I’ve always fancied embarking on a canal holiday – pootling along with a glass of wine in hand, watching the world drift slowly by. I’ve also always been fascinated by houseboats, and on trips to Amsterdam and Copenhagen I’ve found myself peering through portholes for a glimpse of life on the water. So, when Chris and I were offered a night’s stay at The Palmer, a houseboat rental on Regent’s Canal in East London, we jumped at the chance.
First things first: Regent’s Canal isn’t the picturesque, willow-lined waterway you might be imagining. It’s a gritty, urban canal which weaves through the heart of the capital, and the eastern stretch in particular is flanked by plenty of graffitti-daubed walls and peeling buildings. But that’s all part of the charm: this is the real, lived-in London, and the towpath is always bustling with strolling families, dog walkers and cycling commuters.
The Palmer (which sleeps two-four) and its sister boat Osbert (for two) are moored at the gated Gainsborough Wharf in Haggerston – a perfect spot for exploring some of the most vibrant parts of the city. In one direction are the foodie delights of Broadway Market; in the other, the hip boutiques and bars of Shoreditch and Hoxton, and the blooms of the famous Columbia Road Flower Market. Owners Simon, Henry and Calypso (who also runs events website Indytute) know the area inside-out and have created a hand-drawn map of their favourite haunts to help guests make the most of their time.
The first thing we noticed as we boarded our temporary floating home, which spent years touring the South West before being brought to London for refurbishment in 2015, was just how bright and spacious it was. Forget any notions of cramped narrowboats; The Palmer is a wide-beam vessel, large enough to accommodate an open-plan living area with a double sofabed, a full kitchen (complete with oven and washing machine), a double bedroom, and a bathroom with a proper shower. There’s even a minibar brimming with treats such as black-truffle crisps (trust me: delicious), champagne and artisan popcorn.
And then there was the decor: cosy yet clutter-free, with muted pastel shades and mid-century furniture. I particularly loved the salvaged tiles in the kitchen, and the bedroom with its soft grey throw and a bed so high you need a step to clamber into it. Dotted throughout are quirky artworks, board games and books (everything from London-based novels to coffee-table tomes about local makers).
The other thing that struck us was just how peaceful life on the water can be. Yes, we were in the middle of one of Europe’s busiest cities, and the sound of sirens and traffic was never far away. But somehow we barely noticed; instead, our ears focused on the gentle sloshing of water against the hull, the soft hum of passing boats, and the calls of birds overhead.
We were soon lulled into a relaxed stupour, and we spent our evening sipping G&Ts on the deck, preparing a lazy meal in the kitchen, and lounging by the wood-burner with a bottle of wine and a game of Monopoly. The quirks of life afloat – the need to turn on a pump to drain the shower, the multiple flush options on the eco toilet, the slight rocking motion caused by passing boats – were just part of the fun.
After a blissful night’s sleep cocooned under a cloud-like duvet, we awoke to the sound of quacking ducks and set about cooking up the spoils waiting in our breakfast hamper (available for pre-order if you don’t fancy shopping). Sipping fresh coffee and tucking into sourdough toast, eggs and bacon as the canal came to life around us made a wonderful start to the day, and we lingered on the deck until the very last minute before checking out.
Our time on the water passed all too quickly, but we fell for The Palmer hook, line and sinker. I don’t think it will be long before we return for another visit…
Book a stay on The Palmer or Osbert via i-escape. Rates start at £160 per night.
We were given a free night on The Palmer, but all words and opinions are my own.
All photography by Abi Dare