Small but Modern
The London Canal Museum celebrated its 20th anniversary in March 2012. Even though it's a small museum it is staffed by excellent volunteers and has moved with the times. It offers good wheelchair access, a free audio tour to download from their website for visually impaired visitors, an audio guide for the surrounding canal paths, a smartphone app, plus there's a QR code on the free paper mini-guide which many major museums have not yet embraced.
You can find the London Canal Museum on all forms of social media too.
The Regent's Canal
The London Canal Museum is based on the Battlebridge Basin of the Regent's Canal. The Regent's Canal is named after the Prince Regent who later became King George IV. John Nash was the Director of the Regent's Canal Company and his friendship with the King allowed him to use his name. The Regent's Canal was started in 1812 and finished in 1819. It cost much more than proposed but a government loan helped completion.
Did you know? The Regent's Canal links in with other English canals and you can still travel from London to Leeds by canal. It would take you around four weeks.
Ice House History
On the ground floor you can find out about the building's use as an ice store and see an ice well. Carlo Gatti arrived in London in 1847 leaving his family in Switzerland. He was poor but entrepreneurial. He was the first to work out how to store ice long-term and he did a deal with Norwegian timber merchants to use Norwegian lake ice as 'ballast' to weight their ships.
Before this, ice had been just for the rich but from the 1850s large-scale imports brought the costs down. Ice was not just used for ice-cream making but was also in demand by fishmongers and butchers, as well as medical professionals as an anesthetic.
Carlo Gatti started his business on this site in 1857 and by 1901 'United Carlo Gatti, Stevenson & Slaters Ltd' were the largest ice merchant in London. Business soon declined with mechanical ice production and ice imports stopped by 1921.
Ice warehouses were built along the Regent's Canal but this building is the only one that has survived. The building has two ice wells (one is under the front of the building) and the one on display is actually only half as deep as it was while in use. It's 34ft/10m across and was originally 42ft/13m deep.
There are some good displays about the ice import industry and the history of ice-cream in London. Look out for the 'Penny Licks' which were small glasses that children paid a penny to have filled with a small amount of ice-cream that they could lick. Sadly, the cups were never washed so spread diseases.
Also on the ground floor, you can go inside Coronis, a London-built narrowboat from 1935, and sit in the cramped living accommodation and listen to a recording from the boatman and his family.
There are other interesting recordings of oral history in the museum from people with connections to the London waterways.
Visitors can go out onto Battlebridge Canal Basin where you can see the museum's vintage Bantam Tug and many colourful residential narrowboats. The Bantam tug was built in 1949 and is a pusher tug rather than one that tows.
Water and Locks
Upstairs on the first floor, there's a permanent display about London's waterways and canal use including an excellent wall map of the waterways. Some of the displays boards are a bit old-fashioned but they still have good information and interesting black and white photos. There is also a 20 minute film to watch of old black and white footage and gentle piano music accompanies your visit.
Canals are artificial waterways and need a supply of water; rivers are best but reservoirs are used too. Locks are simply water lifts/elevators and there's an excellent display to help you understand how locks work.
Interestingly, the Regent's Canal drops 86ft/26m by 12 locks from Little Venice to Limehouse Basin, and then there's access to the tidal Thames and the sea.
Horses and the Canals
In the days before engines, barges were pulled by horses and at the locks it was usually children who walked the horses round at street level.
Because of a shortage of space, stables were quite often on a first floor during Victorian times. You can see the horse ramp here and there's a recreation of a stable. Watch out, when you go near it the horse will whinny! The horse medicine display is surprisingly fascinating.
London Canal Museum
12-13 New Wharf Road
London N1 9RT
Tel: 020 7713 0836
Official Website: www.canalmuseum.org.uk
Opening Hours: Tues-Sun: 10am-4.30pm
On the first Thursday of each month, open late to 7.30pm.
Admission: Under £5. Cheaper for children and family ticket available. Check official website for latest prices.
The museum has a small but impressive shop with many books and souvenirs such as hand-painted horseshoes.
King's Place is a music and arts venue on the other side of the canal basin. There's a cafe there too. A short walk away is the Camley Street Natural Park which is free to visit and is a natural habitat for birds, butterflies, amphibians and a rich variety of plant life.