London boasts many miles of canal.
After decades of neglect, they are now among the most beautiful spaces in London, and a joy to explore with children. Here we offer tips and guidance on how to get the most out of this magnificent free resource, including what to see and sections that will particularly excite children.
Highlights Of The Regent's Canal
The Regent's Canal is 200 years old this year (2020). It's London's most famous canal -- the one you might have seen on a visit to Camden Market, King's Cross or London Zoo. Its route takes it across inner North London, from Little Venice to Limehouse.
The canal can be walked in one go, though at 14 km this is something to tackle with older children. Every section has its highlights, but here are a few that will particularly appeal to children.
London Zoo: The famous zoological gardens are cut in two by the canal. A walk along the towpath here is punctuated with the shriek of exotic birds and the occasional wild roar, even if you can't see many animals. The Zoo even has a special waterside entrance that can only be reached via a passenger boat from Camden Market or Little Venice. Also on this stretch, look out for the Macclesfield Bridge -- the story (told on a plaque) of how the bridge was blown up in the 19th century and subsequently rebuilt is a little grim but will appeal to inquisitive children.
Camden Markets: The Regent's Canal passes right through the famous Camden Markets, offering dozens of great vantage points to shoot a bit of Instagram -- not to mention the many quirky shops and food stalls to visit. The sequence of locks here is among the most picturesque on the whole canal. Watch out for the turreted building to the west of the markets known as the Pirate's Castle (it's a community centre). Nearby, a side branch of the canal leads mysteriously into an old warehouse building. This is known as Dead Dog's Hole (for the dead animals that once washed up here) -- a spot that featured in the James Bond movie Spectre. You're also close to the former workshop of Jim Henson, where many of the Muppets were brought to life. The workshop is now a residential development known as The Henson.
King's Cross: This fascinating section of towpath has been radically transformed over the past decade, from a semi-derelict industrial area to a buzzing hub of shops and new apartments. Look out for the giant gasholder, which stored fuel for a century but has now been converted into a pocket park -- a great place to stop off if you're walking the towpath. Kids will love the 'hall of mirrors' effect, created on the gasholder's uprights. Cross over the new footbridge to dive into Camley Street Natural Park, or head through the brick arches to visit Coal Drops Yard shopping area and the dancing fountains of Granary Square. A bookshop on a boat is also moored here.
Victoria Park: As the canal turns south and makes its final approach towards the Thames, it passes by the leafy Victoria Park. This is one of London's most beautiful, cherished green spaces, with plenty for children to explore. Look out especially for the play areas, which are among the best in the capital -- especially the slides. A sidearm of the canal, known as the Hertford Union Canal, runs along the southern edge of the park to reach the River Lea. Keep an eye out for terrapins, which are occasionally spotted in the water.
Kayaking In London Canals
The best way to see any stretch of water is to go out onto it, and the canals are no exception. Moo Canoes, based in Limehouse Basin, hires out two-person kayaks for exploring the surrounding basin and canals. Splashing about in a kayak is great fun, and much easier than you might imagine. Plus, these ones are almost impossible to capsize. Check the website for special tours, group bookings and activities for children.
Cycling The Canals
If you can't get hold of a boat, then a bicycle is the next best way to explore London's canals. Transport for London cycle hire stations are located along most of the routes if you don't have your own bike.
Canal towpaths, as a rule, do not have protective railings. Always keep a close eye on children to make sure they're not getting too close to the water. You don't want them to fall in. It's only a metre or so deep, but full of dirt and 'biomatter').
Be courteous to pedestrians and other cyclists. Keep your speed low at all times. Ride single file, and always ring your bell when approaching others from behind.
London's Other Canals
The Lee Navigation has undergone a remarkable resurgence in recent years, thanks to the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics. Once a heavily polluted industrial area, it is now a much-loved trail for recreation. Much longer than the Regent's Canal, the Lee connects the Thames to Hertford some 44km away. Besides the sights of the Olympic Park, you might also visit the world's biggest tidal mill at Three Mills Island, and the historic Royal Gunpowder Mills near Waltham Abbey.
The Grand Union Canal was one of England's most important waterways. It begins in Paddington, whose regenerated basin holds many delights (including a Paddington Bear trail and a roll-up bridge). Nearby Little Venice lives up to its name as one of London's most picturesque neighbourhoods. From there, the canal winds westward then north on its long progress to Birmingham.
Canal towpaths are largely level and flat, and almost entirely accessible to those in wheelchairs or with buggies. Many access points have ramps, although these can be rather steep. Some access points, such as the Pirate's Castle mentioned above, are step-only. All sections of the towpath are open to dogs on leads.
Note: during coronavirus restrictions, remember to follow government advice on use of public transport. Consider using bicycles to reach your start point.
Although originally from the Midlands, and trained as a biochemist, Matt has somehow found himself writing about London for a living. He's a former editor and long-time contributor to Londonist.com and has written several books about the capital. He's also the father of two preschoolers.