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
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!)
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
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
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
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
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!
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.
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
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!
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
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 - 8½ 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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
Access to the Hire Base
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 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
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
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
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.
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
Boat Hire Companies
There are two major
companies that most hire operators market through -
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
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
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
George's canals.com site is perhaps pre-eminent.
Junction is also worth a click, and the
site is offered by the government body that manages most of the
canals in Britain.
Note : Please
see also our article on
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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3 Jan 2003, major revision 4 Jun 2004
08 Jul 2017
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.