I was eating lunch when a text arrived from Half-life: ‘Fancy some anal action?’ I gagged on my sourdough and texted back, ‘Not that sort of friend’.

‘Sorry, *Canal,’ responded Half-life. And there it was. He’d made a text joke. I felt quite proud. For a man who once considered the mobile phone ‘the devil’s tracker’, useful only for creditors to locate his whereabouts, this was progress indeed. I gave him a call.

‘I’m house-sitting Cyclo’s boat,’ he told me. ‘Come up. And bring some limes.’

‘For the scurvy?’ I said.

‘For the rum,’ he said. ‘And bring some rum.’

Messing about on canals is a pleasure no longer available on the South Londoner’s doorstep, a combination of commercial imperative and lack of imagination. The Croydon Canal was done for by the rise of the steam train and closed by an Act of Parliament in 1936. The land was bought by the London and Croydon rail company who filled it in and built a railway line along its length. The old basin was turned into West Croydon station. The Grand Surrey Canal lasted much longer, only finally being filled in, in the ’70s. The Camberwell basin was turned into Burgess Park, while the Peckham basin is now the site of Peckham Pulse and Peckham Library.

Grand Surrey Canal at Camberwell, now part of Burgess Park. St George’s Church can be seen in the background

North London’s waterways give me a twinge of aqua-envy whenever I encounter them: Quiet historical passages that have slipped modernity’s mind, by turns rural, residential or industrial, but always interesting. Cyclo Dunc had swapped a rented flat in Forest Hill for a narrowboat with a permanent mooring in Hackney and I leapt at the chance to spend a day on the water.

‘ETA Hackney Wick, 2pm,’ I texted Half-life.

‘Why?’ he replied. ‘At Southall. Heading for Fuller’s boozer at Greenford Bridge. Pick you up there.’ Interesting. I hadn’t realised he was taking the boat out for a spin – and a pound to a penny Cyclo knew nothing about it either.

I rode the Central Line out west and at the Black Horse, Greenford, I finished my pint of London Pride and stood out by the canal. The air, suffused with tumeric and cumin from a nearby industrial estate, was still and calm. I heard an unusual bird call, perhaps a cormorant, and I was trying to spot it when the sound of an airhorn shattered the moment. Coots and moorhens scattered for cover in the racket and I turned to see Cyclo’s narrowboat rounding the corner. Standing on the fore-end, like a ship’s figurehead, was a young woman holding a rope and a tin of beer. At the stern stood Half-life in his admiral’s hat and his mate, Yes Dom, saluting me.

‘Are you the Raider?’ said the woman as the boat approached. I nodded. ‘Here, catch!’ she said. I hoped for the beer, but I got the rope instead and after some muddle-headed mooring ring work, the boat was secured and the crew disembarked.

‘Pint?’ said Half-life.

‘Yes,’ said Yes Dom.

‘Do the honours will you, Raider?’ said Half-life, ‘I’m late for a pizza.’

‘Pizza?’

‘Being delivered to the car park.’

Refreshed and now loaded with a cargo of two 12” Meat Feasts, we cast off and headed eastward, past an aggregates site and on into open country.

Refuelling, Greenford

My female shipmate had been introduced to me as Simone and she told me that we were on the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal, the longest merged canal in the UK. It runs from London to Birmingham and was, you might say, the HS2 of its day. It is now used almost exclusively for leisure, with fun-trippers like us complemented by walkers, fisherfolk and what are known as ‘gongoozlers’ – a particular sort of idler with a special interest in watching the coming and goings of canal life, mostly with their mouth open.

Often they like to wave. As do the people on other boats. One thing I discovered when I was invited to take the helm was that you have to be prepared for an awful lot of waving. Waving is what people do, what they want. I think it’s something to do with the speed of travel. To be fair, when you’re floating past someone it’s probably odder not to acknowledge them than it is to raise a hand.

Tee for the tillerman

And it’s this speed that gives canals a unique feel. Travelling at three knots calms the soul. It’s a serene pace; a walking pace but without the constant clump clump of your plates of meat thumping onto the ground. Your surroundings drift away and your mind is encouraged to do likewise. Which is great unless you’re steering.

‘Mind that tree, Raider!’ said Half-life, who was rolling a bifter on the roof.

‘Shit it!’ I said, and we all had to duck out of the way of low hanging branches. I’m more of a dreamer than a helmsman, I realised. I decided to take myself off steering duty, especially with a spliff on its way round.

‘Fancy a go on the tiller, Dom?’ I said, hopefully.

‘Yes,’ said Yes Dom. Such a wonderfully amenable lad, which now I come to think about it, is probably how he got his nickname.

I was sent down to the galley to fix some mojitos and enjoyed, through the windows, the sensation of gliding across the duckweed, the aquatic plant that carpets the canals in hot weather. Being on an actual trip was more than I’d hoped for.

‘So does Cyclo know you’ve moved his boat?’ I asked Half-life, passing round the drinks.

‘Yeah, must do,’ he said. ‘It’s what they’re for, innit. I mean if you borrowed a car, you’d drive it, yeah? If you borrowed an aeroplane, you’d fly it. Stands to reason. Right, Dom?’

‘Yes,’ said Yes Dom.

After Dom had successfully navigated beneath a narrow bridge we approached a small moored cruiser with what appeared to be a garden shed attached to the back.

‘You’ll never guess who lives there,’ said Half-life.

‘Who?’ I said

‘Sammy Lee,’ said Half-life.

‘Sammy Lee, the footballer?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Lives there?’

‘Yeah. Well, not “lives”. It’s his holiday home.’ This was too much for me and I had to sit down to catch my breath between guffaws. ‘Oi, Sammy, you fat bastard!’ shouted Half-life at the boat-shed as we passed, but alas there was no response.

Sammy Lee’s holiday home

Somewhere near Alperton, I was having a lovely widdle into the Thetford Porta Potti 335 in the tiny toilet, or ‘head’, when Simone knocked on the door.

‘Half-life says you should come up and see this,’ she said. I emerged, blinking, at the stern, just in time to see us cross the North Circular by aqueduct, a lifetime ambition I didn’t even know I had. We flicked the V’s at six lanes of ferocious traffic from 40 feet above it. Up at the bow, Simone gave us a wave.

Simone seems nice,’ I said.

‘Yeah. Met her this morning,’ said Half-life.

‘This morning?’

‘Yeah. Just outside Uxbridge. She was living under a bridge. Giving her a lift to Camden.’ I watched her fiddling with what looked like a small pipe.

‘Is she smoking crack?’ I said.

‘Don’t be such a tight-arse,’ said Half-life. ‘Everyone does crack on the water.’

After Kensal Green Cemetery, a last burst of green, a small pleasure cruiser waited for us to clear Ladbroke Grove Bridge even though it looked as though they had reached it first.

‘Do narrowboats have right of way, then?’ I asked Half-life.

‘Put it this way,’ he replied, ‘When you’re made of fibreglass you don’t mess with a steel superstructure unless you’re a special kind of cunt. Morning!’ he added, with a wave, as we passed the hapless cruiser. It was five o’clock in the afternoon.

After this the banks became more built up. A terrace of Victorian houses on the Harrow Road backed directly onto the water, we passed beneath the sweeping concrete curve of the Westway, past tower blocks and new lo-rise flats at Maida Hill. Here boats were moored two deep, testimony to the amount of people deciding this life is for them. And at that moment it was difficult to think of any drawbacks.

Behind the Harrow Road

‘Right, last one aboard does the Elsan,’ said Half-life when we’d moored at Little Venice, our final destination for the day.

‘What’s the Elsan?’ I asked and I was introduced to a drawback: The end of day slopping out.

But even disposing of Half-life’s foul excretions couldn’t detract from the splendour. At Little Venice, where the Regents Canal meets the Paddington Arm, handsome stuccoed townhouses lurked behind the mature trees that dappled sunlight onto the deck of our boat. Half-life removed the tiller handle with great ceremony and we settled down for a right good mess about.

Little Venice

Who could have thought it a good idea to fill in the last of South London’s canals? It turns out the culprit was the Port of London Authority, which drained and filled the Grand Surrey Canal, despite calls from some quarters for it to be re-imagined for leisure. The move was labeled by Southwark Council at the time as ‘premature and prejudicial to planning’. Looking around Little Venice now it wasn’t hard to imagine how regenerated waterways might have improved those areas they passed through.

As late as the 1960s boats would leave here for a trip over the Thames to visit the waters of Camberwell and Peckham, perhaps to marvel at South London’s coarse and drug-crazed inhabitants.

‘Right, who’s up for an anal blowback?’ said Half-life, lighting an enormous joint. Simone giggled.

‘No,’ said Yes Dom.

‘He means “canal”,’ I said.

‘I bloody don’t,’ said Half-life.

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More on the pros and cons of life on the water on this podcast:

Further reading: More on South London’s lost canals on The Great Wen

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Image credits: Painting of the Grand Surrey Canal by Eric Doitch, 1946, in the Southwark Art Collection, from Exploring Southwark; Little Venice by friedwaterused under this licence