Our all time favorite vacation is renting a canal boat and spending a week or two driving it through the English countryside. England has a network of canals that run throughout the country, from London up to Wales, with many circular routes or ‘rings’ in the center of the country.

The canal boats are not like any boat you’ve ever seen. They’re called narrow boats. They are basically long and thin steel barges, about 7 ½ feet wide and ranging from 45-65 feet long. They are like houseboats and can sleep anywhere from two to eight people. There is always a living/eating area, often with comfy chairs and a wood burning stove. There is a kitchen and bathroom in addition to at least one bedroom. They are amazingly roomy and comfortable.

The outside of the boats are painted in distinctive bright colors with classic patterns on them. They are beautiful and each boat is unique. The style is country craft meets gypsy. Lots of stylized floral motifs.

All the boats also have a small outside deck area where you sit or stand and steer the boat – from the back. The boat can only go about five miles per hour and you steer it with a single tiller. When another canal boat is coming in the other direction, you may only have six inches or so of space between the two boats. At first driving the boat is daunting and intimidating. But after a while, it becomes second nature and it’s no big deal.

Locks are something unique to canals. They are part of the allure and the culture of the canals. To get up and down the numerous hills and valleys, you go through locks. These are sluices that raise or lower the water level to the water level on the other side of the lock. In England, they are all manual and the boaters have to work the locks themselves. I don’t have the space here to go into lock technology. But it takes time and requires physical labor by the lock person, while the navigator drives the boat into and out of the lock compartments.

Locks add to the charm of the canal experience, except in the pouring rain or in 95 degree heat. We have experienced both.

The canals and the scenery alongside them are beautiful. You can drive through scenic farmland, dotted with cows and sheep. You can also go through heavily forested areas, suburbs with gorgeous canal side houses, or even swampland. There are also industrial towns along some of the routes. The canals were originally built in the eighteenth century for industries, like the famous English china factories such as Wedgewood. The canals were for the transportation of supplies and marketable goods back and forth around the country.

Canal boating is a very self-contained and independent type of holiday. If you see a pub that appeals to you, you stop for a beer or a meal. And there are lots of picturesque pubs along all the canals. When you get to a town, you walk to the stores and shop for food or just putter around. When you’re ready to stop for the night, you pick a spot, pull over and hammer down stakes to hold the boat in place.

You get totally caught up in the peaceful, slow-paced world of the canals. You get friendly with other boaters camped near you or going through the locks with you. Many English boaters live on the canals for months at a time, often with their cats and/or dogs. That sounds idyllic to me!

I’ve been on three canal trips. One was with another couple and four young children and two were just with my husband, Tom. It’s one of the only vacations I want to go back to again and again. To reduce stress, when I think of a peaceful, happy place, I transport myself to a canal boat in the English countryside.


  1. One of my favorite teenage memories, though somewhat vague by now, is of punting on one of these canals. We didn’t go very far, or spend the night, but it was a fun experience to propel a small boat by punting.


    1. You can rent boats for the day too. If you live near a canal it would be a great summer activity for the family. These boats are very popular wherever they exist – England, France, Holland, even on the Erie Canal in upstate New York. The locks there are automatic though so less of an adventure.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Enjoyed your post. Brought back memories from my university days when I went on one of these canal boats with three other friends. I too would love to do it again. I thought it was magical even though we argued right from the start. Two wanted to go north and two wanted to go south!


    1. When I went with two families in 1987, the two Dads argued constantly too. Mostly about who should be Captain at any given time, who should drive the boat and on and on. The kids wondered why the grown ups were acting like children! But everyone had a great time. Even though the boat sprung a leak! Our two year old asked why it was raining in the bedroom! We had to wait for a repair boat to come. The kids thought it was awesome!


  3. Lovely photos. I would have loved to have done this type of holiday. One of my favourite travel books is “And A Right Good Crew” by Emily Kimbrough, written I’m guessing in the fiftes about a trip she took with some friends on the canals.


    1. There are a few books about canal boat trips. There’s one about the Great Loop in America. That’s a 6000 mile trip on the inter coastal from Florida up into Canada, across the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River then to the Gulf of Mexico and back to Florida. This trip is not all on canals and you don’t travel in narrowboats, just regular power boats. But it’s a boaters dream and takes about a year to do the whole thing. We may try to do a small piece of it. I wish I remembered the name of the book so I could recommend it to you.


    1. I’ve done this trip three times for a total of four weeks. And I would do it again in a heartbeat. If you go to England or Holland, I highly recommend a week on a canal. Ireland and France have canals and lakes and rivers that make for wonderful boat trips as well. But they use regular power boats and you have to be comfortable driving one.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. There is a Diesel engine that goes 5 miles per hour and a tiller at the back. You get the hang of driving it in about an hour! I became a pro maneuvering in and out of locks. There is no current except right at the mouth of some of the locks. So driving is easy. It’s also not a problem if you bump into another boat or the side of the lock – you’re in a large steel barge that just doesn’t care. Apologize to the other boat and move on! Tom calls it a contact sport.


  4. I’m dead jealous. I love the idea of Narrow Boat holidays but my wife Christine, until quite recently couldn’t get on or off one. After a few cruises with taxi boats, she’s over that now, but it may be too late


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