diamond geezer

 Monday, October 15, 2012

London Canal Museum
Location: 12-13 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RT [map]
Open: 10:00-16:30 (except Mondays)
Admission: £4 (£10 for a family)
Website: www.canalmuseum.org.uk (& on Twitter)

It seemed the right place to go to celebrate the Regent's Canal's 200th anniversary. A museum devoted to the capital's canals, located precisely halfway along, round the backside of King's Cross. The London Canal Museum backs onto Battlebridge Basin, as does Kings Place, the latest home of the Guardian newspaper. To find the museum requires wandering up an unlikely backstreet, past gated entrances to penthouse flats, to the old warehouse on New Wharf Road. The building was once used for storing ice, back in the days before refrigerators when frozen water was a rarity. That's a bonus, because this is in effect the Canal and Ice Cream museum, a title which would surely entice more visitors inside.

A friendly face at the front desk will explain all, in more detail than museums of this size usually afford. There's a also a mini-guide to take with you, again an extremely good idea, to direct you round the exhibits in a sensible order and provide a bit of background. If you fancy finding out more about the museum before you arrive, or downloading a guide to your mobile for use as you walk around, two audio tours are available here. Indeed, the museum website is much more detailed than most attractions of this size, so do dig around to explore it all.

They have a narrowboat for you to walk inside, and that's despite the fact it was originally much longer then the building itself. The freight end has been chopped off, leaving the cramped but compact living quarters to poke around. Admire the traditional 'roses and castles' design painted on a jug on top, and also in a separate cabinet alongside. For a whole load more boats head out through the back door to the quay beside the basin. A restored post-war tug is always here, whereas the remaining sights depend on the comings and goings of more modern pleasure craft.

At the back of the museum is a large circular hole, leading down to a gloomy purple-lit brick-lined void. This is the ice house, one of two such wells built here, inside which imported ice from Norway was stored (potentially for several months). A separate exhibit tells the story of Carlo Gatti, the Swiss Italian who built this warehouse 150 years ago. He started by supplying fishmongers, restaurateurs and the like, before diversifying into ice cream manufacture as this spread across the capital. An old ice cream cart stands near the entrance, as well as examples of the glass dishes used to serve up "licks" and "Hokey Pokeys".

You can't use the horse ramp to get upstairs, it's too steep. Instead take the stairs, to a floor that's more about information than exhibits. A detailed map of London's waterways fills one wall, a temporary exhibition of mid 20th century canalfolk photos another. The history of the Regent's Canal predominates, although other London and national waterways get a look in, and there's a model of a lock your kids can play with. Meanwhile you'll enjoy the archive film, especially the silent movie from 1924 following a barge all the way from Limehouse to Paddington. Shots of horse drawn barges are mixed with neighbouring roads plied by trams, interspersed by those wonderful handwritten white-on-black captions beloved of the era.

The museum shop's well worth a look before you go - it's especially well stocked with books and maps about canals and waterways nationwide. And sorry, but you've just missed the last of this summer's hour long boat trips through the Islington Tunnel. They'll be back for Hallowe'en, chugging for half a mile (beneath Upper Street and back) through a dark and very confined space. In the meantime, in this bicentenary year, the London Canal Museum's still plenty interesting enough for a short four quid diversion.

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