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Narrowboat Cruising

Holidays afloat on Britain's extensive canal network

Nothing can compare to a holiday afloat, cruising the canals and waterways of England in a narrow boat. There are so many companies renting boats and so many different bases and routes that it would take you a lifetime of holidays to do them all. Hugh Taylor and Moira McCrossan investigate.

A boat called Jim

canal boat clubOur first experience of canal boating was on a delightful craft called Rum Tum Tugger, which belonged to Berkhampstead Boats, who named all their craft after T.S.Eliots Cats. We journeyed up the Grand Union Canal with a couple of teenagers, through Milton Keynes and a bit beyond before turning back.

It was at the time of the Hale Bop Comet (1997) and we had grand views of it every night, moored by the canal side in deep countryside. We have fond memories of that trip although sadly the company no longer exists.


Travel Facts



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Boat Hire Companies we have used:

Black Prince

Kate Boats

Canal Boat Club

Further reading:

The Water Road by Paul Gogarty is an excelent account of an extended journey through England on the Canal network.

The Water Road cover

Travelsphere escorted holidays


The beauty of a narrow boat holiday is that anyone can do it. You don’t need any special skills or licences, just a bit of basic training, which you get before taking the boat out. Thereafter some common sense will come in handy.


Steering a narrowboatThis introduction is aimed at providing some of the basics, the do’s and don’ts, a selection of trips you can take and some of the hire companies. We will only include companies that we have tried ourselves so you can have some confidence in booking.

Before you go

Other than booking the boat there is nothing else you really need to do before your departure but it is a good idea to do a bit of research into the journey you are about to make. To do this get a hold of one of the canal guides for the area you are going to and read it. As well as containing details of distances, travel times, locks, moorings and so on you’ll find a wealth of information about the countryside you are going to pass through, it’s history, local attractions, wildlife, trees and plants. Use this to plan a basic itinerary. But try not to cram too much in. remember you will be travelling at a speed of 3-4 mph and where there are locks you’re average speed will drop considerably. Do short stages, plan for each nights moorings (we always try to be near a pub) then be prepared to abandon all these plans and play it by ear when you get on board. The main thing is to slow down, adjust to the pace of life of the canal and countryside, relax and enjoy it.

What You Need to Know

opening a lock gateWhile you can go narrow boating on your own it is much more fun with company.

We’ve enjoyed doing it with family but mostly these days it’s with a small group of friends.


two boats on canalNarrow boats are surprisingly spacious and comfortable but they don’t have a lot of storage spaces so pack light and, when you get there, unpack all your stuff then leave the cases behind with your car. Most rental companies offer secure parking.


Locks and Canal Etiquette

You’ve had your basic training, slipped your moorings and are heading up the canal. Before too long you are going to encounter your first lock. Locks are part of the fun of travelling on canals but you need to treat them with care and respect.

Mitre lock gates

Locks are a device used to run canals up and down hills rather than tunnelling or cutting through. They are aquatic staircases for boats. The mitre gates on the locks have been in use for a very long time. They were invented by Leonardo da Vinci and first installed in the canals of Milan.

flight of locks staircaseWhen you approach your first lock you need to ascertain if the water level in it is the same as the stretch of canal you are on or the one beyond the lock. If it is level  with you then open the front lock gates by using the turning handles provided to raise the paddles and then pushing on the balance beams.


single gate lockThis can be hard work and often you will need to get your back onto the beam and push hard with your feet. Once the gate starts moving it gets easier. Once the gates are open, gently steer the boat in, close the gates and make sure the paddles are down. Then open the paddles on the other gates. This allows water to flow in or out (depending on whether you are going up or down) and the water level in the lock and the boat, will equalise with that on the other side of the gates.

lock gate closingWhen the process is complete open the gates. Don’t try to open them before the lock has cycled or to force them. When the gates are open gently steer the boat out, close the gates and make sure you put the paddles back down. Wind the paddles down gently. You’ll see some people just flicking the catch off and the paddle will rattle down under its own weight. Don’t do this as it causes damage.


flight of locksOne important thing to bear in mind while negotiating locks is right of way. You may arrive at a lock first and see a boat heading towards it in the opposite direction. But you should only proceed into the lock if the water is at your level. If the lock is full then you must give way to the other boat. Otherwise you will be wasting water by boat in lockemptying the lock to get into it and then filling it again. You will also encounter the wrath of other boaters for ‘stealing’ their water. The people who live permanently on the canals are a close-knit bunch and mostly very friendly and helpful. But stealing locks is one sure fire way of getting a bad reputation which will spread along the canal like wildfire.
The best thing you can do when you find a lock against you and a boat approaching is to moor up and start getting the lock gate open for them. That will speed things up and get you a lot of goodwill in return


mooringsAt various points on the canal you will find moorings with bollards or rings to tie your ropes too. Usually a waterways sign will indicate where the moorings start and finish and how long you can stay there without moving on. But out I the countryside you can more almost anywhere along the towpath and part of your kit will consist of a set of mooring spikes and a four pond block hammer. While your companions hold the boat, hammer the spikes in and then use them to moor the boat.


Toilets and Water

All the boats we have tested have proper toilets and showers. You’ll find warnings in the boat instructions and possibly also on the wall beside the toilet telling you not to put anything but toilet paper down the loo. Or as one rental owner told us “ nothing goes in there that has not passed through you first.”

Please heed this advice. Otherwise you could cause a blockage with overflows of sewage into the boat, necessitating a call out from the company’s engineer. And you will be presented with a hefty bill.
The sewage tanks have enough capacity to last for one weeks cruising. If you are out for two weeks or more you will need to put into one of the places on the canal that will pump out your tanks. And you’ll need to pay for that.

double lockYou will go through an amazing amount of water, particularly if you are all showering each days so it’s good idea to top up your water tanks every day or so. There are plenty of water points along the canal and you’ll find them in the canal cruising guide for the section you are on. Or just keep an eye open for them.


What you stock your boat with depends on you. You may intend eating most of your meals in the delightful canal side pubs. In which case you probably only need to stock the makings of a few breakfasts and perhaps some snacks. Or you may intend to self cater the whole way and need enough food for two or three days.

eating on boardYou can of course take all your food with you from home. But please consider the local businesses along the way that rely on tourism to help keep open. Our advice would be to take some essentials with you, buy the main food shopping from the nearest supermarket and then top up from village shops, farm shops and markets you happen upon throughout your journey. That way you can sample all manner of local delicacies like fresh farm raised meat and locally produced artisan bread.

working locksMany of the rental companies offer a service whereby they will provision the boat for you from a list they have and that’s handy if you are going to be short of time. But we prefer to do our own shopping.



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