How do you fancy being at the tiller of a narrowboat? Does chugging along the canal, enjoying a slower pace of life appeal? If so, perhaps a narrow boat holiday is for you. Having just returned from a sunny week on the “Shroppie,” with our family read our top tips for a Narrowboat holiday to get you started.
Here are our top tips for a Narrowboat holiday:
England and Wales boast an extensive canal network for you to traverse. Check out this map!
Consider the following questions to help you decide where you want to go?
- What do you want to see? Cities, towns or countryside.
- How long have you got? 2 weeks allows for a circular route, otherwise, remember you will probably have to turn around and come back the way you came.
- How many people are going? Different canals accommodate varying lengths of boat. The limit on The Shropshire Union Canal, for example, is 70 foot.
- How many locks do you want to open/close? Locks are an ingenious system which allows boats to go up and down hills, so to speak. From the occasional lock to “flights,” single, double and those that accommodate 3 boats at a time. Depending on your preference, crew and season, the number of locks en route is an important consideration!
- Do you want to eat out most nights? Some canals are punctuated with lovely eateries and opportunities for a pub lunch/dinner. Others are not!
Narrow boats come in a variety of lengths, most are 6 foot wide. You can usually choose the configuration of beds, single or double. Bear in mind, all beds are small – due to the “narrowness” of the boat! Consider the following questions when choosing a narrow boat.
- How many people are going? We had an 8 birth boat for 4 people. This was perfect for us. I personally wouldn’t recommend using the convertible “dining table” as a bed, unless you don’t mind the inconvenience/hassle of putting it up and down. Look at the number/location of showers/toilets too!
- Do you want the “living area” space at the front or back of the boat?
- How important is power? Be aware that narrow boats operate on a low voltage electric system. There is usually a cigar lighter/USB charging point, a provided 240 vault hairdryer and one 3 pin plug for low wattage appliances.
- The helm. Traditional narrow boats have space at the tiller for one person, often just able to stand. If you want to sit when sailing, with the company of your crew, ensure you look at how much space there is at the back.
- Cooking/food storage facilities. If you are planning on eating in/bringing supplies check out the size of fridge/freezer.
3. The Crew
A narrowboat is by very nature, narrow! You will be living in very close proximity to your crew! Depending on your chosen route/preference bare in mind…
- Locks/swing bridges have to be operated. This is difficult for one person to do… if there are lots of locks, it’s preferable but not essential, to have extra people to go on ahead and get the next one ready. Some lock gates are stiff and heavy to operate.
- Often, people will need to be ready to jump on and off the boat, whilst it is moving. This is necessary before a lock when mooring up etc.
- There isn’t much privacy… although during the night you can often “section” the boat off with interlocking doors, during the sailing time everyone needs to be able to walk up and down the boat. Everyone has to pretty much have to be up and ready at the same time!
- If you’re eating in, its great to have some cooks/bottle-washers on board! After a days sailing/operating locks, who is preparing dinner?
Depending on your chosen route, there may or may not be plenty of supermarkets in close proximity to the canal. Most people will not want to be lugging boxes of beer and litres of milk along the towpath so stock up before you go! I personally, do not like the taste of the water on board a canal boat. It sits inside a “tank” which you have to fill up every few days and although drinkable, has a “taste.” Being out on the canal is a great opportunity to get away from it all, so we choose to take plenty of food/snacks as to not have to bother seeking out shops.
It’s useful for everyone to know how to do certain things before going off on a narrowboat holiday. Although your chosen hire boat company will explain everything, in detail and there is usually relevant literature/maps on board, knowing how to do certain things will make life easier!
- How to safely operate a lock, see this YouTube video for a good introduction.
- How to tie a secure knot.
I would also recommend buying/borrowing the appropriate canal map for your journey, in advance. This will give you the opportunity to familiarise yourself with the route and contains useful features such as symbols to indicate:
- Numbered bridges
- Locks/swing bridges
- Places to fill up with water / dispose of rubbish
- Pump outs (longer trips may require you to pump out chemical toilets)
- Turning points
Maps also provide a “time scale” allowing for locks, depending on your speed. This will help you to see how far you might get and when if necessary you will need to turn around to head back! If you don’t have a guide the Canal Plan AC website is a really useful starting point. A guide to birds, plants and trees may also be useful if you are interested in wildlife spotting along the way.
Remember to allow yourself plenty of time to enjoy your holiday. At peak times the canals will be busy and there may be a queue for locks. If you sail 10 hours a day for the first 3 days you will have to match this upon your return. If you end up with “extra” time, you can always continue past the place where you started then turn around and come back. This gives you the chance to see a new part of the canal. Most canal boat companies require that on your departure day, you are off the boat by 10 am. Allow yourself plenty of time to avoid a late return fine! You will need a pretty efficient crew if your final night’s mooring is miles from the boatyard.
- Shoes with a good tread
- Gardening gloves
- A golfing umbrella
- A variety of clothes for all seasons!
As you can see, when planning a narrowboat holiday there is quite a lot to consider! I have spent many happy weeks at various points in my life chugging along a canal. I love being outside most of the day and experiencing a different pace of life. It’s a great opportunity to do something different… Is it a holiday? Well, it does involve quite a lot of hard work, it can require hours at the tiller in the pouring rain but you are guaranteed to create plenty of unique memories!
Our most recent trip was in celebration of my mum’s 70th birthday. She was of course, “Captain” and I was “Tiller Girl.” Kerry was the “Galley Slave” and Crystal, my sister, official “Duck Spotter.” We wore our retrospective badges with pride, I was amused to discover they were exactly the same as those we had worn on our first narrowboat holiday more than 30 years ago! Will I ever make “Captain?” probably not…