Hackney Wick, a post-industrial area by London’s Olympic Stadium, has become a lively destination for eating, drinking, making art and … mooring houseboats.
“Are you a good jumper?” Gerard Pitt hopped up off his boat onto a narrow ledge emerging from the water, still a foot from the canal’s shore, and then jumped onto the grass. Earlier that afternoon, he told me he feels somewhat disoriented on land, as his body is accustomed to the continuous motion of the canal. I said, “Yes, I love to jump”—I do not—and leaped over the stagnant, algae-coated River Lea.
Two years ago, Pitt decided to buy a boat for a straightforward reason: rent hikes, a struggle with which London residents are intimately acquainted. When I met him in June, the two longboats that he rents out—he owns three total—were moored on a stretch of canal running through Hackney Wick, the neighborhood surrounding London’s Olympic Stadium.
“I realized that all the things people said were bad about boating were actually good: having to move to a new place every two weeks, basically getting off the grid,” says Pitt, who currently works as a legal writer. “Hackney Wick is the best place to be. Victoria Park is just down there. This is your mecca of boating.” The stadium-adjacent neighborhood, which experienced a revival during the 2012 Summer Olympics, has benefited from recent efforts to clean up the canals and a new crop of hip, affordable riverside bars and eateries, making it an attractive mooring hub for Pitt and many of his boat friends (“though I try not to distinguish between land friends and boat friends.”)
While there’s a perception that people living on canals is a new and distinctly London phenomenon, Pitt says, people have been living on rivers and canals for as long as people have been living anywhere. But the U.K., specifically, which has a vast canal network designed for industry and transport, has seen a spike in boat-dwellers over the past few years. And the free-living boat lifestyle doesn’t just attract restless and impossibly hip youths—though it really, really does.
“It’s an infrastructure which has been hijacked by a lot of different people,” Pitt says. “Take your millionaire retiree. He’s probably already got a fancy narrowboat he keeps in the marina, and then he retires and decides to go for a jaunt and comes down to London. There’s a lot of young single people, too. The dating scene on the canal is mad.”
Visitors to London, who don’t typically pencil in journeys to Hackney Wick, are missing out on one of the most interesting areas to eat and drink. As the formerly run-down quarter takes on new life with shops and art exhibits and earnestly ironic street art, Hackney Wick has become a destination for boaters to park, hop off and grab a beer—if they’re not already drinking on the deck of their boat, which is the best part of having a boat. One young woman I spoke with, who said living on a boat was the only way she could afford living alone, stays moored in the Hackney Wick area because of the energy.
If you make it to the neighborhood, which is quite accessible with public transport, here’s where you should stop to eat and drink. If you like it, buy a boat and start a new life, but don’t tell anyone I sent you. They’ll be mad at me for making it uncool.
Enjoy beers brewed on site, plus canal-side seating, music and pizza made to order. A hip detail: The bar is made of old railways sleepers.
Unit 7, Queens Yard, Hackney Wick, London
If you’re looking for a slightly posher dining experience with equally intimate views of the canal, go here for craft cocktails and, once a week, their beloved Sunday Roast.
90 Main Yard, Wallis Road, E9 5LN
Part-café, part-studio and part-exhibition space, Stour offers a robust event line-up every week of socially-minded screenings and workshops, plus delicious coffee.
7 Roach Rd, London E3 2PA
The riverside restaurant, which offers views of the Olympic Stadium, specializes in smoked Scottish salmon and traditional British dishes.
Stour Rd, London E3 2NT
An old warehouse found new life as a spectacular pub. All the eclectic furniture is recycled, too.
60 Dace Rd, London E3 2NQ