What?: Canals are great, aren’t they? A lovely, contemplative stroll from Hackney to Islington, or Islington to Camden, or even Camden to Paddington along the Regent’s always sorts me right out. I love the relative quiet and the pretty scenery coupled with the occasional slice of grim urbanity. I love the lines of colourful narrow boats that always make me wish I had one. I even love the creepily murky water that’s likely concealing something even creepier beneath, although the constant DING DING of cyclists’ bells behind you – even when moving any further out their way would mean falling in – really, really does my head in. Otherwise though, the canal is life.
Despite this, I’d never been able to summon much enthusiasm when it came to the London Canal Museum, despite it being less than a 10-minute bus ride from our flat. We were invited once and I replied saying I was up for it but never heard anything after that, so I moved on with my life. Anyway, I didn’t hold much hope for this place in terms of toddler-friendliness and kind of dismissed it as the domain of old train-spotting types, except – y’know – boats (is boat spotting a thing?). So why did we bother? Well, dare I say it, it kind of feels like we’re nearing the end of the museums-we-haven’t-been-to list and Babu is at an age and point in her museum-going career where she will manage to extract at least a small amount of fun from most museum scenarios, so I figured we might as well and even if it was really boring it’s right next to Kings Cross and its myriad cultural treats.
The best place to start at the LCM is with a tour from Colin the Yorkshireman, a very knowledgable volunteer who is clearly absolutely loving life at the museum. This unofficial – and by no means enforced – tour only took about five minutes and covered the basic themes before we were sent on our merry way to explore. I usually avoid tours when I’ve got the kids with me since they always seem to sense my anxiety that one of them might kick off and do just that, but this one was so short the kids barely noticed it was happening and it really helped us navigate the space and understand the content better than if we’d been totally left to our own devices – which we usually are and usually leave none the wiser than when we arrived since, as we all know, reading stuff in a museum with kids in tow is basically impossible.
The museum’s literal and metaphorical centrepiece – and obviously the main draw for kids – is the Coronis, a narrowboat that’s fully open for exploration and decked out like it would have been when it was in use. Incidentally Coronis was built by the same company that built the Titanic (and just 25 years later), which sort of blows my mind, despite this “butty” being significantly smaller than its ill-fated predecessor. Small is kind of a theme at this museum, which flatters itself as being “medium-sized” when really it’s pretty compact. That’s ok though, because for a small museum the LCM packs quite the factual punch, as well as offering enough to entertain little ones for an hour or two beyond simply running back and forth through the narrowboat.
Alongside the many, many information boards, which contain a surprising number of facts about ice cream (the museum building was originally an ice warehouse and the owner, Carlo Gatti, had a business selling “penny licks”), are a number of interactives in various states of disrepair and with varying levels of interest where the toddlers were concerned, including a big illustrated map of the London canal network, a display showing canal-boat cargoes, a light-up interactive identifying different types of boat, and a couple of models to gawp at. We also really liked the ice well with its pretty rainbow lights, though we were a bit bummed you couldn’t actually go down into it.
We didn’t discover the best bit – a little kids’ corner with shelves full of craft materials and books, and a heap of beanbags – until the very end, which was a shame because it also contained boxes of binoculars, torches and magnifying glasses that I think would have massively enhanced our kids’ experience of the museum had we found it at the beginning. So yeah, that’s my big tip: kids’ corner first, then everything else. I feel like I should also give a shout out to the platform lift, which was apparently more exciting than your average lift due to its having no walls or roof. We probably spent about 25% of our visit riding this lift.
Where and When?: The London Canal Museum can be found at 12/13 New Wharf Rd, N1 9RT and is an eight-minute walk from King’s Cross station. It’s open 10am-4.30pm Tuesday-Sunday.
Best Bits: The kids’ area, which is sort of round the corner on the right-hand side of the ground floor. I also thought the canal boat was pretty cool and found all the stuff about ice cream really interesting, but maybe I was just hungry.
Worst Bits: Some of the displays could do with a bit of love.
Facilities: Toilets, step-free access, children’s area, buggy parking.
Cost: Adult admission costs £5. Under-5s go free.
Would We Come Back?: Yeah, probably in a year or two when we’ve forgotten what’s there.
Babu explores the butty Coronis at the London Canal Museum, Kings Cross.