Updated: Dec 2, 2022
UK: Skip the travel headaches and staycation this summer with a self-drive, self-catering narrow boat cruise on Britain's canal networks. Narrow boat holidays are also great for international travellers who yearn for a unique vacation in the British Countryside.
With industrial strikes and staff shortages caused by Brexit and Covid causing headaches at airports all over Britain, this looks to be another summer of staycations for all but the brave and fool-hearty. A family adventure of coasting slowly through the nation's canal networks on a hired narrow boat is a great way to see the country, explore nature, and experience flourishing canal-side communities. Working the canal locks is also a great bicep workout, as is lifting a pint at one of the many pubs that picturesquely dot the canals. Exercise, thirst-quenching and meditations on nature are all sorted with this one-stop-holiday.
THE CANAL NETWORK OF GREAT BRITAIN
Britain’s nationwide canal system was developed during the age of Roman occupation (AD43-AD410) and was the first of its kind in the world. The canals were originally used for irrigation and drainage and ran between natural water sources, increasing the availability of fresh water available in larger towns. After the Roman Empire fell, the canals went unused and crumbled, but were revived in Medieval times and used for the transportation of goods. During the Industrial Revolution (1760-1830), the towpaths that run alongside the canals were improved to increase navigability for horse-drawn barges that could transport 30 times more coal and iron ore than conventional methods of the time. Newly minted industrialists, hoping for profits made by exploiting the waterways, financed a 'Canal Mania' that introduced new systems of waterway management, including pound locks and navigational aqueducts, that helped the canal network to grow to over 4000 miles.
Following the Second World War, canal transportation of goods decreased, and many unused canals were abandoned and closed. The canal system was nationalised in 1948, to refurbish and rebuild the networks for use for recreational, tourism and leisure.
The Canal and River Trust now works to support the canal network by providing grants and funding to help maintain their safety and structure while protecting their heritage and making the canals more appealing attractions. There are several narrowboat holiday companies, with some boats advertised as B&B's as well. Some also offer boats with disability access, so best to book well in advance.
The boats are self-drive, self-catering, sleep from 2-to 10 people and can be hired for different lengths of time. They are, as a rule, six feet across and vary in length from 47 to 70 ft. The boats have all the mod-cons of a 1990s caravan trailer; kitchen, fridge, colour tv and DVD player. Go entertainment old-school and pack a book and a deck of cards because even if the boat does have WI-FI, the reception on the canal will probably be crap.
TO CAPTAIN A NARROW BOAT
Driving a 70-foot boat down a narrow canal may seem daunting, but fun always outweighs the fear on a canal boat! The boat's tiller and engine are in the rear of the barge, so the assigned driver must navigate from behind, with little visibility. An article written by Colin at narrowboatinfo.co.uk gives great boat-handling advice that I wish I would have read before venturing onto the canals. To be fair, I never had to drive the boat.
Colin's article also contains a link to information on how to manage the series of locks you will encounter on a canal. Canals use a series of locks that enable the canal to rise and fall according to the terrain. Put into simple language, this is how to work a canal lock: Pull the boat over, jump out, tie up the boat then run to the lock. Boats can back up at the locks, so you need to be quick and not dilly-dally. The locks have two sets of paddles, one on each side, that when opened allows the water to flow into the lock at the same level as your boat. When you reach them, you lift the paddles using a windlass, an apparatus used for moving heavy weights, to turn a ratcheted paddle gear, opening or closing the gates. Once the boat is in the lock, run to the next set of paddles and spin the deeley-bobs to open that set so the water rises. Then drive the boat out of the lock, if on the towpath, jump back in the boat unless you want to run to the next lock, which could be miles away.
Helpful Hint: it is always good to have three adults on the boat; one to drive the boat and two to work both sides of the locks. Invite along a strong, burly friend if you find yourselves one short. In fact, invite a strong friend who is good at tying knots because the ability to tie a rope also comes in handy on the canal. You tie up to moorings along the canal each evening for the night, and more importantly, to moor at one of the many pubs along the routes. Twisting the rope around the hooky things stuck in the towpath is fairly easy, but if you don't trust your Knotology skills, make sure someone on board is good with knots to ensure you don’t wake up in an estuary 10 miles from the pub where you moored your boat the evening before.
CHILDREN ON A NARROWBOAT
Forget my children's viewing preferences, my favourite kid's show upon moving to the UK was Rosie and Jim. Two puppets and a duck, animated when unobserved, find adventure and mischief coasting along the country's canals in their boat, the ole' Rag-doll. What captivated me about this quirky business is anybody's guess, but it did inspire me to book a narrowboat holiday for the August Bank Holiday. Travelling with three small children can be hectic, and when mine were 9,5 and 4, I yearned for calm. What could be more soothing for the soul than being entrenched with nature, cruising down the nation's waterways in a very slow-moving boat? Plus, we could take the dog.
For our first narrow boating August Bank Holiday adventure, we booked with Black Prince Holidays and the trip was a giant success. We settled on the Chirk Route in Wales because we had never been and the route was labelled as easy, and family-friendly. You had me at easy. We packed a week's worth of family-friendly food, left the dog behind and headed to the canals of Wales. The weather was cool and the countryside breathtakingly beautiful. We first visited Chirk Castle. Dating from 1310, the castle boasts a medieval tower and dungeon, a 17c Long Gallery and 18c State apartments. We discovered the Welsh affinity for names with double L's by visiting towns called Llandudno and Llfairpwllgwyngyll and the ancient village of Llangollen. Llangollen dates back to the 7th century, has a famous bridge, castle, and abbey and hosts the Llangollen International Music Eisteddfod, a competitive music festival, each July.
For me, the highlight of the Welsh canal route, and another excellent example of double L spelling, was the Pontcysyllite Aqueduct. Travelling over the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, referred to as the 'Stream in the Sky', was frightening and stunning at the same time. Luckily, the children were so well-behaved as we traversed the bridge canal that I never once considered throwing them overboard. The aqueduct stands 126ft high over the River Dee and has 19 arches, each with a 45ft span. It holds 1.5 million litres of water for the canal boats to travel on and is scary as shiz. There is a footpath available to avoid the bridge, which I would have chosen out of fear had I known of its existence.
Horseshoe Falls in Llangollen is a distinctively shaped weir that creates a pool of water that can enter the Llangollen Canal. In 2009, the weir was declared a World Heritage Site for achievements in civil engineering. The design of this weir allows the canal to function through difficult terrain without the need for locks.
SLIGHTLY OLDER CHILDREN, AND A DOG ON A NARROWBOAT
We had such a remarkable time on our Welsh narrowboat adventure that we decided to do it again a few years later. This time we decided to circumnavigate the Warwickshire Ring on the August Bank Holiday weekend. The Warwickshire Ring is a 104-mile canal route around Oxford and Coventry and Grand Union Canal, which is the principal navigable waterway between London and the Midlands. I remember that at one point we found ourselves in a body of water larger than a ten-foot-wide canal, surrounded by big ships. I thought this was the Birmingham Basin, but it might have been a heatstroke-induced delusion.
As I've proclaimed (complained) many times before, the August Bank Holiday is the one weekend of the year you can plan for hot weather... unless it is raining. It is the best weekend of the year NOT to be in London. It had been a particularly hectic summer, and the thought of cruising down a cool canal seemed soothing for the soul. This route was longer, with 121 locks, but as we were experienced narrowboat handlers, it would be a breeze. No breeze, not anywhere. The country was gripped by a punishing heatwave (in England meaning the temperatures were consistently over 75 degrees) and drought. 121 locks seemed like 120,000, and running between them gave rise to dehydration. The 'Hatton Flight' is a series of 21 locks in a row on the Grand Union Canal: no need to run between these locks, but booking a physiotherapy appointment for after might be a good idea.
'Just a Little' by Liberty X, a Simon Cowell amalgamation band of X-Factor rejects, was the biggest song of the summer, the opening line, 'sexeeee', fitting for the heatwave as nearly naked people were all over the canals. I, myself, was too hot to care. I can't recommend any highlights from this trip, though I am sure there are many, because I can't remember any.
However, I DO remember everything that went wrong with this trip. A sweet family of swans followed us for days and then bit my daughter's finger, showing the true viciousness of their nature. The same daughter was then sent airborne, in slow-motion, propelled from one end of the boat to the next when we hit a wall while trying to moor. It was a rough trip for her. Our dog, lovely Lucy the Brittany spaniel, being so fed up with the heat and her family, attempted a Great Escape style runner by jumping for shore, only to land in the canal. Fishing her out was a difficult job, and for the remainder of the journey, she carried a certain canal-flavoured pong for the remainder of the journey. Made all the more pleasant by the excessive heat. The whole sweltering, stressful trip was topped off by getting told off for returning the boat late, though I am sure the staff were correct in doing so.
That was the end of our narrowboat adventures, though I think wistfully about our time on the canals. I remember the quiet of nature, the green foliage reflected in the green canal water, and enjoying the low-fi quality of a narrowboat trip. I fondly remember my young family working together to navigate the boat during the day and playing board games in the evenings. I would recommend a narrowboat trip to anyone and look forward to when I can take my children's children on such a trip. This summer, my friend, and a contributor to this blog, Beth, and her family have been enjoying the canals, and I am mighty jealous of them!
Though Beth's trip seems to have gone off without any water-fowl attacks or accidental crashes, she did just tell me that, while she was in a village foraging for food, her family allowed her detailed mapped itinerary to blow away. If I don't hear from her soon, I know she is lost in that mysterious large body of water somewhere near Birmingham. Pictures are courtesy of Beth and her family. Thank you!
You don't need to run to the country for canal fun! The Paddington Basin has been undergoing redevelopment since the plans were first announced in 1988. The basin is now chock-full of high-rise flats and trendy eateries. The renovation of the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal, which joins the Regent's Canal in the picturesque Little Venice, has proved revellers with plenty of water activities from boat tours to kayaking to stand-up paddle boarding. Check out getyourguide.co.uk for cruise information and active360.co.uk or www.paddingtoncentral.com for water activities.
A few narrowboat companies:
Black Prince Holidays (we used Black Prince)
Beacon Park Boats boat hire in the Brecon Beacons
It is always best to compare prices, routes etc. to ensure the holiday that is best for you