London Museum (mini) Challenge 2014 #2: London Canal Museum

November 8, 2014 § 4 Comments

London Canal Museum

London Canal Museum

London’s canals – specifically, the Regent’s Canal – have been one of my favourite things in the entire city for most of the time I’ve lived here, starting when I first discovered the elegant bend of canal snaking along the northern curve of Regent’s Park nearly 15 (!) years ago.

For a long time the only stretch I knew was the section that runs between Camden Lock and Little Venice, and it was where I’d go when I needed quiet, inspiration, exercise (I prepared for walking the Dingle Way by walking the canals, which sounds counterintuitive but was surprisingly effective) or simply the sense of escaping the bustle of London. Then, just last year, I started exploring new sections, new canals – the half of the arc from Limehouse to Camden, then the Hertford Union Canal, the lower part of the River Lea where it meets Bow Creek, Limehouse Cut, the beginnings of the Grand Union Canal from where it branches off of Little Venice to Golborne Road.

So, given my love of canals, how did I manage to miss a museum devoted to them? To my everlasting shame, I didn’t even know the museum existed… until last December, when it was far too late to add it to my list for the London Museum Challenge. I resolved to visit it later – which turned out to be last Saturday.

The London Canal Museum stands on a basin of the Regent’s Canal (appropriately enough) but the location is only one of its attractions – the building that houses it is a marvellous and unusual relic of the trade and industry that once flourished along the canals. It’s an icehouse, built by Carlo Gatti, an Italian-Swiss entrepreneur who built an empire of cafés, entertainment venues and ice (several of the former used to stand around what is now Charing Cross Station – I’ve been walking past their former sites for years without knowing it) in the nineteenth century that lasted well into the twentieth. From the outside it looks like any other canal-side warehouse… on the inside, however, you can gaze straight down into one of the ice pits, whose brick walls still glisten with moisture even if the pits have long stood empty.

The first exhibit that greets you is half of an old narrowboat, the Coronis, which you’re welcome to enter and explore. I must admit to having long entertained romantic notions about life on a canal boat – they were swiftly destroyed. Calling the living quarters cramped and spartan is being charitable. The beds are so tiny that an adult of average height probably could never have stretched out fully. There was no running water. If you wanted a bath, it was down a rope into the canal (no matter what time of year). And yet whole families used to live and work in them. They found ways to make their boats bright and cheerful (painting them with roses and castles, decorating the walls with plates whose surfaces brightened the interior with reflected light). The children invented games to play on the boats and towpaths, scrumped apples from nearby orchards and picked blackberries along the towpaths to supplement their families’ otherwise limited diet. What this part of the museum made abundantly clear (with the help of some fascinating oral history recordings) was that the canal workers took tremendous pride in their work and their own distinctive culture, even if (or because) their lives were harsh and they were often regarded with disdain or mistrust by others. (I couldn’t help thinking of Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore, which I read a few months ago, whose characters are part of a similar subculture, caught between land and water, neither wholly belonging to one or the other.)

The rest of the museum (which is not huge – two storeys of a not particularly massive warehouse – but more than enough to keep you enthralled for a couple of hours) will enlighten you about the lives of the horses who pulled the barges (nasty, brutish and short), the engineering of the locks (much more interesting than I would have imagined), the canals’ industrial past and the history and geography of the canal network, both within London and across the rest of the UK. One of the many interesting titbits I picked up is that there used to be canals in south London too – one of them (the Croydon-Surrey Canal) quite close to where I live – but they have long since been filled in. Another was the extent of the Grand Union Canal within London – I was so inspired by this that the very next day I set out to walk the entire length, from Paddington to where it joins the River Brent and empties into the Thames (which was naïve and overambitious – it’s over 20 miles long and I only made it as far as Greenford before the failing light forced me to stop).

The London Canal Museum may look and feel quite modest, but it succeeds brilliantly at giving a sense of the rich human dimension of the life and history of the canals. I doubt I will ever walk beside one again without this knowledge at the back of my mind, without feeling the memories of two centuries crowding around me.

One quote among the various wall texts has stuck in my mind ever since. Unfortunately I didn’t think to note down the exact words or their speaker, but this wise and perceptive person – whoever he or she was – noted that the joining of the Regent’s Canal and the Grand Union Canal, both of which link to the Thames, effectively turns London into an island. An island within an island.

By the time I emerge from the museum, the light is fading fast. I cast one last glance at the converted warehouses lining the canal basin and turn inland, toward Kings Cross, further into the heart of the Island London that I have made my home.

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