Sundae best

26th September 1997 at 01:00
Carol Spero stops for an ice-cream at the London Canal Museum

Ice-cream and narrow-boats are not as unrelated as you might think. In the depths of a former 18th-century warehouse on the Battlebridge Basin near London's King's Cross are two huge pits where ice, transported along the Grand Union Canal by horse-drawn barge, was stored in order to sustain the enterprises of Carlo Gatti, Italian ice-cream maker supreme, at the turn of the century. Gatti had ice blocks imported all the way from Norway and finally deposited at his own premises, where they remained frozen for weeks, so that he could supply his many London outlets.

The setting is now the centre of the London Canal Museum, with an area given over to a permanent exhibition of the history of ice- cream production: a delight both for the greedy and the watery.

A fascinating display of early ice-cream makers and freezing machines, pinnacled cabinets displaying deliciously-painted ice- cream sundaes, real pre-war "Stop Me and Buy One" tricycles and a glimpse into a grim ice cavern, is twinned with the history of the barge folk and the canals they worked.

The museum is a magical introduction into a way of life where, squeezed inside the cabin of a real barge, perched on the bunk-seat, a tiny family might await the supper simmering, inches away on the little iron stove with its tall black chimney. Castles, rivers and flower garlands decorate doors and window shutters, buckets and cans, and giant teapots covered with roses carry baby ones on their backs.

You will find barge furniture, life-size models of bargee women in their distinctive dresses and aprons, hair tied with a kerchief against the coal dust. There are photographs of bargees in their working clothes and in their round black Sunday hats, old pictures of craft, painted in bright colours by the crew themselves, and illustrated histories of the waterways.

The horses were stabled on the upper floor reached by a ramp. Along the wall there is a stunning mural depicting a life-size procession of the animals and their masters trailing up the incline at the end of the day, man and beast bowed with exhaustion. The small project classroom has a video of the Regent's Canal in earlier days and the changing boats and the room can be booked for lectures. The museum shop has objects that are unlikely to be found anywhere else, for they are all canal-oriented: barge postcards, decorated key rings, story-books about bargee children, "Rosie and Jim" barge dolls and beautifully decorated mugs, plates and spoons.

The Tarporley, a narrow-boat originally built in 1937 to carry cargo, is now installed for the use and pleasure of all sectors of the community. Groups of 12 can board the barge outside the museum twice a day from Monday to Friday and travel along the Islington Tunnel, beneath the City Road and past two locks as far as Kingsland Basin and back again. Children can work the locks themselves under the supervision of Phil, the Skipper, and so experience a little of a bargee's work-load. The trips, which must be pre-booked, take just about an hour.

The London Canal Museum can be reached by train, tube or bus to King's Cross and is only a short walk from there, or you could foot it along the towpath of the Regent's Canal, glimpsing elegant town houses hidden between old timber yards, warehouses and alleyways, or sudden green oases concealing nesting birds: a backstreet panorama of the ever-changing industrial city, and a voyage of discovery in itself.

The London Canal Museum 1213 New Wharf Road, King's Cross, London N1 9RT. Tel: 0171 713 0836. Open Tues-Sun 10m to 4pm. The Tarporley Community Narrow-boat.Tel: 0171 586 8166

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