A holiday aboard a rental boat on a historic stretch of the British canal network is one of the greatest pleasures boating has to offer. While various sun-chasing holidays abroad can leave you even more exhausted than you were at the start, a good canal holiday has you sucking in restorative air, smiling at people you would usually ignore and marvelling at how your heart rate appears to have halved. After just a couple of hours, you find yourself sidestepping the ferocious pace of modern life, and easing along at a couple of knots with nothing on your mind but the water, the scenery and the thought of that pub that awaits you just round the next corner.
However, if you want to enjoy it properly, it does pay to get a bit of research in first. Here are our top tips...
Pick a time and a place
First up, you need to pick a time and a place. Prices fluctuate significantly according to the time of year and the length of rental, with day trips, long weekend breaks and full-week holidays routinely available. You can expect to pay anything up to £2,000 for a week’s rental of an eight-berth 60-foot narrowboat in high-season but if you are flexible, you can make things much more affordable than that.
The high season is generally between May and September but plenty of yards operate all year-round with reduced prices. Just make sure you check for any scheduled off-season canal maintenance, as it often involves lock closures, which will radically prohibit your cruising grounds. Generally, spring and autumn are the best times to go for a holiday, as the locks are much freer, the canals are less congested, there is more space to park up by the towpath and there are far fewer ‘lively’ stag and hen parties bouncing blithely up and down the canal or keeping you awake at night. More to the point, the weather is still pretty good and the bulk of the relevant canal-side services are still in operation.
As regards your specific cruising grounds, three of the most beautiful stretches in the UK include the Kennet and Avon Canal between Bath and Devizes, the Oxford canal as it extends north of the city towards Banbury and the Llangollen Canal as it stretches west over the dramatic Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and deep into the delightful countryside of North Wales. Whichever location you choose, it pays to buy yourself a Nicholson’s Guide as early as possible. Whether you want cities, towns, villages, rural pubs, dramatic views or historic structures, these excellent inland navigation books give you all the information you need to pick the right part of the network for a week that suits your needs.
If you’re accustomed to high-end sailing yachts in the French Riviera, you will need to adjust your expectations for narrowboat rental, or other types of canal-going craft (see Narrowboat or barge? Canal boats explained).
Despite some glowing exceptions in the world of privately owned liveaboards, the vast majority of rental craft are simple and functional rather than lavish. A great many yards have little or no perspective in this regard, so rather than trusting a description of a rental boat as four or five-star, you should go and take a look at a couple of boats before booking. I have yet to see a rental boat that was anything more than adequate – and yet such are the pleasures of the activity itself that the rudimentary furnishings of the boats are anything but obstructive.
Nav plan considerations
Once you’ve decided upon a rental base and a cruising region, it is great fun (and very useful) to plan ahead. Grab your Nicholson’s Guide and take a look at the area you are likely to be covering. Look out in particular for winding holes (widened areas of the canal where you are able to turn the boat through 180 degrees). Also check out the locations of water filling points, plus any attractive parking spaces with nearby entertainments that might be of interest.
As regards making progress along your chosen route (and in particular, getting where you want to be for each overnight stop), a simple rule of thirds is very effective. Count the number of locks along the way. Add it to the number of miles and then divide that total number by three. The result is the number of hours it will take you to complete your day’s cruise. It’s an uncannily accurate equation and bizarrely, attempting to increase your pace appears to make little or no difference to your time of arrival, so prepare yourself to take it slow and avoid attempting too much in any given day.
A word of warning
You might easily be displacing 20 tonnes of water as you drive past a moored boat so rid yourself of your natural inclination to speed and instead, potter past at a gentle walking pace. By this means, you can expect a nod of appreciation as you go by, rather than gestures of a less friendly nature.
You should also consider the lifejacket issue. Plenty of people seem content to operate on the canals without lifejackets (and it’s by no means obligatory) but I routinely receive press releases reporting the deaths of those who are knocked out and drowned - particularly in and around locks, swing bridges, lift bridges, weirs and rivers. The network is covered in heavy industrial machinery and the rate of water flow in and out of a lock is extremely rapid, so take it seriously – and if you’re involved in the work of driving the boat (either at the tiller or as the lock jockey) do as all professional operatives of the Canal and River Trust do and wear your automatic lifejacket. How to drive a narrowboat is also worth a read.
10 top tips for enjoying a narrowboat holiday
1. Visit Canal Junction to find out about the various regions.
2. Reduce the expense by renting a larger boat with friends.
3. Buy a Nicholson’s Guide for the area you intend to cruise.
4. Mix it up with rural areas, towns, locks and canalside pubs.
5. If possible, visit a yard and inspect the boat before you book.
6. Check any planned lock closures in the area before you book.
7. If in doubt, rent a day boat for a taster session.
8. When planning your trip, apply the ‘Divide by Three’ navigation rule.
9. Don’t forget to factor winding holes and water points into your thinking.
10. Take it easy and avoid attempting too much in a single day.