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Word on the Water, King's Cross Word on tthe Water
A boat book shop in kings Cross, near Granary Square.Als do book readings and events.

10 unexpected venues on London's brilliant barges

All aboard! From bookshops to cinemas, you’ll find all sorts floating on London’s canals

By Alexandra Sims
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Life really is better down where it's wetter, if by that you mean London's canals. This city's waterways are obviously great spots to visit for nature-packed walks and relaxing afternoons in canal-side pubs, but look a bit closer and you'll find even cooler stuff floating on the water itself. From high-end restaurants to a hairdresser, and from a book shop to bike repair spot, it seems like loads of Londoners are opening cool/useful indie hangouts on barges. Read our guide to some of the most unique. Then get down there and... splash out! (Sorry.)

Read our guide to outdoor London for more wild hangouts 

 

Jonathan Perugia

The gastro pub

Restaurants Contemporary European Olympic Park

You can’t miss Barge East. It glows above the inky River Lee thanks to its twinkling rows of string lights. Set up by childhood friends, the 114-year-old Dutch tjalk is a cosy spot to sink a pint – try a glass from Truman’s Brewery, which operates in Stratford. In the winter, bag a spot next to the toasty log burner. It’s cosy fun at its best.

The bookshop

Shopping Bookshops King’s Cross

What’s more exciting than a floating bookshop? One with a wood-burning stove, a resident dog and a cash register filled with sweets. Every corner of Word on the Water is packed with second-hand books, including rare literary gems. Six thousand people signed a petition about finding it a permanent mooring spot when it was faced with closure in 2014. It’s now nestled up the towpath at King’s Cross. Look out for jazz nights on its roof. 

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The village hall

Continuously cruising the city’s canals, Village Butty, London’s only floating village hall, moors up across London to offer fun-hunters a slice of waterway life. Thanks to a Crowdfunder campaign back in 2015, it was bought and refurbished as a not-for-profit community space hosting workshops and events, preserving dying crafts and promoting eco-friendly, sustainable lifestyles. You’ll find everything from cabaret shows and apple festivals to ceilidhs and acoustic jam sessions on board.

The mindful cinema

Things to do Hertfordshire

Catch a film on the water at the multifaceted Barge Fiodra. It boasts a 20-seat micro cinema, art gallery and storytelling space. You won’t catch the latest blockbuster here – owner and skipper Bob Chase is committed to screening canal, barge and boating-related films, which isn’t as boring as it might sound – Wes Anderson’s ‘The Life Aquatic’ and ‘L’Atalante’, a French film about a whirlwind courtship on a canal barge, have played here. Bob is also a trained mindfulness teacher and hosts regular workshops on the waves. It’s like the Headspace app come to life. 

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The fancy restaurant

4 out of 5 stars
Restaurants British Paddington

‘Rosie and Jim’ meets high-end London dining on waterborne restaurant London Shell Co. Despite having what might just be the smallest kitchen in the industry, it still manages to serve up delicious seafood suppers that you can amp up with perfectly-matched wines. Dining here is an experience – you hop on board and, while buttering your bread roll, you’ll start chugging along Regent’s Canal, winding through Camden to Little Venice and back again. Look out for their kitchen takeovers. This is the spot if you want to push the boat out. (Sorry!)

The ice cream parlour

Bars and pubs Café bars Olympic Park

You won’t find silver-topped pints on pun-tastic vessel The Milk Float, but it does serve up hoppy pints of a different kind, as well as locally-made ice cream, dairy-free sorbets and its signature knickerbocker glory. During the day it’s a bar and café with prosecco on tap, freshly baked cakes and canoes available for hire. Come nightfall, the barge is filled with bangers from regular DJs Rehab LDN and Araf Collective.

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The vintage emporium

Be it dingy Soho basements or draughty Zone 6 warehouses, true vintage-lovers know you have to head to some pretty strange locations to get your hands on true retro gems – and this spot is as odd as they come. Tamsin Elliott’s narrowboat Frocks Afloat putts along the city waterways carrying a cargo of beautiful vintage garms dating from the 1920s to the 1970s.

Sam Skinner Floating Bike Repairs Barge
Sam Skinner Floating Bike Repairs Barge
Andy Parsons

The bike repair shop

Get your spokes seen to by Sam Skinner, the man behind cycle shop Floating Bike Repairs. In 2018, Sam turned this 1950s Dutch water taxi into a ramshackle garage with gears hanging off the sides and old parts stuffed up in ceiling nets. Thanks to the unconventional setting, it’s one of the most affordable bike rehabilitation spots in London. A full service will set you back just £35, and as there’s limited space he’ll aim to fix your bike on the day, so you’ll be back in the saddle in no time. 

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The hairdresser

Fancy a short back and sides in the shadow of London Zoo, or an undercut next to Camden Lock? Master barber Matthew Lankester’s roving unisex salon The Floating Barber Shop chugs along the canal system, trimming barnets all over the capital. He does face masks and beard sculpting too. Let’s hope he has a steady hand and sturdy sea legs while brandishing a razor. 

The record store

In 2014, Luke Guilford stuck two fingers up at rising London rents, bought a boat and transformed it into the UK’s first floating record shop. He travels across the country peddling vinyl from his buoyant shop The Record Deck, but during the winter months you’ll usually find him along the River Lea between Angel and Tottenham. Whether you want to spend a few pennies on a single or splash out on a rare gem, you’ll be spoilt for choice among his comprehensive selection of second-hand sleeves.

Find more fun things to do on the water

The best boat trips in London

Things to do Walks and tours

London boat tours are a truly fabulous way to see the city’s top spots. The River Thames is a destination in itself, of course, and most London boat tours will take in famous landmarks such as the Tate Modern, St Paul’s Cathedral, Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, The O2 and Canary Wharf.

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