This article was published in The Wooden Canal Craft Society Autumn/Winter 2018 newsletter and reprinted in the Historic Narrow Boat Club 2018/4 magazine.
Claire and I took ownership of Hazel in 1975 and lived aboard for the next twelve years. Our final two years were spent based at Battlebridge Basin, behind Kings Cross station in London. Prior to that we had been semi-itinerant. We both worked in London so, when not cruising, we had always moored within commuting distance of the city. Over time, we became friendly with the British Waterways staff who lived in the former lock-keepers’ houses on the Grand Union in the Uxbridge area and they were each happy for us to moor above or below their lock for a time.
During those years we got to know, and become part of, the boating community around London. Whenever we could, we attended rallies within striking distance. A highlight of each year was the Christmas and New Year gatherings arranged by what was then the Narrow Boat Owners Club (since renamed Historic Narrow Boat Club), usually held at Stoke Bruene or somewhere in the Midlands.
Today the towpath through London is lined with boats of different shapes and sizes but back in our time BWB would soon move you on if you attempted to moor on a London towpath for any length of time. Official moorings were few and far between and BWB had no interest in creating new ones despite the obvious demand.
Battlebridge Basin is a large expanse of water adjoining the Regent’s Canal. When the canal was being constructed in 1815 William Horsefall made an agreement with the canal company that when they dug out the nearby Islington Tunnel they could dump the spoil on his land to form the basin. He ensured supply of water from the canal to fill the basin by way of an Act of Parliament. By 1822 the basin was surrounded by industrial buildings.
Battlebridge was never in the ownership of the canal company. Basins, such as City Road on the other side of the tunnel, eventually came under the control of British Waterways Board. Battlebridge, on the other hand, always remained private. In the mid-1970s, when commercial traffic on the Regent’s had only recently ceased, Battlebridge lay empty apart from one or two sunken cars just below the surface. Being so close to the centre of London, it was a prime piece of property. In the 1970s developers had plans to fill it in but fortunately that never came to pass. I am unclear as to the history of the ownership of the basin but in the 1970s the overall landlord was the Greater London Council and perhaps that is what saved it.
It was in 1978 that a group of boat-owners had the idea of setting up a mooring. They approached a factory on the side of the basin who agreed to allow their boats to be moored against the building. The mooring was created as a non-profit organisation under the name of the London Narrow Boat Association. Membership was limited to just enough resident boats to fill the length of the factory wall when moored side by side. Each time a boat moved elsewhere a vote was held to choose a new member from a waiting list. Many of the residents owned ex-working boats, some converted with living space and others still in their original condition of back-cabin and empty hold. The factory was at the entrance to the basin and the boats moored end-on to the wharf, across the basin. Perhaps the description ‘wharf’ is a slight exaggeration: it was barely more than a narrow ledge with mooring rings on the water side of the factory wall, along which the residents had to carefully walk to exit the mooring. In the beginning there were no facilities and a rowing boat was used to transport the boats’ Elsan toilets to the nearest pump-out station at St Pancras Lock. Over time an agreement was made to obtain mains water and electricity. By the time Claire and I arrived, a room had been knocked through into the adjoining premises to house a bath and washing machine: absolute luxuries for those of us who had long done without such facilities.
Fate was kind to us. Claire was pregnant with our first daughter when a space became available at Battlebridge. We knew several owners of the resident boats and the LNBA voted us in. Despite the small luxuries, life at Battlebridge was fairly basic and Kings Cross in those days had, shall we say, a certain reputation. Nevertheless, it was a wonderful community at Battlebridge and I have some very fond memories. We stayed there for two years until 1987 when we saw some new houses being built just along the canal. We decided it was time, after twelve years aboard Hazel, to move onto dry land and we bought one of the houses. Hazel then became part of the Wooden Canal Boat Society.
Since then, the area around Kings Cross has changed considerably. Smart new apartments, office blocks, gardens, and ornamental fountains have replaced the old, run-down industrial buildings. Across the basin from the mooring was a printing works, which has been replaced by the Guardian newspaper offices and state-of-the-art Kings Place concert hall. Beside the mooring was a piece of waste-ground we employed as a car park (and ladies of the night used for other purposes) and that is now occupied by a terrace of townhouses. During our time, the far end of the basin was occupied by an ancient factory with the words “JAMS AND MARMALADES” blazoned across the top of it in white lettering. That was later replaced by apartments, with a second, private, mooring created across that end of the basin.
After the abolition of the GLC by Margaret Thatcher in 1986 the moorings had a new landlord. That prompted the two sets of Battlebridge moorings to merge into one to form the London Narrowboat Company, with each of the boat residents being a shareholder. That is how things remain today.
In 1992 the London Canal Museum was created in one corner of Battlebridge Basin. It is housed in the former warehouse built by Carlo Gatti in about 1860 to store ice imported from Norway in the days before refrigeration. The ice came to London by ship, then to Kings Cross via the Regent’s Canal Dock and along the canal. Gatti was an Italian-Swiss immigrant who was one of the earliest to sell ice-cream to ordinary Londoners. Below the museum are two large wells in which the ice was stored, and it is still possible to climb down into one of them, which is quite an earie experience. The museum itself is quite small but well worth a visit.
In August of this year a party was organised to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the founding of the mooring at Battlebridge. Held in the museum, it brought together many of the boatowners from those early pioneering days of the moorings, as well as current residents. The Mayor of Islington came along to cut a cake, made in the shape of the basin, complete with narrowboats. Most of us are now in our sixties and seventies and some have sadly passed away. John Yates, a prime instigator of the original LNBA mooring, quipped that we all sound the same yet look very different. It certainly took me some time to match the grey (or bald in some cases) individuals with the youthful thirty-somethings from when I last saw them thirty years ago. It was a splendid affair and brought back many good memories of our time living aboard Hazel. I hope enough of us survive for there to be a fiftieth anniversary party.