Why your next holiday should be on a narrowboat
Though they weave their way all over the country, our canals are hidden gems. As our first national infrastructure they connect our industrial cities and ports by meandering through unimaginably beautiful countryside and cutting through the heart of our towns.
Last summer we spent a glorious week on the Oxford Canal and are now enthusiastic advocates of this way of life. It’s a wonderful way to spend your summer holiday as you are more connected to nature than if you stay in a cottage but it’s less hardcore than camping.
Here are the reasons we loved it so much and why we think you should give it a go too.
The pace slows you right down
First things first. The speed limit on Britain’s inland waterways is a heady four miles an hour - that’s a brisk walking pace. This is the real magic of a canal holiday, it’s slow. As the world around you maintains its frantic pace you quickly settle into a life of chuntering along to the rhythm of the diesel engine.
It’s an activity holiday with lots of inactivity
The boat only needs one person to steer it and this means everyone else can do exactly what they fancy. Reading, walking alongside or ahead of the boat, chatting to the skipper and feeding him bacon sandwiches and cups of tea, or simply sitting at the front of the boat watching the countryside go by.
Until, that is, you reach a set of locks. Then it’s a frenzy of activity to get the boat through the lock and out the other side safely. And then it’s back to the quiet and inactivity of before. Until the next set.
It’s a beguiling view of Britain
Roads travel between fields and divide towns. Canals on the other hand traverse right through the middle of both, which means you are part of the scene, rather than just viewing it through the window as if you are watching a television show.
You are wholly immersed in the countryside and, because the canals were constructed at the end of the 18th century and early 19th century, the places they link and pass through are those that were important at the time and so you will get a real sense of our industrial history.
There is something for everyone to do
Despite their size, narrow boats are relatively easy to control once you get the hang of it, and at four miles an hour you aren’t going to crash into anything at speed.
Children over ten years old will be able to skipper the boat themselves, as long as you are there to get them out of scrapes and help them with the locks, and younger children will love helping steer the boat too. Everyone can work the locks and as long as they can jump off the boat onto the towpath there isn’t really an upper age limit to taking part either.
It’s a unique part of British heritage
Because only Britain and France industrialised before the advent of the railways, they are the only two countries to have networks of industrial canals. As a pre-steam technology the canals are fascinating feats of engineering and the locks in particular are wonderfully simple pieces of mechanical design, which is why the network can still function so well today.
This quintessentially British piece of history is well preserved along the waterways and you can expect to see a plethora of rose-covered lock keepers cottages, canal side pubs, beautiful bridges, tunnels and occasionally an extraordinary aqueduct on your holiday.
The wi-fi situation is a nightmare
Maybe, just maybe, the wi-fi will work once you have moored up for the evening, if the wind is in the right direction and if you aren’t too far from a mast. This will either infuriate you or give you and the kids a week off-grid. There is always your mobile if you really need connection with the outside world although the signal is very much intermittent.
There is an extraordinary sense of freedom
Unlike with camping and caravans, with a narrow boat you can stop for the night almost anywhere you please. There are official moorings in villages and towns with their own rules, but in the countryside you can simply look for somewhere idyllic to moor up on the towpath when you have had enough motoring for the day.
Choose somewhere quiet with a decent view, preferably with a few cows munching away in the field behind, and soak up the lovely evening light. You will have just enough of the day left to fire up the BBQ on the towpath and get the evening going with a chilled glass of rosé or a gin and tonic.
It’s brilliant for dogs
Dogs love being on boats and the really great thing is that you won’t have to walk your dog for a week. He can hop on and off as he pleases and take himself for a wander along the canal on his own, jumping back on when he’s had enough or when he can smell some sausages cooking.
No one else is doing it
Many British people have been on a narrow boat at some point in their lives, either as children or perhaps for a stag or hen-do. But very few people make a holiday of it nowadays. It’s rather more original than glamping or sodding off to Tuscany and you will feel like you are doing something different to everyone else and having a proper adventure.
And while the waterways can get busy, the great thing about the locks is that they spread out the traffic so that for much of your holiday you feel you are completely on your own, rather than in a procession down the canal.
There are canal holiday companies all over Britain and we booked our holiday last year with Napton Narrowboats at Napton near Rugby. We chose to motor down to Oxford and back but you can also go on the the Warwick Ring and the Grand Union Canal instead.
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Words by Richard Huntington
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