Roaming cafes and pirate boats: readers' favourite floating traders

From home brew kits to pirate-themed gifts, when we asked for your favourite canal boat shops, you certainly gave us variety.

Lisa Ashwood told us about a floating sweetshop that she was thrilled to discover near the end of a long, tiring run from Buxton to her home village. “We were all flagging and the sudden discovery of a sweetshop canal boat was just too exciting,” she says.

Few things symbolise the way our cities have transformed more than canals. Around the world, cities have woken up to the power of their urban waterways: from Milan to Manchester, the former economic arteries of industry are being turned into corridors for walkers, boaters and wildlife. Cafes and restaurants are proliferating and canalside living is newly chic – and newly costly. 

As commercial interests muscle in on the last great undeveloped bit of Britain’s cities, Guardian Cities and the Observer wanted to take stock of a crucial moment in history, when we still have a choice: whether to turn canals into sanitised enclaves of wealth, or preserve them as a precious resource for all.

Chris Michael, Cities editor

Kevin Hall told us about a boat that sells Staffordshire oatcakes filled with cheese and bacon, which is often moored near Stoke City’s Bet365 football stadium on match days. And several of you got in touch with glowing endorsements of Sam Skinner’s floating bike repair service (a photo of which we included in our original callout). Here are a selection of your responses:

‘They are responsible for getting my husband into home brewing’

The Home Brew Boat.

The Home Brew Boat. Photograph: Helen Tidy/Guardian Community

“My favourite boat traders are without doubt the Home Brew Boat. They sell all sorts of home brew equipment and are responsible for getting my husband into home brewing. They continuously cruise, mainly in the north-west and Midlands but have a thriving mail order part to their business and Barry is always happy to answer questions or have his expertise tapped.

“We love it when we are in their vicinity. Barry and Sandra are such engaging and enthusiastic proprietors that passing the time of day with them is always enjoyable and often leads to us buying yet more home brew stuff. When our supplies run low and we are not nearby we make use of mail order. As a sideline they sell Barry’s greetings cards which are printed with fabulous photos he’s taken (he was a professional photographer for 30 years before taking to the canals).” Helen Tidy, Aldridge

‘She sets up her roaming cafe with cute tables and hammocks’

Cake on the Cut, run by by Sam Keay on a narrowboat called Squox and Botter.

Cake on the Cut, run by by Sam Keay on a narrowboat called Squox and Botter. Photograph: Katie/Guardian Community

“Cake on the Cut is run by Sam Keay on a narrowboat called Squox and Botter. Not only is it a fantastic cafe boat selling lots of yummy cakes and treats, she makes and sells Gangplank Spirits and Preserves which are produced with foraged fruit and herbs. Super tasty! A friendly trader with a very unusual paint job on her narrowboat – both sides are different and depict scenes of nature. She always sets up her roaming cafe with lots of cute tables, chairs, flowers and sometimes hammocks.” Katie lives on a narrowboat in Hertfordshire

‘The owner dresses like a pirate’

Heidi Manning runs the Pirate Boat

Heidi Manning runs the Pirate Boat. Photograph: The Pirate Boat

“The Pirate Boat sells various items, which all have a pirate theme. The last time we visited it was also selling ice cream and hot drinks. My kids absolutely love visiting this boat – the owner is a real character, she dresses like a pirate and interacts with everyone. My little boy was ecstatic when she handed him an inflatable sword and proceeded to have a play sword fight with him.” Anonymous

‘They offer a huge range of online music lessons’

Andechs narrowboat which runs an online music school.

Andechs narrowboat which runs an online music school. Photograph: Richard Foster/Guardian Community

“My favourite narrowboat is based on the Upper Peak Forest canal (and seen on the Macclesfield canal and also the Middlewich to Macclesfield stretch of the Trent and Mersey canal). The boat is called Andechs and an online music school is run from on board. They offer a huge range of live online instrumental music lessons provided by their music teachers who are based all over the world. I love the idea of their use of the latest technology from what was once the latest technology over 200 years ago, when the canals were built for very different commercial use.” Richard Foster, New Mills, Derbyshire

‘We spent our emergency cash on wine gums and jelly babies’

Candy Boat – a sweetshop on the water

Candy Boat – a sweetshop on the water. Photograph: Candy Boat/Facebook

“[Candy Boat’s owner] covers hundreds of miles but when we discovered it he was in Whaley Bridgeon the lovely Peak Forest canal. We had been for a long run, in which we got a train to Buxton and ran back home to our village 13 miles away. About three miles from our destination our route took us out of the hills and onto the canal for an easy run home. We were all flagging and sudden discovery of a sweetshop canal boat was just too exciting. We all spent the emergency cash we keep in our backpacks and finished the run loaded with wine gums, jelly babies and other goodies.” Lisa Ashwood, Cheshire

‘They embody the spirit of the canals’

NB Hekla pop-up art gallery

Hekla pop-up art gallery. Photograph: Hekla

“Hekla was in Watford last week, Mile End market this week, and who knows where next week. They’re a very nice couple selling very nice pictures and a very good book all round the network. They embody the spirit of the canals, using the system as it should be, travelling round making and selling stuff, with a friendly face taking your money off you.” John Williamson

‘They reach knitters in far-flung communities’

The Wool Boat. Colin and Carole Warring sell commercial and indie dyed yarn.

The Wool Boat. Colin and Carole Warring sell commercial and indie dyed yarn. Photograph: Cathy Wright/Guardian Community

“Colin and Carole Warring from the Wool Boat sell commercial and indie yarn and dyed yarn, and are generally all round good eggs. In a pretty competitive market they endeavour to bring people together. Their boat reaches people who knit in far-flung communities and they champion English wool.” Cathy Wright, Ormskirk

‘Floating Repairs is bicycle bliss … and he makes a good cuppa’

Sam’s floating bike repair shop

Sam’s floating bike repair shop. Photograph: Imogen Pajamas/Guardian Community

“Floating repairs is a mystical mechanical trip of bicycle bliss with long-legged Sammy making frames soldered in heaven. Makes a good cuppa too while you’re waiting for your ride to be repaired.” Imogen

‘It serves fabulous Staffordshire oatcakes’

The Oatcake Boat on the canal near the stadium in Stoke on Trent.

The Oatcake Boat on the canal near the stadium in Stoke-on-Trent. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

“The Oakcake boat is on the Trent and Mersey canal, opposite a local wildlife area known as Westport Lake. It serves fabulous Staffordshire oatcakes filled with cheese and bacon, plus tea and coffee. This place is a local institution and is very popular along this stretch of the canal. Also moors near Stoke City’s Bet365 stadium on match days. It serves the best oatcakes, our local delicacy that resembles a pancake but is made with oatmeal and is savoury rather than sweet. Be prepared to queue.” Kevin Hall

The canal revolution series looks at what our changing waterways reveal about modern British cities. Follow Guardian Cities on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and use the hashtag #canalrevolution to join the discussion or sign up for our weekly newsletter


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