CANAL BOATING HOLIDAYS – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I’m planning an exciting trip with another couple for next fall. It’s a boating holiday unique to England and parts of Europe, called canal boating. Everything about the English branch of this subculture is different from what most Americans think of when they think about boating.

The boat used is called a narrowboat. It’s like a long, thin steel barge designed for use as a houseboat. It can be 45, 55 or 65 feet long but it is always only 7- feet wide. It has a small diesel engine that can go up to 5 miles an hour. You steer with a single rudder in the back of the boat. This would not work well on the ocean or a lake, but you are floating on a totally calm, 20-foot wide canal that gently winds its way through the countryside of England.

Tom and me on our first canal boat

The boats are usually painted with colors and designs specific to the canals. They are surprisingly spacious, with a living area and kitchen, full bathroom and sleeping areas. The boats sleep from 2-10 people. Some have a separate eating area, like a banquette but the smaller boats just have a table in the living room.

Interior of our canal boat

Tom and I have spent three weeks on the canals of England for two excursions. Both trips were just us, which is easily doable and enjoyable. Many retired couples in England buy a canal boat and choose to live on the canals during the open season from April through October.

However, this kind of traveling lends itself to traveling with other couples or groups because there are plenty of tasks for everyone. My first canal boat experience was in 1987 with four adults and four children ages two, seven, eight and nine.

We brought bikes so anyone could cycle to a nearby town or through the countryside. The advantage of having at least 3 adults is that there are many locks throughout the canal system, which take physical work to get through.

Tom on our second canal boat

One person has to drive the boat into the narrow lock and it goes a lot faster when you have two adults manning the lock-machinery. It can be done with one person on the ground but it’s slow and tiring for the lock operator.

The experience of just puttering down the canal is peaceful and relaxing. You can go through all kinds of scenery. There are suburban stretches with beautiful, manicured homes along the canal; there are areas of farmland with fields and cows, sheep and horses. There are woods and marshes as well as more urban areas. Each route is different. This is a vast canal system that wends its way through much of England and Wales.

Once you are on the water, you’re fully independent on the canal. You can do what you want when you want. You can pull over and stake the boat down whenever you choose to eat, relax, sleep, walk along the picturesque canal or enjoy the local sights. There are numerous pubs to stop at for a drink or a meal (the food is really good).

There are nearby towns to walk around or shop for food. There are also museums and other local curiosities that are worth a stop. We toured the Wedgewood china factory, which was fascinating. We also saw one of the rare underground ‘bomb shelters’ from the 1950s which was designed to house the local government in case of a nuclear war.

When you pull over to stop, you’ll usually find other boats and end up chatting with other boaters. There are also lots of dogs and cats on canal boats and they are also very friendly. We had a cat come into our boat and sleep with us one night.

Driving the boat and manning the locks are a form of constant activity for people who like to be doing something all the time. But there’s also plenty of downtime for those who prefer to put their feet up and relax with a good book or listen to the fabulous BBC4 radio station. It has all kinds of programming, much like our TV stations. News, talk shows, game shows, dramas, sitcoms, continuing series, all high quality.

For the nature lover, you’re usually in the middle of nowhere but for the homebody, you’re always ‘home’ in your boat.

Canal locks

If you are traveling with other folks, make sure you can spend 7-days together most of the time. You have to make lots of decisions as a group. You need to decide where to stop, for how long, where to eat or what to cook. Someone has to be the driver and the others need to manage the locks, and so on. On my first, family trip, the 2 dads were both alpha males and spent most of the time arguing over everything! One of the kids asked why the dads were acting so childishly.

This can be an amazing vacation, with something for everyone. I’m planning my fourth canal holiday because I just can’t get enough of this immersive, unique vacation.

18 thoughts on “CANAL BOATING HOLIDAYS – BY ELLIN CURLEY

    • I highly recommend it for couples or families who want to do something different and more relaxing than running around a foreign country or just sitting on a beach somewhere.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Ellin, sounds exciting. I remember your stories from your last canal boating experience.
        Look forward to new pics and stories. ENJOY!

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    • It’s a perfect holiday for pretty much anyone. You can do as much or as little as you want. I’m sure when we go with our active friends, they will go on runs and walks and will sightsee in towns while we sit on the boat and chat with other boaters or read.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve done this trip with two couples and four kids and with just my husband, so doing it with one other couples will be a new experience for us. There are few people we could spend a whole week in tight quarters with but our friends are as easy going as we are and are happy to go off and do their own thing. I think it will work out well.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I had a canal boat holiday at 21, when my friend’s family had a spare berth; she and I took charge of the meals, but also took part in the many tasks. We spent two weeks going from England into Wales and back. After four days the engine broke down, we phoned the hire company for help and within thirty minutes they turned up in a van, a sure indication of how slow our travels were! Near the end of our holiday there was a storm and a tree had come down across the canal. As we all disembarked to think what to do, another tree fell down just missing my friend’s brother! We had to trek across fields to a town to find a phone box ( long before mobile phones ) to call British Waterways. I just loved that kind of holiday, but you have to choose who you share a small boat with – have a good time!

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    • We had some boat issues on our trips as well. On our first trip, my two year old came to us and asked why it was raining in the back bedroom – all our luggage and clothes got soaked and we had to wait for a repairman. Another time we had an engine problem and tied up in a beautiful field, had tea and waited for the very prompt repair man who had us going again in an hour. One other minor diaster was that at one point the boat came untied and drifted into the middle of the canal. My friend and I had to try to pull the boat back to shore and in the process, my friend fell into the canal. The kids thought this was the highlight of the trip!

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  2. How wonderful. I love the idea of that type of holiday although I know I’ll never do it now. I’ll travel vicariously with you so be sure and post lots of stories and photos when you go.

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    • You can’t help but take tons of photos – everything is so picturesque. I have a whole album from our two week trip 16 years ago. I’m afraid I may have to make another alnum for this next trip too!

      Liked by 1 person

    • It’s amazing how spacious these boats are. The beds are small – more like our double bed than a queen. But the living spaces are great and the kitchen is very convenient for cooking. The bathrooms are also very comfortable. On our upcoming trip, we decided to go with a boat that has two smaller bathrooms rather than one big one so each couple can have their own ensuite bath. We like our friends but don’t want to wait in line to shower in the morning or get ready for bed at night.

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    • Many coupes buy their own boats and customize them for their own needs, which makes sense if you plan to live aboard for half of the year. We’ve seen a few customized boats and they are beautiful! The rental boats are very basic and simply done, but the custom ones had marble and other high end finishes as well as customized furniture to fit each space. I remember one couple had a huge bedroom that I would be happy to have in a small apartment.

      Liked by 1 person

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