first so you can get a forward facing seat near the window.
- A security check of our bags was conducted at the Little Venice end as we boarded.
Cruising along Regents Canal
The boat ride along the Regents Canal is often a competing mixture of obvious wealth and neglect, but it all comes together to provide an honest view of life in a leading world metropolis.
Expensive neighbourhoods, sporting massive mansions line the banks. We are told by our tour guide that “some boats along here pay £100,000 pa to moor a boat” in certain parts of the canal.
There is also a growing trend in London of people on canal boats, once their source of affordable housing, being forced off the waterways as gentrification raises land (and water) values.
The boat takes us underneath the historically controversial Maida Vale tunnel. When the Regents Canal was being built, there was strong opposition to the route coming through this location and so a tunnel was built to remediate the issue. The building of the cafe that now affords diners a view of the canal boats also controversial.
Boating behind people’s houses always feels a bit voyeuristic to me, but I do enjoy seeing how people utilise their own patch of the water. The deck built out over the water was one of my favourites.
Regents Canal is home to many who permanently moor their boats here, and also to visitors who hire boats to cruise the canals on their holidays.
Walk the Regents Canal from Little Venice to Camden
Walking the towpath alongside the canals is just something that has to be done. With no traffic and narrow pathways, life slows down here as you walk alongside the canal boats that in turn push slowly through the water.
If it feels voyeuristic on a boat, it feels even more so when you are walking along the path. Oftentimes, it feels as though you are in someone’s backyard. Cyclists do use the towpaths, however, so you still need to have your wits about you.
There are certain times when you need to walk on the road due to maintenance works on the path and areas of private access only. It is usually signposted to let you know where to go.
Arriving at Camden Lock
You will know you have arrived at Camden when you see the hive of activity, especially if you are going there on the weekend. The end is signalled by the sight of the Dingwall Building and the double lock system, Camden Lock.
Camden is a lively mix of markets, food stalls, antiques, crafts, pubs, cafes and restaurants. It’s also an emerging street art location too. In our next article, we’ll bring you all the sights of this fascinating area.
How to get to Little Venice
Little Venice is easily accessible.
If coming by tube, the nearest station is Warwick Avenue, on the Bakerloo line between Paddington and Maida Vale. This will take 5-10 minutes to walk. Alternatively, you can walk from Edgeware Road Station, which will take approximately 15-20 minutes depending on your walking speed. It will also give you more of an opportunity to check out the surrounding neighbourhoods.
By train, the closest station is Paddington.
Buses connect from near Warwick Avenue and other tube stations.
Limited car parking is available in the streets around Little Venice (metered on weekends) but given how busy it can be, I’d suggest taking public transport.
Travelling to London? Click on the images below for resources with more information.