Narrowboating in Great Britain
U.K. Canal Boat Vacation
Even if you have visited Great Britain in the past, you can see it from an entirely new perspective on a canal boat holiday. Also called narrowboats (all one word), or barges, canal boats have a long and colorful history, to match the beautifully colored boats.
Originally designed to transport goods over the inland British waterways, the canal boats have been working since the 1700’s. As the transport business has grown in new directions, the working boats gave way to those with recreational and domestic designs. The tourist industry tends to use the term narrowboat; possibly because they feel “canal boats” does not sound sexy enough t attract modern travelers.
Narrowboats, as you might have guessed, are very narrow. The waterways are full of locks and bridge holes that cannot accommodate boats wider than 7 feet. To gain square footage, the boats are elongated, up to 80 feet, and not an inch is wasted. In many ways, staying in a canal boat is very similar to staying in an RV or trailer, but you can move from town to town while onboard.
When I first laid eyes on canal boats, I was immediately drawn to the vivid colors and designs used to decorate the boats. No one really knows how or why this tradition began, but it has become common practice. Narrowboats must be decorated. To me they resemble the ornately colored gypsy wagons from Romani, but I was assured there was no connection.
Travel on the ancient canals is slow and easy. Honeymooners enjoy the private intimacy, afforded by narrowboats, while families enjoy reconnecting, as they must team together to steer and maneuver the long canal boats through the lock system. Spend a few leisurely days, or explore for weeks at a time.
I know what you might be thinking…”My kids will get bored after a few hours.” I must admit I thought the very same thing, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn how much there is to do from a narrowboat. Older children can take a turn at the tiller, steering the canal boat. This can be their first “driving” experience. Our kids loved it, and did amazing well. The lock system often relies on manual labor to move the mechanisms of the lock. We never had to ask our kids, they were clamoring to help.
Brits are wonderful at successfully designing tourist attractions. Waterways work around the British Isles in a serpentine fashion, allowing the narrowboats to travel virtually anywhere. The canal boat landings are strategically placed to allow easy access to the town’s treasures. Pull up alongside a pub, or take a short walk to a castle. Wherever you go, you will find yourself in the middle of the action. Cadbury has Cadbury World, and other large businesses have created attractions aimed largely at canal boat travelers.
The canals meander through some of the most pristine and picturesque countryside you will find anywhere. Watch as the Queen’s swans float by your window, or throw some breadcrumbs to the ducks after breakfast. Drop a line in the water, and catch dinner. Breathe in the aromatic wildflowers, and watch as time passes you by, as you grow more relaxed.
Where Shall We Go?
There are a few things to consider when choosing the route for your narrowboat vacation.
To me, traversing a lock is rather fun and fascinating. Our kids enjoyed watching as the locks fill up or lower, as they cranked the wheel controlling the mechanism. It was educational, physical and required a team effort, which fostered family bonding. It is also a great photo opportunity.
If you prefer an effortless vacation, try the midlands, where the farms and rural communities create a peaceful, lock-free passage on Ashby Canal. Another lock-free canal, the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal, weaves its way through a lovely display of old cobblestone bridges, idyllic English cottages, and past mournful weeping willows.
The length of time your family has available is another key factor. Check with your canal boat vendor for a suitable route, if you are unsure. You may notice well-worn pathways parallel to the canals. Years ago, draft horses would pull the canal boats along from the shore. The kids might want to give it tug, too.
The Pennines, sometimes called the “backbone” of Northern England provide a magnificent backdrop to the canals of Northern England. This route is a bit more challenging, and as the altitude rises, the locks become more plentiful. If you are willing to brave it, you will be rewarded with breathtakingly scenic views.
Victorian era mills, stone walled townships and lively pubs will all capture your imagination, as you
realize the history that surrounds you. Maybe because I am American, and our infrastructure, architecture and recorded history is not as rich as our British forerunners, but I find myself in awe, as I gaze at Roman ruins or 14th century pubs, still in use.
Farther north, past Hadrian’s Wall, the narrowboats of Scotland feature trips to Edinburgh or Glasgow by way of the Falkirk Wheel. The Falkirk Wheel is a masterpiece of engineering that lifts boats from one waterway to the next. Some of the canals meet the lakes or Lochs, of Scotland, offering more freedom of movement.
Central England/ Wales
Central England has been called the heart of the canal network, offering the greatest variety of choices for narrow boat vacationers. This part of the British Isles has more canals than Venice, and offers far more diversity. Birmingham has grown into quite the popular narrowboat vacation spot.
Near the hub where the trade routes intersected for London and Birmingham, families can explore the industrial revolution, facilitated by the canal boats.
Drift your way through Shakespeare Territory and enjoy a visit to Warwick Castle, or down the Oxford Canal. If you have two weeks, try the “Grand Ring.” The River Thames connects with both the Oxford Canal and the Grand Union Canal forming the Grand Ring, which is very popular family route.
The Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal, part of the Grand Rig, will take to the heart of kingdom. Buckingham Palace, the great British museums and fine art galleries are available on this canal. Check out the waterways of London in your narrowboat, or escape the city for the peaceful tranquility nearby.
In Wales, your narrowboat vacation can take you to the Llangollen Canal, or the Mon and Brec, formally known as the Monmouthshire, Brecon & Abergavenny Canal.
The Llangollen Canal is arguably the most famous, and popular route for canal boats, largely because of Thomas Telford’s impressive Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. (The Welsh language can be difficult to pronounce, and even harder to speak and learn.) The aqueduct crosses the River Dee, and offers spectacular views along the way. There are at least five hire bases on this route, to give you an idea how popular this passage is for narrowboats and vacationers.
Floating down the canal in Brecon Beacons National Park offers stunning views and unforgettable scenery.
Many canal boat vacations begin in London and spread south, east and west from there. I have only experienced the Kennet & Avon Canal, and a stopover in Bath, so I cannot give adequate information on traveling these areas. The southern part of England is strikingly beautiful, and worthy of a visit by canal boat.
While the Midlands and northward offer brief narrowboat vacations for a few days, some of the South England canals are fairly long, and may require a longer time commitment.