- Location: 12-13 New Wharf Road, Islington N1 9RT.
- Type of Museum: Transport.
- Admission times/prices: Tues-Sun (plus bank holiday Mondays) 10am to 4.30pm with late opening till 7.30pm on the first Thursday of each month; Adult £3.00, Child £1.50, Concessions £2.00.
- Facilities: Shop that sells cold drinks and snacks as well as the usual souvenirs, small outside area by the canal, workshops, kids’ workshops in the Summer holidays, canal trips at certain times of the year.
- Transport: About a ten minute canal walk from either Camden tube or Paddington station. At King’s Cross, there are lots of signs saying ‘London Canal Museum’ which make you think you’re almost there, but no, they’re just pointing you in the right general direction, up until you actually are near the museum at which point the signs vanish and you get lost.
The main bit(s).
Ironically, we only ended up coming here on this occasion because part of the canal was closed so we had to cycle on the streets and got lost.
This has been on my ‘must-see’ list for a while, but it would have been much better to wait till the summer, when they have canal cruises and more activities for children. Unsurprisingly, they don’t bother with them in January. So we were seeing the pared-down museum; it was still worth the tiny entry fee and, if I’m not sick of museums by then, we might even go back in the Summer, perhaps after once more getting lost.
Planning ahead would also have improved the museum experience, since they provide a couple of free downloadable audio guides, one to listen to in the museum and one that they suggest you listen to as you walk along the canal from the station (either Paddington or Camden – different audio guides) to the museum. It’s well worth a listen for the explanations about the lives of the boat people, who ‘certainly [did] not adher[e] to middle class Victorian morals as regards their personal relationships.’ It reminds me of the boat people in His Dark Materials, only with more hints of salaciousness.
When you first enter the museum, there’s a somewhat confusing focus on ice-cream: an exhibition all about Gatti’s ice-cream and a big hole in the floor leading to an ice pit. A later part of the exhibition explains this: as is the case with many small museums, the building originally served a different purpose, and this used to be an ice house.
That’s not completely unconnected to the history of canals, however; prior to fridges, ice was shipped over from Norway and brought to London by canal. It’s a bizarre image, a big ship full of nothing but frozen water, like the Titanic but intentional.
Next up is part of an old family barge. It really is extremely hard to believe that an entire family lived and worked in this space – it’s about the size of my bathroom, which isn’t palatial. One of the beds is smaller than many modern chairs. Fortunately, the people who lived there had so little food that they probably would have stayed very short.
The info about these families continues above, with a small display about the children of the time. The little working boys all look like they have progeria, worn down by work at an age when kids these days haven’t even started secondary school.
Atmospheric piano music plays as you enter the upstairs; turns out it’s from a video of an old silent movie and a Pathé news reel about the canal workers. I always love these things – the narrator is so patronising about the humble and honest people on screen and the old-fashioned accent makes it sound like a parody.
Further on there’s information about the history of the canals. The Regent’s Canal, the big one that the museum’s on, connecting Regent’s Park with Docklands, ran into big money trouble while being built, and the govt of the time ended up bailing them out to the tune of £280,000, more than doubling the original budget.
It was part of the Poor Unemployment Act 1817 set up to counteract terrible unemployment after the Napoleonic wars. Imagine that – a govt tackling unemployment by investing in large-scale sustainable transport projects! Clearly we’re not returning to Victorian times at all.
The last main display is all about the horses that worked on the canals. These poor animals were so mistreated that, in 1822, a law had to be passed against mistreating them.
Some of the other pictures are poignant, like the one of a horse pulling a boat along while a tractor does the exact same job in front of him; similarly, in the archive video, a horse-drawn barge travels under a bridge where there’s a tube station sign and an early solid-wheel bus. Snapshots of a society being changed by its technology.
The extra bit(s).
There is a small temporary exhibition space, which on this occasion was filled by Tim Lewis’s canal photos from across the UK and Europe – presumably he has one of the larger types of barges to cross the channel. They’re an interesting display of the thriving canal boat community, and make me ever more tempted to look into buying one. One day…
Outside there’s a tiny seating area with pub-style benches; when we were there, a coal barge had stopped to unload – yes, there are still a few working boats on the canal.
In the summer this entry would have been much longer, with info about the canal trips that stop at the museum, but for now this is a short one.
The bits where you end up spending money.
The shop’s small but quite well stocked, though my pencil-connoisseur daughter said none of them were very good. For those who are craving ice-cream after the focus of the first exhibition, there’s a freezer full of them.
Stuff for kids and people who act like them.
There is a small play area with Rosie and Jim paraphernalia, but this is not the time of year when the museum focuses on catering for kids. The whiteboard upstairs indicates to me that they probably do a lot of outreach to local schools.
One trick the museum really is missing is having a barge parked alongside for visitors to step inside. I can’t be the only one who regularly walks along the canal and wonders what they’re really like inside, just how much you can fit in to a space which looks so small from the outside. The old-fashioned family barge is just not the same – I shouldn’t think even the most tardis-like boat is intended to house as many people as that.
By the information desk, there’s more free stuff for kids: some paper activities (crosswords and the like) for kids, some leaflets and a fun press-out, colour-in and put-together model barge. I took one, intending to make it at home and photograph it for this blog, but, as ever, my landlubber puppy ate it.