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Canal Boats in England

Jack Bonham

In June of 1995, and again in 1997, my wife and I and our two sons rented a self-drive narrowboat on the English waterways system. I recognize that this is bit different from a house or condo rental, but as Pauline says, "if you can cook in it, I consider it a vacation rental." Therefore I offer this as another suggestion for a unique way to slow down, settle in, and see the English countryside from a different perspective. I will combine both years' trips, as the article will be more about the experience and less about the individual accommodations.

Both trips were four-night "short breaks" as the companies call them. We picked the boats up on Monday afternoon and returned them Friday morning. Also available is a three-night weekend, but the most common is the full week rental. As usual, we were attempting to pack a good bit into our vacation and therefore did not commit to a week. This year (summer 2001) we are renting for a week on the canal system south of Paris.

Narrowboats tied up on the Kennet and Avon canal, near Bath

What are Canals?

The canals of Europe were largely constructed in the 17th, 18th, and first half of the 19th centuries for the transport of commercial goods. Canals often connected navigable sections of different rivers or were constructed to bypass shallow or otherwise unnavigable sections of larger rivers. Prior to canals, the only available transport for goods was via wagons on poorly constructed and maintained roads.

With increased industrialization in the 18th century more factories required transport of both finished goods and raw materials. The great porcelain industry of England relied on the canals, as did the budding steel industry. Fertilizers, grains, wool, coal, livestock, and all manner of consumer goods were moved economically, if not swiftly, by barge. In the early 18th century the city of Paris required large amounts of timber from the southern forests for firewood, which motivated the construction of the canal/river system in Burgundy.

By the mid to late 19th century the canals had fallen into disrepair as railroads provided more rapid and reliable transport.

On the Canals in the English/Welsh Border Region

Our first narrowboat rental was on the England-Wales border just a bit south of Chester. We picked up our boat from Anglo-Welsh cruisers in Trevor on the Llangollen Canal. The Silver Queen was 59 feet long and less than 7 feet wide - thus the term narrowboat. Narrowboats are narrow because the lock width on the English canal system was fixed in the late 18th century at just about 7 feet.

Two narrowboats side by side in the locks near Bath

Two narrowboats side by side in the locks near Bath

Our boat had a capacity for six - one double bedroom, a twin room, and two convertible chair beds in the living area. It was very comfortable for four. Most boats are comfortable for two less than their stated capacity as they often use a convertible dinette for sleeping. If you have mostly adults or full sized kids, I would look over the floor plan in detail. We had a full bath with shower, a sitting area, a dining area, and a kitchen with fridge, stove, and oven. Renting a canal boat is not in any sense "roughing it." It is more akin to renting a recreational vehicle. Space is scaled down but many boats are very luxurious.

The Llangollen Canal is a good beginner's experience because it has a variety of interesting and dramatic canal features. The canal snakes around the sides of hills, has interesting small towns along the route and pleasant places to moor for the night. The Llangollen has some locks, but not so many that they become tedious. It also has such features as lift bridges, staircase locks, tunnels, and two aqueducts. Locks are fun - at least the first 20 or so. In England the crew of the boat operates almost all locks manually and there are usually some other boaters or locals around to chat with. Near locks there are often good places to stop for lunch or take on water.

Going on a Canal Aqueduct

Canal aqueducts are essentially water bridges; a man-made feature that allows a canal to cross over a valley or river. The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct is an amazing engineering feet constructed in about 1800 to transport the canal over the valley of the River Dee for a distance of 1000 feet. You find yourself motoring along in your boat, 126 feet in the air, in a 7 foot wide cast iron trough with a tow path on one side and the thickness of the cast iron between you and certain death on the other. Acrophobics might want to go to their state room and lie down! The view is magnificent over the hills of England and Wales.

Narrowboat going over the Dundas Aqueduct - a bridge of water over a valley

Narrowboat going over the Dundas Aqueduct on the Kennet and Avon Canal

On the Canals in Yorkshire

Our second rental was from Shire Cruisers in Yorkshire. The boat was similarly equipped and the experience was quite different due to the area in which we cruised. This cruise, on the Rochdale Canal in Yorkshire, is in much hillier country in an area that had a good bit of industry (mostly wool, I believe) in the 19th century. The canal ran in a valley much of the time and, although we enjoyed that trip also, we preferred the Llangollen. I should add that our first experience was entirely in the sun and our second trip had rain and clouds each day.

The captain, pilot, helmsman steers the boat by tiller from the rear and is in the weather, good or bad, when the boat is moving. Consider this when picking a time of year to travel. The Rochdale Canal has quite a lot of wider, harder to operate locks than the Llangollen; the number and frequency of locks is also worth considering.

What to Expect on the Canals

Remember you will only travel at about 3-4 mph so the objective is not to cover ground. We operated the boat several hours each day - one way trips generally expect that you will be averaging about 4-6 hours per day actually cruising to reach the drop off point by the end of a week. There may be some minor historical features along the way, but this will not be the focus of a canal boat trip.

We loved boating after an intense week of London and the surrounding area. The experience leaves plenty of time for exploring along the way. We would tie up and have lunch, then perhaps a snooze, some reading or a hike to a nearby village. Then we'd move on with our objective being one of the restaurants noted in the canal guide. Sometimes we'd moor for the night near the dinner location and sometimes we'd move on a bit after dinner to a place more to our liking.

Mooring can be done anyplace along the canal. If you feel more secure with neighbors you can find a stretch where other boats are tied up; if you prefer solitude you can simply stop along the way. As you travel through small canal villages there are often bollards and a "sea wall" to which you can moor for the evening. The boats can be locked up and left without fear. We've never had any problems with theft or vandalism. We have read of some folks who tied up in downtown Birmingham for the night who were the victims of some pranksters that untied their mooring lines in the night and set them adrift! There is little or no current, so it was more of a joke than a serious situation. We'd commonly moor along a sheep pasture and awaken in the morning to the sound of sheep or to the tapping on the hull of baby swans, ducks, or geese and their mothers, looking for handouts.

The canals we have visited were not crowded in any one location with only one exception: the town of Llangollen, which is at the headwaters and an attractive place to stop for the night. In high season it can be a bit of a trick finding a spot to tie up near town. Mid-July to August would be busier as narrowboating is a popular family vacation for the English and this period falls within the school holiday.

The canals are generally about 20 feet wide and everyone travels at about the same speed, so traffic isn't an issue. If you have booked an out and back trip you have to be mindful of the winding holes (noted in the canal guides), which are wide spots where you can turn your boat around. Your boat is generally longer than the canal is wide and winding holes are fairly infrequent, so if you miss one, you may be many hours before you can reverse direction.

Operating the Canal Boat

The boats are easy to operate. They have a tiller for steering and the only other control you have is throttle and forward-reverse. The tiller is on the rear deck over the big diesel engine. It is not entirely quiet but it is an inboard motor and just makes a deep rumble. You are given plenty of diesel fuel so there is no need to refill the fuel tanks.

The waste water holding tank is also large and our toilets worked very well and flushed like a normal toilet. Depending on how long and luxurious your showers are, you will probably refill your water tanks about every other day. You are supplied with a hose and water points are noted along the way. In case of mechanical problems (we didn't have any) the rental folks can get to you within 30-60 minutes.

About the Canal Boat Trip

Trips can be one-way trips in which the hire company will move your rental car so it meets you at the end, they can be out and back trips over the same piece of canal, or they can be circle trips. A detailed canal guide will inform you of pubs and restaurants along the way, as well as markets and attractions. It's especially fun to hit a market day in one of the small villages.

Canal boat rentals for a party of four will be in the $200-250 per night range. A bit pricey at first glance, but there are offsetting savings. You will probably eat all your breakfasts, some of your lunches, and a few of your dinners on board. Also we saved money because during the period we were on board we didn't do a lot of shopping or miscellaneous spending on admissions, etc.

There are many canal boat rental agencies in the UK. The quality of equipment varies widely, but we were happy with Anglo Welsh and Shire Cruisers.

A Thames Cruiser

Another boating adventure on our life list is to rent a Thames cruiser. There are many companies that will rent boats (wider and shorter than the narrowboats) along the Thames for a week. You can't take them into London - there is a tidal issue and they are not permitted because of the volume of commercial traffic - but you can certainly visit Windsor, Henley, Oxford, Runnymede, Hampton Court and a number of other places. What a magnificent way to see the Thames valley.

Resources

www.slowtrav.com/france/notes/canal_boats.htm: Jack's article on Canal Boats in France.

English Canal Trips: Lucille S Thornsjo. Lucille writes: "We help Americans understand the glories and pitfalls of narrowboating in England."

www.anglowelsh.co.uk: Anglo Welsh Waterway Holidays
Anglo Welsh has several bases and thus a wider choice of trips to make.

www.shirecruisers.co.uk: Shire Cruisers
Shire is a local company that serves a specific part of England (Yorkshire).

www.black-prince.com: Black Prince Narrowboat Holidays, Jack recommends looking at them.

www.alvechurch.com: Alvechurch Boat Centres, Jack recommends looking at them

www.hoseasons.co.uk: Many people also use Hoseasons, which are actually agents for many smaller companies - some good, some not so good. We have seen some of the companies on the canal and the quality varies widely. The Hoseasons catalog is interesting, however, and will give you an idea of possible trips, locations, and boats. All boat brochures include floor plans that are very helpful. They also list regular vacation rentals.

www.kateboats.co.uk: Kate Boats - a family run business established for over 18 years. Kate Boats narrowboat hire fleet offer cruising holidays on the Grand Union Canal.

www.waterwayholidaysuk.com: Waterway Holidays UK


Jack Bonham lives with his family in the Indianapolis area. Jack Bonham, 2001

Photos by Pauline Kenny, the Kennet and Avon Canal, September 2004

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