A courier whirrs up the canal pontoon and presents a starched white box. The metallic borders of our tableware match the battleship grey of our vessel. Cruising down the Regent’s Canal, an arrow of mixed wildfowl paddles up, curious, saluting our journey as the piercing sun gleams, The modern rustic delicacies of our hamper unfurling against the backdrop of the inky lap of of the sinuous flume as our skiff chug chugs on to Little Venice converges a summertime portrait of perfection.
Turning two hundred next year, opening at Paddington and channeling through the centre of London to its eastern extremities at the Limehouse Basin, the stretch that we are sailing on – coursing between Little Venice and Camden – is the leisure standard-bearer for the thirteen kilometre-long ‘Regent’s Canal’. This two mile stretch was the first section to be completed in 1816. Today you can kayak, fish, sail, canoe, paddle board or jacuzzi your way through these waterways. Their hidden, urban oasis-like qualities – paired with the recent introduction of international transport hubs at King’s Cross and Paddington – has fanned the attractions and current of these flumes. Floating galleries, cinemas, jacuzzis, bars, bookshops, restaurants, cafes, classrooms, supper clubs, theatres, cocktail cruises and hotels (of which more later) have popped up upon these channels.
We raise flutes of Nyetimber at Little Venice – so named for the proud reflections of the wedding-cake architecture of the surrounding Regency townhouses ebbing and glinting like an impressionist painting from its sweeping triangular pool. Our Corrigan’s picnic unfurls plump, creamy smoked salmon fillets, Innes goat’s cheese with slow-cooked beetroot parcelled in lettuce grown in the Irish chef’s walled garden in Country Cavan. We graze on stiff crackers and sterner cheeses adrift between the tiny island at Little Venice’s bullseye and the parkland of Rembrandt Gardens, before careening across the aquatic epicentre of one of London’s most scenic and luxurious residential locales.
Chasing a living barge down the quarter of a mile-long Maida Hill tunnel, it casts a pirate ship silhouette against the breaking light at the tunnel’s end. The branches of weeping willows graze our house-cured charcuterie, the whoop of laughter filters from passing vessels and a giraffe’s head bobs as we pass the canal entrance to London Zoo.
Circling and returning, we alight and stroll past the play fountains and statues of Merchant Square to the Floating Pocket Park. Lazing like a sculptural installation in the aquatic heart of this pristine new district stands The Boathouse. The sleek black vessel’s sunken portholes peep abob at pontoon level. Opened last year, it’s one of the most Instagrammed tiny hotels in the capital. Think Tom Dixon does Hygge; sailing by Soho House. Soothing bespoke curved wooden interiors hug a woodburning stove, hand-lain mosaic tiling and mid century modern decor. The sunlight streams down upon us as we head up to top deck, sipping mojitos blended in the integrated kitchen and tanning, playing chess then leafing inspirations from the house library while lazing on rattan chairs. As the sun begins to set we cycle past the Peter Blake pop dazzle of the Darcy and May Green floating restaurant and bar and statue of Paddington Bear to The Prince Regent, maritime home of the London Shell Co.
As the ship’s bell dings we set off. Five courses of peerless sea freshness – caught the previous day by Cornish fishermen and transported to the open kitchen of London Shell Co overnight. Tactile and vital, clever and healthful dishes roam from just-shucked oysters to spruce hake tempura paired with a rousing selection of sparkling wines ranging from the pride of Home Counties vintners to “I Am Not a Ninja”, a still-fermenting chardonnay by a boutique South African house.
If the organic daytime experience of cruising the canal is all about that classic Industrial Revolution-era paradox of nature versus mechanism – the fall of light against water, historic bridges and traditional boats, wild (and caged) life, parkland and trees, the night is about the atmosphere and spectacle of the manmade. It’s a rolling, inky panorama of graffiti and handsome vessels, dinner parties spied up in the towering mansion blocks in the Marylebone hinterland and the shadow kaleidoscope of arcing branches reflected on the colonnades of proud Regent’s Park mansions. It’s both convivial and special, homey but extraordinary. We reach and turn at the iridescent lights and crowds of Stables Market. Beyond that first, world-famous Camden Lock, the Regent’s Canal stretches south east to King’s Cross – home to Granary Square and superlative Coal Drops Yard (so-called as it was once the capital’s fish and coal depot that these waters reached) to Angel, Broadway Market, past the Ragged School Museum and on to the Limehouse Basin – originally the mouth used to transport international imports from the River Thames up through the Regent’s Canal to central London and onto northern England via the adjunct Grand Union Canal.
Returning later that night to The Boathouse, immersed in Egyptian cottons on a gently bobbing bed that feels as high as the Himalayas, looking down onto a striking glass wall gazing over the roll top bath, I have to confess that, when it comes to floating travel, I’m with Ratty: “There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”