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Staying on a Houseboat in London: What to Expect and How to Book


 

Most tourists don’t know that London is threaded with canals, and visitors can tour the city while staying on board a barge. Here are the advantages and disadvantages, and how to book a good one.

 

There’s a way to stay in Central London that’s a world away from the clamor and traffic, where a morning view of waterfowl gliding past your bedroom window is the norm. 

 

London supports a small population of people who live permanently aboard houseboats in canals dug for shipping purposes centuries ago, and a few of those boats are available for rent to short-term tourists. 

 

Anyone can stay on board a boutique barge that’s permanently moored in Paddington Basin, where the Grand Union and Regent’s canals meet in the affluent Little Venice residential area of North London, without sacrificing proximity to the major sights or amenities. All it takes is knowing how.

 

A lesser-known world within Central London

 

The first thing to consider once you’ve decided to book your unique houseboat rental in London is the location. Regent’s Canal commences in Little Venice near Paddington railway station, crosses north London, and runs through to east London via Regent’s Park and Camden past the world-famous markets, while the Grand Union canal winds from west London all the way to the English cities of Birmingham and Leicester. 

 

Barges in east London and the Docklands district, such as this one in Limehouse, can be 30 mins to an hour away from the West End on public transportation, so although they’re quiet, they can be more complicated to use as a base for everyday touring.  

 

But in Little Venice, the area where both canals meet, barges are near Paddington Station, which is closer to the West End and connected to the main sights of the city by the Underground within just a few stops. Not far away, you’ll also find the famous zebra pedestrian crossing from the cover of the Beatles’ Abbey Road album. 

(Photo: Rebecca Hall)

The Paddington Basin area is also stocked with plenty of options for places to eat: quirky cafés on other barges, cosy pubs, and Clifton Nurseries—London’s oldest garden center, with a place to eat artisan cakes, savories and speciality teas and coffees in the Nursery’s glasshouse conservatory.   Paddington station, with direct trains to and from Heathrow every 15 minutes, is a 10-minute walk away, and also within walking distance are Notting Hill’s mix of upscale boutiques, celeb-rich restaurants and Portobello Road’s market.

 

In warm-weather months, the Regent’s Canal is also plied by 45-minute canal waterbuses between Paddington Basin and Camden Lock.

 

A typical barge stay

 

Although there are many other barges available for rent from a variety of owners (more on that soon), I stayed on one of the Boutique Barges, which are two centuries-old houseboats that have been renovated to a high standard with quality fixtures along with the latest technology such as Bluetooth speakers and free Wi-Fi. 

 

The owner of the boat I stayed on, Sam Barbic, was once a set designer with an interior design business, and she bought and renovated her own barges to rent for short stays. 

 

Barbic’s Velvet Morning  is a 53-foot houseboat (pictured below), with a king-size master cabin and sofa bed for additional guests, plus a small upper bunk for a younger child. Like all London houseboat barges, it’s long and narrow.

(Photo: Boutique Barges)
The living area, which is typical for rentable houseboats, comprises a lounge and small dining table for two. The kitchen is fitted with gas oven and hob, fridge with freezer compartment, sink and draining board, cupboards, and drawers with the equipment you need to cook your own meals, if you want.

On Boutique, the bathroom has a claw-foot bath and shower. Water is held in an on-bard tank, and depending on your length of stay and usage, will usually only need to be topped up once—your host does this. On nearly all houseboats, all towels and toiletries are provided. 

 

Despite being moored alongside the public towpath—once where animals pulled vessels, but now the domain of walkers and cyclists—there is minimal noise at night. 


(Photo: Rebecca Hall)
 

The boats are easy to step onto, but most boats are not wheelchair accessible. Still, no gangway needs to be navigated, and entry via the rear deck is usually accomplished by a combination code lock or a key. 

 

You probably won’t be required to move your boat to fill up the water tank—it’s usually done for you by the host before your stay, who also tops off the tank if needed.  If the vessel does have to be moved, you probably won’t have to do it yourself. You can usually stay on board as your host sails it a short way down the canal to refill from a communal area—a great opportunity to see how these boats are operated. 

 

Considerations of renting a houseboat

In the fall months, heating is provided by a solid fuel stove (the Papillon is pictured below) burning a combination of smokeless coal and logs (also provided). The stove can be controlled and kept going at all hours, but you will need to load the stove before going out to tour and stoke it with a little attention on your return. (Partly because of the stove, most barge houseboats have smoke and carbon monoxide alarms in each room.)


(Photo: Boutique Barges)

There’s one other chore that renters of houseboats might have to make time for: To power the electrical system, boats may require the engine to be powered up and run for at least an hour a day. It’s not complicated and it can be done while you’re lounging aboard, but it’s one element that makes a houseboat stay unlike one in a conventional apartment. (Not every rental will require this. Papillion, Barbic’s other boat, is tethered to an electricity source on land and needs less attention.)

 

Life on London’s canals can also be seasonal—in winter, the scheduled waterbuses and tourist boats on the canals don’t usually operate, and rentals such as Velvet are only available from June through October. 

 

Many boats also have a cassette toilet system with a removable waste-holding tank that is emptied and cleaned by the host every three to five days. Toilet paper can’t be flushed into the tank and must be placed in a provided bin. 

 

Within 15 mins walking distance are al fresco dining options such as The Summerhouse, The Waterway, and The Cheese Barge, and for a classy cinema experience, the cozy, local Everyman cinema, which has two-seaters, bar food and wine, cocktails, and champagne. Yet considering you’ll have fully equipped kitchen and gorgeous sunset views, you’ll more than likely want to spend your evenings in your temporary home.


(Photo: Boutique Barges)

Many rental boats have internet access that isn’t strong enough to stream video but is enough to keep you connected. There’s no A/C on most boats, but to be honest, it’s not usually needed considering the breeze that usually wafts across the water.  Electric fans can be furnished if needed, but the boats’ size and partial submersion tends to keep the temperature comfortable nearly all the time.

 

How to find a London houseboat barge stay

Boat owners tend to list their vessels on a variety of websites, ranging from their own to a few third party one.  

 

Boats also typically require a minimum stay—two nights is common. 

 

Because the final booking is usually handled directly with the owner and not by a third party, we recommend using a credit card in case anything goes wrong with your rental. Each boat has its own cancellation policy, cleaning fees, and penalties, so make sure you know them before committing.  

 

Coolstays showcases unique places to stay across the UK, Europe and Worldwide.  It gives an rough idea of price, i.e. “from £250 per night” (a total of £500/US $630), but in order to finalize the rate, first you must enquire about availability and to do this, a free account must be opened.  

 

Host Unusual has a similar concept to Coolstay; it redirects you to the owner’s website to book. Prices are around £460 for two nights (US $580).

 

Book a Houseboat offers prices in U.S. dollars and quotes $817 for two nights, including cleaning fee.  To book with this one, you must first “introduce yourself to the owner” (its words) by leaving a message and tell them about yourself. 

 

PlumGuide quotes two-night stays around US $883 including cleaning fee. Again, an account is needed to book.


(Photo: Boutique Barges)

The author stayed at a discounted rate on both Velvet Morning and Papillion, but Frommer’s retained full control over the topics and content of this coverage and there is no financial relationship between the vendors and Frommer’s.

 



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