If you like enjoying exploring at your own pace, then holidaying afloat in a narrowboat may be for you. Inland waterways abound around the world, from the USA to Russia and much of Europe. Here I’ve focused on getting afloat in the United Kingdom, but you’ll find similar arrangements elsewhere.
Canals and rivers run through miles of unspoilt countryside, where you can enjoy the beauty of the land, while seeing all kinds of places that aren’t accessible by road. Picture swans bringing out their cygnets on parade, the chatter of sheep and dragonflies on the wing. Then there are the urban treats too; many towns and cities have totally revitalised their canal basins and riversides, making all kinds of facilities readily available waterside. The choice is yours, and it’s all at your own pace. There’s a new adventure around every bend.
Seven Reasons To Book A Narrowboat Holiday
- You’ll see the world at a gentler pace and in more detail. Canalside cottages, sheep with opinions on life, a kingfisher on the wing, the heritage of bridges and buildings, it’s all a revelation when you have that time to stop and stare.
- It’s a bonding experience. You get to work as a team with the people you’re traveling with, working locks together and planning your stops.
- You’ll be fitter at the end of your trip. A boating holiday is an active one, whether you’re walking the towpath alongside your boat, or working the locks.
- It’s an opportunity to de-stress. You’re moving at walking pace, and time passes differently on the water.
- The canals are full of shiny happy people. I’ve never had more hellos and chats than when on the towpath. It’s a cheerful and pleasant experience.
- You choose your route and your pace. See something you like the look of? Linger awhile.
- Want to see what’s round the next corner? It’s curiously addictive. It’s like a story, unfolding before you, one bend at a time.
Afloat In a Narrowboat: Before You Book
The waterways have their own world and work in their own time. But don’t think it means you’ll be stepping back in time. Most boats are rather like a long apartment, with separate spaces for sleeping, bathing, cooking (usually with a galley next to the saloon) and sitting. The well deck will often have seating, and those not working the locks or at the helm can chill out here and watch the world go by.
Here are the answers to some of the common questions about taking a boating holiday. First up, you don’t need a licence. But you do need to be aware of, and follow, a few basic rules. All hire companies will make this information available to you. You’ll also get some tuition when you pick up your boat at the start of the trip. For this reason, you don’t need an experienced boater in your party.
You’ll have noticed I say party. Although some liveaboard cruisers are solo travelers on the waterways, even with their experience, some locks can be tricky if there is only one person on board. So be prepared to travel with friends, family or your partner. I’ve seen many children having a great time on hire boats, and with plenty of common sense it’s a brilliant holiday choice for families. Many hire companies also allow pets, and dogs seem to adore boating life.
London as you don’t normally see it from Regents Canal, Islington
Afloat In A Narrowboat: Where Can I Go?
There are speed limits for the sake of the bank, and for fellow cruisers, whose boats will be rocking if you tear past their moorings at speed. Depending on the waterway, you’ll be travelling at a maximum of 4 mph on canals and up to 7 mph elsewhere. If you’re cruising for around 4 hours a day, that means that you can cover 80-100 miles in a week. You can travel anywhere in the water covered by your boat’s licence.
Normally a hire company will provide you with cruising route maps or suggested routes for the duration of your holiday. Remember that trips with more locks will take longer to navigate, so don’t just compare mileage when you’re choosing your route.
You’ll be shown how to moor up. The most popular moorings tend to be closest to waterside facilites such as pubs, restaurants, villages and towns. Some busier moorings are chargeable, but quieter ones are free of charge, including Environment Agency moorings and canal towpaths.
What About The Locks?
Depending on the route you choose, you’ll soon get used to locks. The first thing to remember is lock etiquette. If the lock is set for the boat approaching you, don’t steal their water and make them wait while you set it your way. Once you’re ready to go, just steer your boat in and use the wooden beams to close the gates behind you. Then you open the paddle doors in the other gates with the windlass, an L-shaped winding handle provided with your boat. This lets the water in or out and changes the water level in the lock.
When your lock water is level with the direction of travel, you head on out, then close the gates and paddle doors behind you. Occasionally you’ll find volunteers on the canal to help you with your passage through the locks. At other times, locks can be wide enough for two boats, as is the case on the lengthy Hatton flight near Warwick. You can then wait for a companion boat to transit with you and share the lock work. You can see from this that boating is quite active, and you’ll get plenty of steps into your daily travel.
Afloat On A Narrowboat: Creature Comforts And Staying Connected
I’ve talked about the inside of a narrowboat and all its facilities. Boats will come supplied with a full tank of water for cooking, washing and showering. You can top up at any water point if you start to run short.
Check when you book about electrical appliances. Many boats have 240v systems, but it’s not always possible to bring your home appliances with you. In many cases, you’ll only be able to use the appliances supplied onboard. You’ll often have access to a 12v socket, similar to that in a car. So anything with a car adapter will work from this socket including phones, cameras and chargers. Don’t forget to bring your adapters.
Where Should We Go?
We’ve talked about the cruising range of a boat over a week. As this is really the equivalent of a couple of hour’s drive, it’s important to choose a part of the country that you’d love to explore in detail. Or else to consider a particular experience you’d like to have, whether that’s crossing a viaduct or dealing with a big lock flight.
The Canal and River Trust is the charity tasked with protecting over 2000 miles of waterway in England and Wales. On its website you can search its interactive maps to plan your trip and identify all kinds of landmarks and things to do along the way. Whether you’re interested in walking, art, wildlife, fishing or events, you’ll find details there. The Canal and River Trust have also produced this video on basic boating skills, if you’d like to know more about boat handing and safety onboard.
Here is a selection of companies offering narrowboat hire. My recommendation is that you think first about where you would like to pick up your boat. That will determine how far you can cruise in the time available. Then, as ever, check out reviews to be sure that you are happy with the level of customer satisfaction.
The following are some of the companies with boats for hire:
- Drifters, who also run open days to let people try out boating for the first time
- Narrowboat Hire
- Waterways Holidays
- Narrowboat Holidays
- Ashby Boats
- Kate Boats
I’ve dealt with the Broads separately here, as for the most part, hire vessels are cruisers rather than narrowboats, and the waterways are distinct. The Broads National Park – sometimes called the Norfolk Broads – is a network of mainly navigable rivers and lakes in Norfolk and Suffolk. The lakes themselves – the Broads – were formed by the flooding of peat workings. There are 120 miles of navigable waterways here covering seven rivers and 63 broads. Thirteen of those broads are open to navigation. You can find out more about what it’s like to hire a boat on the Norfolk Broads here, complete with swans, herons, villages, pubs and picnics.
Since the late nineteenth century, the Broads have been a boating holiday destination. The waterways are lock-free, and there are 5 bridges under which only smaller boats and cruisers can pass. The beauty of the Broads attracts many visitors including ramblers, bird watchers, artists and anglers. Plus, of course, those who love messing around in boats. If you do, be sure to look out for the Norfolk wherry, the traditional cargo craft of the area. There are some restored wherrys about on the Broads.
As is the case on the canal network, there are strict speed limits on the broads, which stops waves eroding the riverbanks. Speed limiters are fitted on many hire boats.
If you are interested in sailing on the Broads, you’ll find a number of hire companies offering motor launches and yachts:
As always, please note that we are not affiliated to any of the hire companies mentioned throughout this piece. So do your own checks on customer satisfaction before booking.
Holiday Afloat In A Narrowboat
If you’re considering a holiday afloat, you can also test out whether it’s for you by taking a day hire or a long weekend. Many companies offer day hires or four day rentals, with a few potential routes to enjoy your time afloat. Check out the websites for individual hire companies to see what is available.
What To Bring On A Narrowboat Holiday
If you’re heading out for a narrowboat holiday, most hire websites will have good advice on what to bring. My own recommendation, as a regular walker of the towpaths in all seasons, would be to bring shoes with good grip. Those towpaths can be muddy, even in summer, particularly around water access points. Plus if you’ve chosen a route with lots of locks, at least some of your group may be hopping on and off the boat regularly.
This is not the place to pack your finest attire. Think being comfortable, with maybe a couple of nicer outfits if you stumble on somewhere a bit dressier for dinner. Sometimes you can moor up right by a pub to just step ashore for food. Think outdoor living too. If you’re at the helm, you’ll essentially be out in whatever weather your time steering brings. So sunscreen, a sunhat and something waterproof including head covering would be a good idea.
Depending on your starting point, it might also be good to arrive with provisions. It would be a shame to spend your first day finding out where the nearest supermarket is located. Don’t forget that although people happily live aboard narrowboats full time, storage on board can be limited. So travel bags you can squash down into cupboards would be a bonus, particularly if you are filling all the berths on the boat.
Finally, bring things to do and chill with. Books and magazines, games, even outdoor games as there are often picnic stops at canal junctions. Binoculars would be good if you want to check out wildlife, or what’s ahead in the distance. If you’re a magnet for small flying things, some repellent wouldn’t go amiss.
If I’ve whetted your appetite for exploring England, you can read more about some of the areas crossed by our inland waterways here. We’ve been to Staffordshire, Shropshire, Birmingham, which has a big canal basin right in the centre, Coventry, Worcestershire and out into Warwickshire’s Forest of Arden. For more brilliant boat trips, you can find this glorious collection of adventures afloat from fellow travel writers.
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