Last Updated on December 11, 2022 by Jim Ferri
By Elaine Wilson
A canal boat holiday (also known as a narrow boat holiday) is a leisurely way of exploring the beautiful English countryside. They are much different than the barge holidays you find in some European countries.
The Canal and River Trust look after over 2,000 miles of canals, and dozens of these man-made waterways criss-cross England and Wales.
The canals flow through cities, past homes, alongside offices, and out into the glorious countryside. Historically they provided vital transportation arteries and are a legacy of the industrial revolution.
The canals carried heavy loads of coal, such as fragile pottery from the Stoke Potteries area and food supplies. They were home to a community that lived and worked on these waterways. Initially pulled by heavy horses, boats are all now motorised. They can speed along at six miles an hour at full throttle, although the official speed limit is usually a strict four miles an hour.
You can’t be in a hurry on a canal boat – this is the definition of slow travel.
The Shropshire Union and Llangollen Canal
Several canal boat operators have bases and fleets of boats for hire all over the country.
Drifter’s organise canal boat holidays across the country. One of their operators, Anglo-Welsh, has one of their fleets moored at their Whixall base in Shropshire. This is where I boarded the Grafton for my very first canal boat holiday. (Grafton prices start at £560 for a short break and £775 for a week.)
Alan, the manager, gave us comprehensive instructions on how to drive our smart green four-berth craft. As two complete novices, my friend Julie Taylor and I were firmly in the ‘how hard can it be?’ camp at this point. We didn’t know our windlass from our bilge pump.
We arrived quite late in the afternoon, so Alan helped steer us out of the marina, and we moored nearby for the first night. The boat is toasty warm with very effective heating, a hot water shower, and a well-equipped kitchen. The bed is super comfortable too.
Don’t expect state-of-the-art connection on the canals, though. There isn’t any WiFi, and even the phone signals are poor. So it’s also a bit of a digital detox break.
Setting Off on Day One
We set off in our canal boat super cautiously. After negotiating a lifting bridge by winching it up with the windlass, we turned left at the Press junction onto the Llangollen canal. At this point, we were being overtaken by most of the dog walkers strolling along the towpath.
The Llangollen canal winds across the English Welsh border. It is a lovely spot, and the countryside around these parts is gorgeous. I had never been to Shropshire before, and this is the English (and Welsh) landscape at its best.
In the autumn, the trees lining the canal change colour from green to yellow and red. The leaves rain gently down on us like autumn confetti as we sail through this rural idyll.
Steering: Concentration Required On a Canal Boat
Steering the tiller on a canal boat takes a bit of mental agility.
A bit of concentration is required until you get the hang of it. If you want to go left, turn the tiller to the right. If you want to go left, turn it to the right. This is all perfectly straightforward until it isn’t.
When first mastering the driving, it is perfectly possible that you may have a bit of a blank and accidentally head straight into the bank exclaiming, ‘which way is it, which way?!!’
You also need to allow for the length of the boat. At 48 feet long, the Grafton is a smaller craft and a great starter canal boat, but it still takes a bit of getting used to.
Weeds and mud can be a hazard in the shallow part of the canal as you try and negotiate other craft on the waterway. There is a large pole on board to lever yourself out of any sticky patches.
The route goes past several meres, or shallow lakes, where many sports fishermen are fishing out large specimen fish. After they have fished them out, they put them back in again. We pass some beautiful properties built right on the riverside and even a small monastery.
The Second Day on Our Canal Boat
For our second night, we moor up next to a large TESCO supermarket in Ellesmere to supplement provisions. You will need to bring at least some of your own food as there aren’t a lot of retail outlets on these routes. However, there is a compact kitchen on board, and it’s fun to do a bit of canal-boat cooking.
Ellesmere is a charming little town with cute cafes, boutique shops, and a Rennet works. Rennet is needed to make cheese from milk. Shropshire Blue, for example, is a delicious local cheese made right here.
Everyone is willing to help the novice canal boat skipper. We had assistance from a small toddler who wouldn’t let go of our tow rope and a large, strong man who hauled us round by the same rope with pure brute strength when we got a bit stuck (again.)
Locks or Not
At this point in the journey, our skills were starting to improve. We negotiate a fair number of bridges and become quite adept at them. We avoided doing any locks on this route, but we’ll be ready for them next time!
We got better at turning round, too – it’s all in the reverse action. Our speed rocketed up to about four miles an hour on longer, straight stretches.
The waterways are alive with wildlife. Birds, squirrels, kestrels, ducks, and swans all live on the canal. An elegant heron waited on the bank and followed the boat as we travelled along.
We jumped off the boat to walk to a local pub for dinner on the last night of our trip, returning happy and full of gourmet grub, along the dark road, torch in hand. Canal boating really is a fun thing to do.
If you go:
Drifters Waterway Holidays
Offers 550 canal boats for hire from 45 bases across England, Scotland, and Wales.
Hire prices start at £540 for a short break (three or four nights) on a boat for four, £760 for a week.
Narrowboats range from 32ft to 70ft and can accommodate from two up to 12 people.
Tel: 0344 984 0322
Canal Boating on the Grand Union Canal
For our next adventure, we start our journey from the picturesque banks of Stockton Top marina, just half a mile from the historic town of Warwick.
Our canal boat this time was even longer than the Grafton. The three-year-old Caroline Mary is a 58-foot, 15-tonne narrow boat! You would be right if you think that is a very long boat. It was definitely a challenge to keep it going in the right direction.
The Caroline Mary is a KateBoats boat, a well-appointed modern vessel. She has exceptionally comfy double beds, a well-equipped kitchen with a cooker and microwave, two toilets, and a shower. She also has a very efficient heating system. As a result, it is cosy in our floating home despite the changeable October weather.
There are a lot of canals in this part of the country. The Birmingham canal route system has more feet of canals than the city of Venice. You can cruise the 137 miles of the Grand Union canal in one direction or sail the Oxford canal in the other direction. This takes you up as far as Stratford upon Avon, home of our very own Shakespeare.
A Lot of Locks
These canal networks have many locks to navigate, and there is no escaping them this time. So prepare to wind the windlass of your canal boat and shove the heavy canal paddles open to get your vessel through as the water’s pressure opens the locks’ gates.
The science of locks and the water in water out process was explained to us at great length. The Canal and River Trust can explain it much better than I can here.
The canals at this time of year are quite glorious. Autumn sunsets, sunrises, and bright rainbows through the occasional showers delight the senses. Hedgerows are laden with apples, rosehips, hawthorn berries, hops, sloe berries, and brambles. Bulrushes and tall grey-green grasses fringe the picturesque banks.
We picked our own brambles one day by the canal side and had them for breakfast with yogurt. We even popped a couple into our gin and tonics as we wound our way at the top speed of 4 miles an hour along the waterway.
Walking the Plank on Our Canal Boat
We needed a bit of help to moor our boat on the first night as darkness descended, and we just couldn’t find a suitable spot. A guy called Peter, who lived on his own boat, the Athena, helped us out staking our mooring ropes into the weeds. We even needed a gangplank to get off the boat on this occasion. It is my first time walking the plank.
We stroll up the hill to the recommended Kings Head pub, where we have a delicious meal and a well-earned glass of wine.
The next day we wake to discover that the plank has fallen into the canal, and we can’t get off the boat to get it back. Thankfully, there is always a dog walker who will help you retrieve any poorly placed planks.
Everyone is so helpful and friendly on the canal. It’s one of the lovely things about the resident canal community.
Birds On the Canal
Canal boating is an excellent activity for bird watchers. Swans and ducks are everywhere, but we also saw Moorhens, Coots, Canada geese, and the odd Sparrow hawk combing the fields for a meal. The ducks will likely wake you up in the morning, nibbling the weed on the bottom of your boot and quacking loudly.
The second day was very rainy and quite cold, but we battled on at the tiller for a few miles. Seasoned boaters are well prepared for this sort of weather. They either glide past totally clad in wet weather gear, or they moor up, put the fire and the kettle on, and wait it out. We did a bit of both.
The next day we had to do a three-point turn, quite a challenge in a 58-foot craft. A couple of chaps stop to help and coach us round. They were very supportive. When else do you get someone saying to you, ‘You’re perfect just the way you are!’ even if it is just about your prowess on a narrow boat. An audience gathers for the spectacle, stopping under a nearby tree to witness our efforts.
We moor at Braunceton, a cute canal-side village. Home to canal boat sign writers, boat repairers, and one of the last remaining canal-side shops.
It is also the site of another run or ‘flight’ of locks that lead up to the Braunceton Tunnel. The tunnel was excavated by hand in candlelight in 1796.
Two teams started digging from either end. They didn’t quite meet in the middle resulting in a bit of a kink in the midsection of the tunnel. It took us twenty minutes to get through.
We patronise the little canal side shop in an effort to save it from extinction. I purchased an enamel coffee pot painted in the floral canal boat style, some Oxford Canal Coffee (made from the finest Papua New Guineas coffee beans), and some Braunceton marmalade. That should keep the shop open a while longer.
My shipmate proved to be most adept at keeping us on the straight and narrow and did most of the work at the tiller. I jump on and off, opening the locks and mooring up. We managed three locks up and three locks down. Some of the longer routes have up to 110 locks along them, depending on the incline of the terrain.
We eat at the canal side pub, the Admiral Nelson. This is another recommended rather chic pub, with nice food. The pub has been on this site for many years. In fact, in times past, it doubled as a morgue for dead boaters who came to grief on the waterways.
Canal Life On a Canal Boat
Heading back, we find ourselves in a double lock that allows more than one boat at once. Another boat of five experienced canal boaters is queuing behind us and wants to share.
It does feel a bit like a blind date as someone else piggybacks on your lock space, but it is customary to share your lock if someone arrives at the same time or is quite close behind you. So if you can share your rising waters, why not?
A canal boat trip is therapeutic and great for wellbeing. Out in fresh air all day, living in nature, you are kept busy with boating activity. The boat is so cosy at night that insomnia doesn’t get a look in. I sleep more soundly than I have in months.
It’s a lovely thing to do for a short break in the wonders of nature. It provides a kind of parallel domestic existence with its canal community and unique landscape.
If you go:
– Elaine Wilson
Elaine Wilson is a travel writer based in the North of England. She has spent most of her career in marketing and teaching and has been travel blogging since 2012. Her website, Eccentric England, is for the independent traveller who enjoys different destinations while being mindful of sustainability, emphasizing unique stays and new experiences.