If you’ve decided to try something new in 2019, why not make it the year of your first narrowboating holiday? The network’s canals weren’t built for walking and cycling, and to appreciate them fully you really need to take to the water. This is the sort of holiday that has something for everyone: you can stay constantly on the move, or you can find a nice spot to moor up for a day or two. You can keep busy – steering, doing locks, polishing brass – or you can lounge on the front deck, waving at pedestrians and perfecting the less ostentatious nod of greeting to other boaters.
Taking control of a boat for the first time can be intimidating. When you stand at the stern with one hand on the tiller, your new narrowboat will suddenly look a whole lot longer than you expected. It’s disconcerting to drive from what is essentially the back seat, and a narrowboat’s sheer inflexibility – did nobody ever think of inserting a hinge? – makes cornering and turning around appear much more demanding than they actually are. As well as the basics of steering, you might have other concerns whether they are falling in the water, navigating locks or simply spending an extended period with your family in a confined space.
Those fears are quickly dispelled when you take to the water. Traversing the canals isn’t an Atlantic crossing so you won’t have the scent of salt and splash of sea spray on your face, but there’s a lot to be said for the more gentle adventures of the inland waterways, when you never know what will be around the next curve. Will it be a quiet pub? A stretch of waterside nature reserve? Or long miles of peaceful countryside? Whatever the location, the surroundings are usually new and almost always delightful – and you’ll be travelling so slowly, you won’t miss a moment of it.
Steering will soon come naturally, and other than mooring or locks, you’ll usually be heading in a fairly straight line. It’s helpful to know that a narrowboat is a hefty lump of steel. While you should always treat it with respect, a boat is solid enough to withstand the odd accidental bump. Locks are challenging at first, but they soon become second nature and there are usually other boaters, pedestrians and volunteer lock keepers around to ask for advice – or who will provide it without you needing to ask given half a chance. The only other thing to consider are issues of etiquette – try to steer slowly past moored boats, keep a decent distance from anglers, don’t skip your tea round – but again, these are easily picked up.
Water safety is important but more or less a case of common sense – when travelling from front to back, best to go through the boat rather than along roof or gunwales – while families can get sufficient space simply by using the different areas of the boat as needed. There’s an inside, outside, front deck, back deck, galley, bedroom, living quarters, even the towpath if the boat is going slowly enough. And with that companionship comes the shared knowledge that you are exploring the country in a way that is both historic and original – historic in the sense that people have used these canals in more or less this way for centuries, and original in the sense that nobody will have had quite the same experience as you, and it’s one that you will remember for years to come.
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Best for beginners: Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal
The gentle 35-mile trip from Brecon to the Pontymoile Basin contains few locks and the chance to spend time in the beautiful Brecon Beacons National Park. It’s a wonderful introduction to the network, easy on both eye and steering arm.
Best for pubs: Oxford Canal
The Oxford Canal is a popular spot for boating holidays as it features lovely countryside, good facilities, a minimal number of locks and some very nice pubs. It’s a pleasantly meandering route, and includes pretty villages like Thrupp, Kirtlington and Copredy.
Best for isolation: Lancaster Canal
A pretty, quiet canal and one of the most northerly on the network, the Lancaster Canal takes you to the edge of the Lake District with a solid 42-miles of lock-free cruising between Tewitfield and Preston.
Best for urban adventurers: London’s waterways
A canal holiday in London offers a pretty unusual way to see the city. There aren’t too many locks and there isn’t much in the way of rural isolation, but there’s plenty of other things to see and do along the Grand Union, Regent’s and Lea Navigation.
Best for the brave: Avon Ring
This circular trip covers 109 miles and 129 locks as it travels around Stratford-on-Avon, Tewkesbury and Kings Norton. Be warned though – it includes the Tardebigge flight, which is the longest flight in the country, so this might be worth building up to.