Taking the Stress Out of Canal Holidays: Ten Top Tips

by Nick Corble

Nick Corble sets out his ten top tips to help ensure a stress-free family holiday on the UK’s canal network

As Ratty remarked to Mole in Kenneth Graham’s Wind In The Willows: ‘There is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats’, and it seems this is a view shared by the 150,000 people who take a canal holiday each year in the UK. Having fun on the water isn’t a given however, and understanding some solid ground rules can take a lot of potential stress out of what should be the ultimate in relaxing holidays.

In a previous guide Successful Canal Holidays: It’s All In The Planning I explored the importance of pre-planning. Assuming you got that bit right here’s ten hints and tips to take into account once you get afloat.

Select Your Landscape

One of the beauties of canal boat holidays is the constantly shifting landscape, waking up every day to a new view. Canals were built to link the then big industrial centres, but through necessity had to pass through long rural stretches to do so. The trouble is two hundred years have passed since then, and what was once a large thriving metropolis may now be an industrial wasteland; and likewise what was once a scene of rural perfection may now be miles of suburbia. To get a good overview of the system visit British Waterways (www.waterscape.com).

Most hire companies are based on or near critical junctions in the network and this is worth bearing in mind. Hiring from Kate Boats (www.kateboats.co.uk) in Warwick for example offers the option of going north into Birmingham, the very heart of the system and quite built up, or south through the beautiful open countryside of Warwickshire and Oxfordshire. The same can be said for Viking Afloat in Rugby (www.viking-afloat.com), who usefully provide suggestions for different routes on their website. Others offering search systems by location or by ring (pre-defined circuit) include Canal Holidays (www.canalholidays.com), Hoseasons (www.hoseasons.co.uk) and Narrow Boat Hire (www.narrow-boat-hire.net).

Pace Yourself

Be realistic about how many miles a day you can, or indeed want to, travel. There are few things less relaxing than having to do a racing start out of a lock in order to make up time, and it’s not a good way to make friends either. Dawn to dusk cruising can get a bit tedious too – aim for around six hours a day.

Prepare For The Weather

The English weather can make or break your holiday. Be prepared! Hot, cold, wet, dry – anything’s possible, and a canal boat holiday means you usually need to be making progress every day, so at least two people will need to brave the elements at any one time. Wet weather gear that can be shared is a good idea.

Let Me Entertain You

Different family members will find their entertainment in different ways. For most adults simply watching the world go by will be entertaining in itself. Likewise, whilst the thought of no computers might seem enticing to you, for younger members of your party it may seem as if their life support machine has been taken away. Have alternatives ready.

You literally need to think outside the box when it comes to entertainment: rediscover the joy of cards or I-Spy type spotting games. Bikes, suitably supervised, are an option, but the true secret lies in involving everyone in the life of the boat, in steering, navigation, cooking and choosing mooring spots.

Moor The Merrier

Talking of mooring, this can be an art. The rule here is don’t assume there will be a mooring spot available where you want one, and don’t gamble that once you’ve seen one that there will be a better one further down. Better to moor and check on foot, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to come back as turning around is only possible in designated spots. Also think carefully before choosing your spot – that perfect pitch outside a pub may not seem so clever when it comes to chucking-out time!

Take Control

A boat is not a car. Seems obvious, but they don’t steer in the same way and they don’t have brakes. You stop by putting the boat into reverse, something that tends to send the front of a boat into paroxysms of shock and a manoeuvre that even old canal hands practice with care. Steering is a knack that needs to be acquired and you should get some tips from your hirer.

On the subject of control there should only ever be one skipper of a boat at any one time, and their word is law. The skipper will spot potential hazards first and if they shout an instruction it’s not an invitation for a debate but an order! Finally on control, alcohol and steering do not go well together, moderation in all things – it can be a long day out on the water.

Load Up, Load Up

It’s likely that you’ll combine eating out with eating in. Your storage and fridge space will be limited however, so you’ll need to be clever about what you buy. Milk, bread and Pinot Grigio all need to be planned for ahead. Furthermore, your boat will also be your life support mechanism, so be aware of how much water and gas you have on board and be prepared to top up.


Locks are probably the biggest potential hazard. The principle is simple, but operating a lock moves a lot of water around and this in turn pushes your boat around. Never try to control the boat with your muscles, it’s an uneven contest. Locks are not a playground and need focus, so young children need to be supervised; and check that teenagers do not over-do themselves with the winding mechanisms. Most accidents at locks involve ricked backs and broken wrists around the winding gear. Another tip when at a lock is not to tie the boat up – you look a bit silly when the water disappears!

Find a Guide

Once on the move you’ll want to track your progress with a good guide to your particular waterway. By definition it’s practically impossible to get lost on the canals and all bridges and locks are numbered, allowing you to check progress. Appropriately equipped you’ll also be able to plan for the all important provisioning stops, pubs and waterpoints. Nicholsons Guides (www.amazon.co.uk/Collins-Nicholson-Waterways-Guides-Oxford/dp/0007281609/ref=dp_ob_title_bk) or Pearson’s Guides (www.amazon.co.uk/Four-Counties-Ring-Companion-Companions/dp/0954911687/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1289561251&sr=1-2) are the best known, but be sure to get the right one for your waterway(s).

Be Safe

Most hire boats will be equipped with lifejackets and basic first aid, but check. The life jackets are there for a reason and you may want to stock up on additional medicines and plasters, after all you may be miles from anywhere when you need them. Other safety considerations include having respect for the boat and the environment, which is cramped and wasn’t designed for holidaymakers. If people walk along the gunnel on the side of the boat the golden rule is one hand for the boat at all times i.e. always have a grip on the bar along the top. Likewise, sunbathing on the roof of a boat is great, but always face forward so you know when a bridge is coming!

Following these tips should help you miss some of the annoying pitfalls that can blight a canal holiday, allowing you to relax into what is a different way of life that only this type of holiday can offer.

Nick Corble

The author of 16 books, the majority of which have had a travel focus, Nick has also featured on both BBC TV and radio and has contributed both articles and photographs to a range of websites. Up until now Nick has perhaps best known for his writing on the UK’s inland waterways. His first book chronicled a personal journey down the spine of the canal system on the eve of the millennium and he subsequently followed this up with a series of books on individual waterways published under the banner of the Tempus Towpath guides.  His definitive guide to the UK's Canals 'Britain's Canals: A Handbook' has recently been re-issued in full colour by Amberley Books.

There’s more to Nick than just canals however and he has also written a number of books of walks for Countryside Books as well as over 100 articles for national and regional titles ranging from The Times through county magazines to the consumer press, including Walk Magazine, official journal of the Ramblers Association and Cycle Magazine as well as glossy lifestyle titles.  For more on Nick's output go to www.nickcorble.co.uk.

Five years ago Nick sold his narrow boat and the free time this generated set him free to explore, with North Africa quickly becoming a favourite destination. He is now looking forward to heading a bit deeper into the continent. It’s a poor year when Nick doesn’t add at least two or three new countries to his list of lands visited and he makes it a rule never to go back to the same destination twice – life’s too short and there’s too much to see!