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Rent your own canal boat and experience a very different type of holiday

Quietly and comfortably gliding through beautiful countryside, a canal cruise offers you a wonderful relaxing change of pace.

 
 
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Cruising the English Canals

You won't get seasick on the calm canal waters, and if you should fall in, the water is usually less than four feet deep, making a canal vacation ideal for the entire family.

 

 

There's no calmer and more relaxing way to unwind than sedately cruising Britain's canals on your own rented narrowboat.

There's a vast network of canals covering much of the heartlands of England, and many different companies that rent canal boats, giving you plenty of choices and different ways to enjoy this lovely and different style of vacation.

Anyone can Enjoy a Canal Cruising Vacation

You don't need any special skills and you don't need any experience to drive a canal boat. They are very simple to control, and it is almost impossible to get lost! The boats are fully equipped with everything you'll need, including comfortable beds, kitchen, toilet(s), hot and cold water, and showers or even baths.

You'll enjoy a relaxing and affordable cruise through the beautiful English countryside, stopping in small towns and villages, treating yourself to canalside pub meals (and drinks!), and encountering tantalizing remnants of what was, 200 years ago, the main form of commercial transportation in Britain.

How Many People are Needed to Crew a Boat

Some intrepid boaters can manage a boat single-handed.  However, we suggest this is not much fun for all but the most dedicated (and experienced!) enthusiasts.

Two people is usually the suggested minimum - that way, when going through a lock, one person can be with the boat while the other is managing the lock.

Some of the larger boats can accommodate as many as 8 or more people, and might have two toilets and showers on board, making it comfortable for at least 4 - 6 people.  If you have more than two people on your boat, you'll find it becomes easier - you can have two people working the locks (one on each side), and can have one person going ahead to the next lock to prepare it, and another person having a turn off duty, and so on, depending on how large your 'crew' is.

I've boated as part of a couple, and variously as part of three, four, five and six person crews.  All different combinations have been fun, and there is not really any exact number of people that represent an ideal sized group on a boat.

Canal cruising is an excellent family vacation activity, with aspects enjoyable for all from the very young to the very old.

Where are the Canals

Britain has over 3000 miles of canals and navigable rivers.  In England there are canals in London, and stretching up from London into the Midlands and all through the middle of England and up as far north as York.  There are small stretches of canal in Wales and Scotland and Ireland.  There are canals in Europe too, most notably in France. Here is a summary map of the major canals in England.

By their very nature, canals are inconspicuous.  Chances are you've traveled past a canal in previous visits to Britain without even noticing it.

How Long Does it Take

Most people enjoy a one week hire of a boat.  Shorter three or four day hires are also available from some boat companies.

A one week hire is an ideal duration for most people.  It gives you a full opportunity to become skilled at handling your boat, familiar with working your way through the locks, then gives you time to relax and unwind during a nice period of 'timeless' days in the middle, before subtly switching into 'end of journey mode' in the last day or so.

You can, of course, hire boats for longer than one week if you wish.

Canal boats travel slowly. So as to minimize the erosion caused by each boat's wake, speeds are limited to 4mph (most people walk at about 2.5 - 3 mph). With occasional slow downs to carefully pass other boats, you're doing well if you are averaging 3 miles for each hour of cruising.

Passing through a lock can take anywhere from five to twenty minutes.  Sometimes there might be several boats waiting their turn to go through a lock and you might find yourself needing to spend half an hour or so waiting for your turn - but this is usually a fascinating break, with a chance to speak to people on other boats, to help out at the lock, or to make a cup of coffee and just relax, enjoying the scenery and canalside ambience.

As a rule of thumb, many people say that for each hour of traveling, you can plan to either cruise four miles or pass through four locks; and so if you are cruising for eight hours in a day, you can in total pass a mix of 32 either miles or locks or any combination of the two. Depending on how much time you spend stopped at various interesting places during the day, you'll probably travel six to eight hours a day. In theory, in mid summer and with longer hours of warmth and daylight, you could cruise as much as fifteen hours a day, but that ceases to be so relaxing!

Canal Features

There's always something interesting happening as you cruise the canals. Maybe you'll pass through an interesting town, maybe there is a canal side shop or pub you want to visit, maybe you have to open a low bridge that is otherwise blocking the canal, or maybe you have to pass through a lock or even a tunnel. Occasionally you might travel over a beautiful viaduct, spanning a valley or river, way below.

Another fascinating feature are the other boats you'll see on the canal. Many are gaily painted and decorated with ornate color schemes, and boats range from incredibly ultra-deluxe styles to old restored 'working boats' that formerly were used to carry freight.

You'll also see a lot of wildlife on and around the canals. Early morning is a perfect time for bird watching and picture taking, with the gentle light of the new day shining softly on a misty canal.

Locks

A canal is flat, but the countryside it passes through invariably rises over hills and falls through valleys. To enable the canal to also rise and fall, a series of locks are placed, as needed. Here is a good explanation of how locks work.

Nearly always, you will have to work the locks yourselves. There are no official lock-keepers (with rare exceptions).  For this reason, cruising single-handed, while possible, is not convenient. The more 'crew' you have on your boat with you, the better! If you're at a lock waiting for another boat to pass through, it is common for you to volunteer to help the other boat pass through the lock, and of course, in turn, other boaters waiting for you will help you as well.

There are two main types of locks - narrow and broad. Narrow locks (on narrow canals) allow one 7' wide boat to pass through them at a time. Broad locks are twice as wide. Narrow locks are usually easier and quicker to work than broad locks.

Working the locks is a simple logical process that everyone quickly becomes comfortable with. It is fun, and good exercise without being too strenuous, indeed some English people will go out and help at a lock, purely for the fun of it, even though they don't have a boat!

Tunnels

Perhaps the most memorable experience of a canal cruise can be traveling through a tunnel.  Several of the tunnels are more than a mile in length, and are unlit and narrow - some are one-way only, while others are wide enough for two boats to pass each other.  At least one of the tunnels (the Harecastle) is reputed to be haunted!

As you comfortably chug through the tunnel in your boat, spare a thought for the earlier canal boaters who, before diesel engines, had to propel their boats through the tunnels by themselves. They would use horses to tow the boats normally, but the tunnels had no room for a tow path and so they had to manually 'leg' the boats through the tunnels themselves.

Aqueducts

There are many aqueducts, which take the canal over the top of a road or valley (or sometimes even over the top of a river).  Some aqueducts are short and unexciting, while others can be long and high above the ground below.

Most of the time the best part of an aqueduct is viewing it not from on top, but from some other vantage point to one side so you can admire its beautiful construction - seeing the details that aren't so obvious when directly on top of it.

About your Boat

Most canal boats are designed to fit all the canals in Britain. This means that it will have a maximum width of 7 ft and a maximum length of about 70 ft and are built of steel.  By comparison, an RV in the US is usually 8 - 8 ft wide, and with a maximum length of 40-45 ft.

The boat will have everything you need to live on it for the week. It has a holding tank for sewage that will probably not need to be emptied during the week, and a water tank for fresh water that you'll probably need to refill once or twice as you cruise around.  Batteries supply power when the motor is stopped.  Most boats offer a 12V cigarette lighter type plug (same as in your car) and some also have a 230V 50Hz British type plug as well.

It will have a full kitchen, with stove and fridge plus crockery and cutlery. The boat will have central heating and both hot and cold water. There will be one or two or more sleeping cabins (maybe with bunk beds or side by side beds and either single or double sized), plus living quarters.

There will be one or more toilets, and one or more showers (sometimes even a bath). The boat might have a television. although of course it doesn't have cable!  Ceiling height will be slightly more than 6 ft.

There may be open decks at the front and at the rear of the boat, and doors at both ends and sometimes on the side as well.  It is also possible to use the strong roof of the cabin to sit or sunbathe on.

The engine will almost certainly be diesel powered, and will have enough diesel in the tank so you don't need to refill it during a week's cruise. Most boats are steered from an outside position on the rear deck. The boat will be made of sturdy steel, so if you occasionally misjudge things, you're unlikely to seriously damage the boat.

You can see some pictures of boats here.

What Else is Needed

The boat is fully equipped for most things, but there are definitely some extra things you should bring with you.

First, although the boat has a kitchen, it doesn't have any food. Most boat operators will provide a small supply of salt and pepper and sugar, and many will also arrange to provision the boat for you (at extra cost, of course). While you'll probably eat many meals in pubs and restaurants as you travel, you'll still want to have some food and drink items with you.

Second, of course bring a camera! If you have a digital camera, or a camcorder, or anything else that uses rechargeable batteries, also bring something that can recharge your batteries, and check with the boat owner whether there will be just 12 volt power on board or also 230V power so you have the ability to recharge from the power supply provided.

Third, many people choose to bring a cell phone so they can stay in contact. Most of the canal system is covered by cell phone service. See my article on international cell phone service for more information on how to get a cell phone that works affordably in Britain.

Fourth, buy plenty of canal guide books and maps so that you know what you're seeing as you travel. There are two main series of guidebooks, published by Pearson and by Nicholson. My personal preference is for the Pearson series, but usually I travel with both.  Buy these in advance, when you make your booking, so you can plan your route to take best advantage of nice places to tie up each night. Check this website which posts updates to the guidebooks so as to be sure that your information is completely current.

Fifth, bring good nonslip shoes, some rain protection, and gloves to protect your hands as you work the locks.

Sixth, consider bringing some type of walkie-talkie radios with you so as to make it easier for you to keep in contact with your fellow crew members and coordinate moving your boat through locks.

Seventh, bring a pair of binoculars.  If possible, use a pair of 7x50 binoculars - these are the finest general purpose binoculars.  Binoculars are very helpful for seeing what is happening at a lock up ahead so you can plan your approach and perhaps understand if it is full or empty, and also are useful to look at the wide variety of bird and animal life on and around the canals.

Choosing the Best Route for You

In total there are more than 3000 miles of navigable canals and rivers in Britain. Most people travel no more than 100 miles in a week of cruising.

In choosing the 'best' part of the canal system for your cruise, you need to decide what is most important to you and use those factors to influence your choice of canal :

Out and Back Routes

Do you mind going on an 'out and back' route where you come back the same way you went out from the hire base?

Surprisingly, the canal and the scenery really do look very different when you are cruising in the opposite direction, and the advantage of an 'out and back' itinerary is that you can revisit any pubs or restaurants or villages that you enjoyed, as you return back to the hire base. An out and back route gives you a nice compromise - half the trip exploring new territory, and half the trip in somewhat familiar, but not boring, territory.

If you choose an out and back route, then just about any part of the entire canal system is suitable for you.

Rings

The second style of travel is to cruise in a large loop, with no backtracking. These types of itineraries are generally called 'rings' and there are a number of very popular rings that can be comfortable traveled in one week (and more rings that can be explored in two weeks or longer).

The nice thing about a ring is that you're always going somewhere new. On the other hand, there can be a tense day or two in the middle where you have gone too far to easily turn around and take the 'short' way back, but you're still a long way from the home base, and if you're behind schedule (unlikely but not impossible) you might have to experience a long day or two of cruising to get back to the hire base in time.

Three of the best known rings are the Cheshire, the Four County and the Warwickshire rings.  I've cruised all three; my favorite is the Warwickshire ring, and my least favorite is the Cheshire ring, which I accordingly do not recommend (due to safety concerns traveling through Manchester).

One Way Hires

A few hire companies have multiple depots and may allow you to pick up a boat at one depot and then drop it at a second depot. This gives you a similar cruising concept to the ring approach.

If you traveled by car it may pose a problem to have to then return back to where your car is parked, but sometimes you'll find that the two bases, although a substantial distance apart via the canal system (and at very slow speed) are actually very close together by regular roads and the cost of a taxi to get you back to your car may be quite minimal.

Access to the Hire Base

Another important consideration is how you will get to and from the hire base. If you have a rental car, you have much more flexibility in your choice of hire base than if you are traveling by train.

Avoiding Bad Areas

As regrettable as it is, one can not pretend that the canals do not occasionally trespass into what have become, over the last 250+ years, slum or gang areas. It is not always politically correct to admit that such areas exist, and care needs to be taken to ensure that you aren't choosing a canal (and overnight mooring site) in an unsafe area. A few canals are only marginally safe even during the day.

The easy rule of thumb is to keep out of the big cities (particularly Manchester and Birmingham), or, if braving them, moor only in protected moorings. Your hire base operator can tell you about these issues - he doesn't want his boat to be vandalized any more than you do!

Lock Density

Some people enjoy locks, and the more locks they get to encounter, the happier they are. Other people prefer a more relaxing time and choose a lock-free part of the canal system.

In general, I find that narrow locks are much easier to work than wide locks, and also easier to control the boat within. If there are only two of you, you might want to keep to narrow canals in preference to wide canals as much as possible. If you are traveling with a larger crew, then you have plenty of people to make any type of lock an easy experience.

One large lock-free stretch of canal includes much of the Trent & Mersey, the Bridgewater, and the Leigh Branch of the Leeds & Liverpool canal (these are all connected to each other and make for a very easy week). Another easy lock-free itinerary is around the Ashby and North Oxford Canals.

When To Cruise

You'll obviously get very much more pleasure if you cruise during the summer, when the days are longest and weather warmest. On the other hand, if you decide to go on a cruise in the depths of winter, not only will the weather be uninviting and the days short (you can only cruise during daylight hours), but you're likely to encounter 'stoppages' on parts of the canal system that are closed for maintenance and repair. Many of the hire companies also close for the winter period. Lastly, in a cold winter, some parts of the canal system may freeze! And even if the water doesn't freeze, overnight frosts can make boat decks and canal banks slippery and treacherous.

Summer is the most popular time on the canals; but I generally choose to cruise in 'shoulder' rather than peak season. The canals are less congested, making for a more affordable and more relaxed experience.

Be careful to avoid all holiday weekends, when many more people flock to the canals.

One other very important issue - all canal boat hire companies vary their hire fees, often week by week depending on the perceived value/demand for each week.  The most popular weeks can cost 50% more than the least popular weeks.  Changing your cruise by one or two weeks can sometimes save you hundreds of dollars, while having very little impact on your enjoyable experience.

My preference is to cruise in spring rather than in fall - sometimes during a long dry summer, the canals can run low on water, and so in spring, there is less likelihood of water related problems, and the canals are all fresh from their winter maintenance. However, I have also cruised in mid-summer and in mid autumn, and have enjoyed all experiences.

Safety Issues

Cruising the canals is generally safe, but any time you have a combination of boats, machinery, and water, there are of course opportunities for accidents to occur.

The good news is that canal boats move very slowly, and the canals themselves are completely calm, with no discernable currents, and quite shallow (you'll rarely find a canal more than 3'-4' deep).  If you're prudent and careful, you're unlikely to have any problems.

But you still need to be aware of some issues.  Wear good gripping non-slip shoes and be careful not to fall off your boat while moving around, and not to slip and fall off the edge of a canal or around the perimeter of a lock.  If surfaces are wet (or icy) they are of course more slippery than if dry.

It is important to never place yourself between your boat and any obstacle.  Although slow-moving, the boat has an enormous amount of momentum due to its many-ton weight, as you could find at considerable personal cost if you were in the wrong place.

Needless to say, drinking alcohol is best done at the end of a day's cruising rather than during the day.

How Much Does it Cost

Rates vary literally week by week - the closer to mid-summer you are, the higher the rate. Rentals spanning any major holiday are also at higher rates. If you're hiring a two berth boat then a one week rental, including unlimited fuel and taxes is probably going to be in the range of $830-$1500 (450-800), depending on the time of year and boat quality. Compare this to the cost of seven nights hotel, and you can quickly see that renting a boat is very affordable.

If you are traveling as part of a larger group, longer boats are available for 4 or 6 or even 8 or more guests. Prices for the boat can range up to $2800 (1500) or more for a one week hire, but the cost per person is likely to be less than the cost of the smaller boat for two people.

Boat Hire Companies

There are two major companies that most hire operators market through - Blakes and Hoseasons. Usually there is no difference in cost if you book through one of these marketing organizations or if you book direct, and because both marketing companies pay commissions, your travel agent can probably arrange this for you at no extra cost.

I have hired four different boats from three different companies, and inspected the fleets of various other operators. The best company I've encountered so far is Rose Narrow Boats. Nice people, nice boats, a lovely and safe part of the canal system (eg the Warwickshire Ring) to cruise on, and easy to get to by train or car from London.

There are a number of excellent websites with an abundance of information on the canals. George's canals.com site is perhaps pre-eminent. Canal Junction is also worth a click, and the British Waterways site is offered by the government body that manages most of the canals in Britain.

Note :  Please see also our article on river boat cruising in Europe.  This is both very different to 'do it yourself' canal cruising in Britain, but also somewhat similar, and may be of interest to you too.
 

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Originally published 3 Jan 2003, major revision 4 Jun 2004
last update 19 Dec 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
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