It was an unseasonably warm autumn day as I strolled along the water’s edge shaded by a canopy of trees. I took my place in line (or “queued up” as the Brits say) to board the 55 minute London Waterbus canal cruise from “Little Venice” to Camden Lock Market.
A friendly gentleman began chatting me up and I learned that he was playing hooky from work that day, and although he was a native Londoner, this would be his first cruise on the canal. I don’t know what possesses total strangers to tell me stuff, but they always do. During our short wait, he shared that he was a single dad, had gone to a spinning class that morning after dropping off his six-year-old son at school, and that if I’d never been to Camden Market, it was a good place for a spot of lunch.
Off the Average Tourist’s Radar
I’d visited London many times over the years, but hadn’t known until this trip that the city had its own “Little Venice.”
One of the city’s best kept secrets, the tranquil enclave is tucked away just north of the buzzing Paddington station in London’s Maida Vale neighborhood. There is nothing Venetian about this Little Venice, but in its relative seclusion, it feels calm and romantic.
I’m always looking to find the hidden parts of any city (if I haven’t found them accidentally by getting lost.) A stone’s throw away yet removed from the urban hustle and bustle, a leisurely cruise down the Little Venice canal is much more intimate than a boat ride on the Thames.
Narrow Boats With Rooftop Gardens
The London Waterbus company’s traditional narrow boats dock along the towpath at the junction of the Grand Union Canal and Regent’s Canal where it forms Browning’s Pool, named for the poet Robert Browning who was once a resident of the area.
We motored past occupied houseboats of various vintages, sizes and colors, some with eclectic and charming little dockside or rooftop gardens.
Waterside Gardens and Graffiti
The vessels stood in stark contrast to the palatial white stucco Regency houses whose large terraced lawns sloped down to the water.
But we mostly glimpsed graffiti clad walls, lots of moored boats, dogs walking their owners, and lovers strolling hand in hand along on the towpath dodging the occasional jogger.
A lone faux gondolier on an equally faux gondola passed us by with a smooching couple aboard, but the canal area was certainly lacking the Venice charm I’d expected; instead, it had a gritty urban industrial vibe that I nonetheless enjoyed.
From Little Venice, the Waterbus runs directly to and from Camden Lock Market but one can opt for a stop along the way at the London Zoo where the company maintains its own dock. Since the drop off point is within the Zoo grounds, passengers need to purchase a combined ticket which includes zoo admission. (And leave your bike and pet at home, because neither is permitted on the boat.)
Exploring With Boots, Not Boats
For me, the best way to experience a place is on foot, and had I not been recovering from a broken one, I would have opted for the two-mile canal-side walk along the towpath that begins under the Warwick Avenue Bridge. The Waterside Cafe, moored just off Warwick Crescent and steps from the London Waterbus loading line, makes a lovely stop for a pre-cruise drink or lunch before setting out.
As the boat rounded the bend at Cumberland Basin just before the end of the line, I spotted a distinctly out-of-place floating Chinese pagoda which I learned was the Feng Shang Princess restaurant. With its traditional bright red exterior and distinctive flying eave tiled roof, the barge is like a beacon moored on the water in Regent’s Park just before Camden Lock. Some report that the menu offers nothing to write home about, but the place nonetheless makes a great photo-op. Southern Star Cumberland Basin, Prince Albert Road.
Photo via Cafe Laville.
Dine As a Vessel Voyeur
If you are lucky enough to snag a table on the balcony at Cafe Laville, you can sip Chianti and savor a bowl of pasta while watching the canal boats sail by and beneath you. The restaurant is perched directly over Regent’s Canal, serving up picture perfect views about an 8 minute waterside stroll from the Warwick Avenue underground station. 453 Edgware Rd, Little Venice.
Half or Full Day Itineraries in Little Venice
Here’s what you can do for a half, full day, or overnight in and around Little Venice:
1. Hire the Lady A narrow boat with skipper for an intimate three-hour BYO lunch cruise.
2. Rent a private self-drive powerboat for up to eight people from GoBoat London.
3. Become a Keeper for a Day at the London Zoo. (The boat also passes by the Zoo’s enormous aviary.)
4. Overnight at the Zoo in the hidden-away private Gir Lion Lodge. Cozy up in a double en-suite lodge cabin with private veranda and enjoy three exclusive after-hours tours of the Zoo at sunset, after-dark, and in the morning as well as a two-course buffet dinner and complete English breakfast.
5. Dine at a waterside or over-water restaurant.
6. Walk and eat till you’re beat, then spend the night on a 57 foot canal boat built over 100 years ago.
7. Bring a picnic and stroll the canal on your own.
8. Visit Camden Market.
I stepped off the boat in Camden Market’s West Yard then followed my nose to the Kolkati stand where my chosen “spot of lunch” was a kati roll–a skewer-roasted masala chicken kebab drizzled with coconut and coriander raita wrapped in paratha bread. The purveyor of this Indian fare was one of 34 street food vendors in the Yard, and only a fraction of the hundreds sprinkled throughout the entire market.
This and That and Bric-a-Brac
Camden Market grew from a small arts and crafts fair with just 16 stalls open only on Sundays, to the largest market in London with over a thousand vendors.
Today the market is a vast sprawl of six distinct markets weaving in and out of the cobblestone courtyards, chock full of cheap souvenir shops and bric-a-brac alongside stalls of clothing, crafts, and assorted handmade goods.
It’s a great place for people watching or for watching birds watching people.
“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world…”
In the 19th century, the market was part of a sprawling industrial site of distilleries and warehouses that produced world-renowned gin. All but forgotten for two centuries, the market is now home to Half Hitch Gin, a craft distillery opened in 2014 whose custom blended flavor profile includes Malawian black tea and Calabrian bergamot.
Photo via Half Hitch.
Owner Mark Holdsworth, a Bacardi alum, invites visitors to observe the distilling process while he shares stories and interesting facts about the spirit’s local history. And of course, there are tastings.
Was she giving me the stink eye?
Not For the Glutton-Free
Warning: Bring your appetite. but if you arrive too hungry, you may eat yourself silly.
I was a bit overwhelmed by the myriad of culinary choices at this giant international street food scene. No corner of the globe was missing–there was Asian, Indian, Spanish, Mexican, Mediterranean, Italian–just to mention just a few. I came close to having a second lunch after spotting the Asian noodles.
Then there were the sweets. Rare for me, I was too full to indulge, so I was forced to experience them vicariously.
Along with all the ordinary finds, there was Chin Chin Labs’s liquid nitrogen ice creams; all variety of cupcakes; Dutch pancakes and Belgian waffles spread with generous layers of Nutella; thick, freshly made hot churros with choice of chocolate, caramel or other dipping sauces; and vegan cookies from Cookies and Scream.
Photo via the Original Crispy Candy Company.
My most over-the-top glucose find was The Original Crispy Candy Company’s candy bar donut: your favorite candy bar enclosed within a crisp buttermilk donut. And I wish I’d found this one as a child: unadulterated cookie dough from Naked Dough. It’s not made for baking so this batch allows guilt-free dough sneaking before it never makes it into the oven.
If I ever return to Camden Market, I may start with dessert then follow-up with a main meal just because we grownups can do this sort of thing.
For a different canal experience, on the Grand Canal in the real Venice, see this post about my private tour of an Italian Countess’s waterfront palace and gardens.
Cheerio and ciao for now.
Unless otherwise noted, all photos by Robin Plaskoff Horton for Urban Gardens.