Forewarned is forearmed if you want to realise the dream of a stress-free holiday on the UK’s canals. Some of your most important decisions will be agreeing where to go and who to go with
As one arm rests gently on the tiller you raise the other to bring a glass to your lips and, with a gentle nod to the static angler on the towpath, allow yourself a mouthful of ice-cold beer. The blazing sun above has conjured up a thirst, but more importantly you’ve earned yourself a reward after a long but relaxing day passing through the English countryside at a sedate three miles an hour.
The image of canal boat holidays can often have a dream-like sheen, and although a cruise through the backwaters of Britain can often live up to this vision, many years personal experience suggest that forward planning is essential if the dream is not to turn into a nightmare.
Choosing a Hirer
Of course, you might be lucky and know someone with a narrowboat. Most people however will need to hire, and fortunately there are a number of places with fleets of boats of the same shape but various sizes they let out during the boating season, typically from Easter to late Autumn.
The big national companies are Alvechurch (0870 8352525, www.alvechurch.com), Anglo-Welsh (0117 3041122, www.anglowelsh.co.uk), Black Prince (01527 575115, www.black-prince.com), Blakes (0870 2202498, www.blakes.co.uk), Hire a Canal Boat Ltd (www.hireacanalboat.co.uk), Drifters (www.drifters.co.uk) and Waterways Holidays (www.ukboathire.com). These each operate from a number of sites and there’s little to choose between them: all offer well-equipped, bright and freshly painted boats – although much of that paint may have been left on the side of lock walls by the end of the summer!
Other hirers operate out of a single base and offer a slightly more personal touch. Some of the better known of these are Middlewich Narrowboats (01606 832460, www.middlewichboats.co.uk) on the Trent and Mersey Canal, Pennine Cruisers (01756 795478, www.penninecruisers.com) operating out of Skipton for boats plying the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, Oxfordshire Narrowboats (01869 340348, www.oxfordshire-narrowboats.co.uk) for the South Oxford Canal and Reading Marine (0118 971 3666, www.readingmarine.com) for cruising along the Kennet and Avon Canal.
Where to Go
Deciding who to hire from will be largely driven by where you want to go. Considerations here are the length of your cruise and whether you want to go somewhere and come back or complete what is known as a ‘ring’. A ring is an acknowledged circular route usually taking in parts of a number of canals. You may also want to consider which part of the country you personally want to explore, assuming there’s a canal there in the first place.
Most hires will be for either one or two weeks and there are a number of established routes you can take. At first glance this may appear off-putting, conjuring up images of convoys of boats all ploughing the same channel. Dismiss these thoughts immediately as one of the mysteries of canal travel I have never quite fathomed is how the people you chatted so pleasantly with at your mooring the evening before can suddenly disappear once you’re out on the water the next day. This is explained by one of the things that makes canal holidays so special – the fact that everyone operates at their own pace and preferences.
A canal holiday is just that, a holiday, so if you don’t want to wreck yourself it’s best to limit yourself to around eight hours cruising a day, leaving time to see places and for the plentiful pubs that tend to congregate on towpaths like wasps round a summer sandwich. Most rings are designed around this, although it doesn’t take much to upset your scheduling and, as you’ll soon find out, the one thing you can’t do on the canals is put your foot down to make up lost time! A very rough rule of thumb is to divide the number of miles by 3.5 and add 15 minutes for every lock – and even this is going it.
Amongst the best for a week-long cruise include The Cheshire Ring (97 miles, 92 locks, c.50 hours), which ‘samples’ six different waterways and incorporates both industrial landscapes and countryside scenes, and The Four Counties Ring (110 miles, 94 locks, c.55 hours), a largely rural ring that also takes in the Harecastle Tunnel outside Stoke on Trent. The latter also includes ‘Heartbreak Hill’, a challenging run of over twenty locks through the salt country outside Middlewich.
If you don’t want to risk a ring (and many a hirer has had to rush the last couple of days of their holiday to get back to base in time), your other option is to go ‘out and back’. My personal favourite for this is the South Oxford Canal, which you can start either at its northern point in Napton in Warwickshire (Napton Narrowboats, 01926 813644, www.napton-marina.co.uk), or towards the south outside Bicester (Oxfordshire Narrowboats, 01869 340348, www.oxfordshire-narrowboats.co.uk).
The South Oxford Canal offers a combination of long rural stretches with the urban excitement of Oxford and Banbury. The locks are generally well spaced and there’s plenty of small villages along the way. Not least amongst these is Cropredy, home of the festival of the same name where Fairport Convention re-form on an annual basis in August (www.fairportconvention.com/cropredy), - best avoided then unless you pre-book for the festival. Just north of Banbury, Cropredy is as picturesque a canal village as they come, with hanging baskets, a small store and, if you’re lucky, canoeists sharing the water. What’s more it has a choice of pubs with the thatched Red Lion (01295 750224, www.redlioncropredy.co.uk) nearest the canal and squeezed in amongst a row of cottages. The pub serves not only pizza and pasta but a wide selection of grills and pub standards and a ‘proper’ children’s menu. Try the delicious braised shank of lamb with minted mash, which like most mains comes in at a little over the £10 mark.
The South Oxford has the double advantage that it can be combined with a section of the Grand Union and the mighty Thames (including a short tidal section which needs to be planned for) to create the two week Thames Ring (245 miles, 175 locks, c.115 hours) – a solid but very satisfying cruise.
Choosing Your Companions
Narrowboats are aptly named, they are about as wide as the average basketball player is tall. Incidentally, please don’t call them barges, the canal fraternity get very uppity about this; barges are twice as wide and are a totally different type of craft.
This lack of width will have a bearing on your holiday as you’ll need to be pretty friendly with your travelling companions. This will probably restrict you to family and close friends, but beware, canal holidays are not a cheap option. Limiting yourself to a family of four on say a 50 foot boat will cost in the region of £1,500 for a week in peak times, whereas ten to twelve people could go out on the maximum 70 foot boat for only £500 more.
Not surprising then that canal holidays are often seen as a ‘two family’ option. When selecting your companions make sure you have the right balance between ‘workers’ and ‘passengers’, bearing in mind that young children will need to be watched over when the work starts. The main challenge you’ll face is the locks, but two or three people can usually manage these and they’re even done for you on the Thames. Once again, forward planning can help here and one option is to take bikes so locks can be prepared in advance, assuming no oncoming traffic – a practice known as ‘wheeling’.
One of the most popular companions on a canal holiday is also man’s most faithful: dogs. These feature a lot on the waterways but are also responsible for the canals’ most unpleasant hazard, often deposited on the towpath, so be aware.
The dream of a tranquil stress-busting break on the canals can be easily achieved, but it doesn’t come automatically. The secret revolves around time. With time on your side you can slip life down a couple of gears and tune in to nature’s slower rhythm. If it turns against you then much of the fun will disappear in a fog of rush and anxiety, the two ingredients that lead to both stress and accidents. A bit of forward planning should easily help you avoid this however and allow you to reward yourself with that beer and cheery nod to the placid fisherman!