Location: London Canal Museum, Battlebridge Basin, Regents Canal
Today, I want to tell you about the London Canal museum. I visited there one rainy day when I was in London. It is a small museum, tucked away on the back streets (but backing on to a canal basin), nothing like the scale of the Natural History Museum that is also in London. It has three parts, one is the upstairs that changes the display depending on what is there, while I went they were having a display about London’s lost canals. The second part is about working boats and the third part is about the ice house and the ice trade in London. It has the part about ice because the museum is inside one of the old ice warehouses that got served by the canalboats carrying ice.
As you walk in the front door you walk over an old weighing scale which measured the weights of the carts entering and leaving the building so that the warehouse keepers knew exactly how much ice they were taking and so how much to charge them. You can stop and close your eyes for a minute and imagine that you are back in those olden days when it was a busy warehouse and horses were coming and going with carts loaded with ice and being stabled upstairs in the stables.
Inside, once you have paid (at the desk with the very friendly staff), straight ahead of you is an ice pit where huge blocks of ice used to be stored underground to help keep it cool. It is an awesome sight. Behind the ice pit is another display and doors which look out on Battlebridge Basin. Looking out on to the basin you can really see how the building would have been used in days gone by. With canal boats bringing ice from the large ships in the docks in the Thames, then the ice being unloaded and stored in the underground pits. Then from the pits being transferred to carts with horses pulling them around London doing deliveries, to restaurants and the wealthier people of London.
To your left as you walk in, after the shop and welcome desk is an old working narrowboat and inside you can press a button and hear a recording which gives you a glimpse of what real life was like on a working boat. The recording is of a couple who are working on the boat so you get a flavour of real life rather than a load of facts like you often get.
To the right at the front is a children’s area where there is colouring tables and a dress up box among other activities. Further along there is the display about ice cream, and the people who ran the ice warehouse before it was turned in to a museum. This is really interesting and gives you an idea what real life was like, before we had freezers. That is a bit of an eye opener for someone in the generation that I was born in to who never knew a time when people did not have fridges and freezers, I loved reading about how people managed to cope without them.
Upstairs there is a display area which the London Canal Museum change every-so-often and when I was there it was a fascinating display about all the different canals that London used to have. It was called ‘London’s Lost Canals’. When you are upstairs (which used to be the stable for the horses) you can see the ramp which the horses used to climb to get to where they would be stabled. I loved the fact that the horses used to live upstairs. I suppose that it is easier to move living creatures up a ramp than goods, especially the ice that needed to be kept cool. There is also a permanent display showing stuff about horses and the early engines.
An early Bolinder engine
On the way out I went to the little shop that is to your left as you walk in, it has a large array of canal related items, from books on canals and boat maintenance to tea towels to postcards. It also had far too many good recipe books that I had to tear myself away from buying (I already have far too many recipe books). Last time I was there I bought a book on boat electronics (hopefully if I read it I will have some better understanding of boat electronics).
I loved my visit, and the entrance fee of £5 for an adult and £2.50 for a child seemed very reasonable for something that can take up a whole afternoon and has some good stuff for kids. The London Canal Museum also has some great exibits for adults too and is a really interesting afternoon. To get there you can use the tube, getting out at Kings Cross station and it is a short walk. It is also possible to arrive by boat, see their website for details here.