‘Cruising the UK’s canal network is the best way to relax’, says Neil Hudson of the Yorkshire Evening Post after taking a short break canal boat holiday from Drifters’ Anderton base earlier this month…
We’re on holiday and doing about 4mph through the outskirts of Manchester. It’s swelteringly hot, the kids have nothing to do and we’re not entirely sure where we’re going.
In any normal circumstances, this should be a recipe for disaster but as we approach the M56 near Anderton, things could not be better.
You see, we’re not in a car. We’re on a narrowboat, which means while we can sense stressed-out motorists crawling by bumper-to-bumper on the congested trunk road overhead, we’re about as far from it as you could be.
In a just a few short moments, the pent-up animal growl of near stationary vehicles is replaced by bird song and the gentle, almost peaceful, rumble of our own engine.
On either side are fields, one yellow as spun gold, stems of unharvested corn swaying gently in the light summer breeze and on the opposite bank, sloping off toward a shimmering light blue ribbon of water snaking its way along the valley bottom, a tangle of hedgerows march down between fields of emerald, olive and chartreuse.
In fact, even as I write this review, I’m struggling to think of anything more relaxing than gently steering your narrowboat through genuinely beautiful stretches of English countryside. It’s idyllic. It’s verging on Shakespearean.
We hired our 40ft narrowboat from Anderton Marina on the Monday for four nights. After watching an obligatory safety video which shows you a few dos and don’ts associated with narrowboating, such as how to navigate a lock and what to do when you encounter a tunnel, we were taken through the various procedures associated with the boat. Like how to start it, how to stop it, where to fill it up with water and what to do if it breaks down (god forbid).
After that and being shown where the lifejackets were, we were pretty much off. Pulling out of the marina was, perhaps, the scariest moment of all. It’s not every day you take control of a vehicle whose front end is more than the length of a double-decker bus away and given your main method of controlling this is the rudder paddle, it takes a bit of getting used to.
Luckily, it’s something you can pick up in just a few hundred yards and as the boat only travels at about 4mph anyway, so long as you keep an eye on where the nose is headed, the just falls into line.
The Trent and Mersey Canal at Anderton is close to the River Weaver and, indeed, is linked to it via the three-storey tall Victorian boat lift, which is still in use today and is one of those feats of engineering from bygone times one can only marvel at.
We were heading toward the town of Lymm, which was to be our turning point but within just a few hours, we decided to pull up and have something to eat. There are thousands, of miles of canals criss-crossing the UK and part of the joy of cruising along them is you can stop pretty much anywhere. Our first pitstop, we found a nice spot between two fields in the middle of nowhere, steered the front of the boat toward the shore, hammered in a couple of poles and tied up.
The other thing a narrowboat holiday does for you is really open your eyes to the wondrous beauty we have in this country. This hidden network of tranquil waterways is an undervalued asset and even when they venture near the urban sprawl, they remain resolutely part of the countryside, wreathed as they are in aged hedges and unkempt grass verges. It’s almost a land that time forgot, which makes rediscovering them all the more rewarding.
As we were once a great sea-faring nation, much of our everyday language is peppered with nautical references.
We’ve put together our favourite everyday phrases with nautical origins to ‘Chew the Fat’ over on your next adventure afloat:
1. Barge in – barge has two nautical meanings: a flag officer’s boat; or a flat-bottomed workboat which is hard to manoeuver – hence ‘barge in’. Please note, narrowboats are often referred to as barges, but this isn’t correct – narrowboats are just 6ft 10 to 7ft wide, while canal barges are at least 14ft 6inches beam. Nor are they longboats…
2. Adrift – from the Middle English drifte (to float), sailors used the word to describe anything missing or come undone. From this came drifter, a person without purpose or aim in life, then the wholly relaxing Drifters Waterway Holidays!
3. Bitter End – the end of the anchor line was secured to a bitt (sturdy post) on the deck. The line was let out to set the anchor, but if the water was deeper than anticipated, the rope would pay out to the bitter end…
4. Blood Money – originally known as bounty money, this was the financial reward for sinking an enemy ship. The amount was based on the number of crew members killed.
5. Chewing the Fat (friendly conversation) – it took a lot of chewing to make the seaman’s daily ration of tough, salt-cured beef or pork edible.
6. Clean Slate (starting anew) – before computers, courses and distances were recorded on a slate. At the end of each watch, these were added to the ship’s log and the slate wiped clean ready for the next watch.
7. Cranky (irritable) – a crank was an unstable sailing vessel (usually a result of faulty design, lack of ballast or cargo imbalance), that would heel too far in the wind.
8. Cut of his jib (judging a person by outward appearance) – this term originated in the 18th century when sailing navies could identify the nationality of a vessel by the shape of its jib (triangular sail at the front of the boat), long before her colours could be seen.
9. Down the hatch (a toast) – has its origins in sea freight where cargoes were lowered into the hatch.
10. Fly-by-Night (here today, gone tomorrow) – originally referred to an easily set extra sail, used temporarily when running before the wind.
According to the Water Rat in Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, ‘There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half as much worth doing as simply messing about in boat.’
As a family of sailors – from dinghies to yachts – we subscribe to this belief wholeheartedly. But canal boating has never been on the agenda: as the mother of two young boys, I usually opt for holidays where the sun shines over wide open spaces, with limited water hazards. Slow, cramped and afloat…not so much.
Yet a weekend on a canal boat is just the tonic for a young family used to dashing about.
A network of canals dissects the UK, and finding one far enough away to feel like a break yet close enough to arrive before teatime is key. For us, this turns out to be the Kennet & Avon Canal. With such limited space, we have to be supremely organised, particularly as the changeable weather does not allow for packing light.
But within 10 minutes of being on board, we have watched the safety briefing and set off from the Hilperton canal boat hire base towards Bath.
Patchy Wi-Fi is a blessing in disguise. We look up from our phones, chat and play I Spy, catch glimpses of imposing Bath-stone houses that appear between the voluptuous curve of the hills. Although I know this area by road, the perspective from the canal is changed entirely. It is more rural, green and peaceful – other-worldly in its pace.
We pick up canal etiquette as we go: passing port to port, ticking the engine over as we pass people moored up enjoying their wine – usually in a mug. Crucially, we learn that buying a pint for the lock keeper means you will be privy to local information: the best places to eat and moor for the night, and where to get a good local ale. Locks are the kitchen table of the canal party, where teabags are shared, stories exchanged and weather discussed.
An hour after setting off, we stop for the evening in Bradford on Avon. Alongside the canal, a fabulous fourteenth-century monastic stone tithe barn, owned by English Heritage and with a superlative timber cruck roof, serves as a reminder of old England, when the canals were crucial for trade.
From impromptu races along the towpath to tackling locks, opening swing bridges and manning the horn through tunnels, there is plenty to keep us entertained. Not least the constant string of moorhens, ducks and swans that trail from the stern, vying for crumbs.
Navigating the Avoncliff Aqueduct, which stands strong over the river across a glorious emerald valley, is the highlight for us all: a staggering feat of design and engineering widely considered to be John Rennie the Elder’s finest work. We tear through the valley in walking boots and, back on board, tie up alongside the Dawdling Dairy longboat for delicious ice cream to fuel us on to Bath.
Perhaps it is the ease of the whole experience – the most taxing thing we have to do is tap in a few mooring pins – but two nights on board has reset our internal pace. So when we have to queue for the lock to return to Hilperton, rather than feeling fractious, we simply open a bottle of wine.
Go with the flow – step on to a narrowboat and your stresses will melt away like the ripples on the water… wrote Anna Selby in ‘Take A Break’ Magazine earlier this year, following an autumn holiday with Drifters’ member Black Prince Narrowboat Holidays. Here’s the rest of her article:
Picture a rural scene – wildlife, weeping willows, pretty country inns with gardens meandering down to the water’s edge, and somewhere you can never go faster than four miles an hour. As an antidote to the stresses of modern life, the waterways of Britain could be just the thing.
Until a couple of decades ago, our canals’ long service as a transport system had been largely forgotten. They were neglected, overgrown, and the final resting place of supermarket trolleys. Now they’ve had a new lease of life and the narrowboats that used to carry everything from coal to fine china have been turned into holiday homes.
Very appealing they are too, like floating dolls’ houses, but with everything you might need, right down to an iPod charger.
We picked our vessel up at Black Prince Holidays, in Stoke Prior, near Worcester. She was called Eider, and positively gleamed in dark blue, burgundy and cream.
After a short lesson in lock management, we were off along a tranquil waterway. Reeds rustled by the banks, families of ducks and swans bobbed past, pretty villages appeared across the fields and a kingfisher flashed into the trees. I could almost feel the tensions ease away. Surely it must be time for a gin and tonic? But no. While much of canal boating is gentle and relaxed, there are moments of frenzied activity that require focus – and these occur when you arrive at locks…
Effectively a staircase made of water, the process is simple but hard work. The lock has to be opened using a windlass – a giant key you have to turn like mad – to winch up the paddle that allows water into the chamber. Then you have to push open the massive gate to let the boat in. I did as the engineer suggested and pushed with my back, and suddenly I understood where the phrase ‘putting your back into it’ came from! If you fret about not getting to the gym while you’re on holiday, this is one vacation where you don’t need to give it a moment’s thought.
Having said that, help is usually at hand, and you’ll find yourself instantly part of a community. Other narrowboats leave locks open for you and there are gatekeepers ready to assist. Everyone chats, from boaters to fishermen to dog walkers. It’s a lovely vibe.
After dinner at a canalside pub, we drank hot chocolate in the narrowboat’s cosy kitchen before falling into a deep sleep.
The next morning we set off early in the autumnal mist. Being September there was fruit everywhere – blackberries you could reach from the boat, crab apples and sloes. Trees formed green tunnels overhead and we went through a real one, so dark we needed the boat’s headlamp.
Passing fields of sheep and horses, it felt like another world, a different time.
Then all of a sudden, the canal would pass under the M5 or a train would speed by and noisily remind us we were in the 21st century.
The landscape kept changing and we went through reed beds so dense, it was like something out of the film The African Queen. Then suddenly we were on the outskirts of Worcester, where terraced streets ran down to the water’s edge and people strolled with their Sainsbury’s bags along the towpath.
We moored up away from town and in the evening swallows swooped over the water, while herons flapped their great grey wings and flew away to roost. We sat on the prow and watched the stars come out – what was that about stress again?
Canal boat holidays offer the chance to explore some of Britain’s most beautiful countryside, including a number of our National Parks.
Pottering along at just four mph is the perfect way to relax, unwind and take in the scenery.
And narrowboat holiday-makers can wake up every day in a new location, with all the comforts of home on board.
Here are our Top 3 narrowboat holidays for exploring National Parks:
1. Travel through the Yorkshire Dales to Skipton – on a short break (three or four nights) from Drifters’ canal boat hire base at Barnoldswick, boaters can head east along the Leeds & Liverpool Canal to Skipton and back (total journey there and back of 26 miles, 30 locks, 20 hours). This breath-taking route winds along the contours of the side of Airedale, with extensive views of the Yorkshire Dales – sheep, farmhouses, barns, stone walls and the occasional village or town. Once in Skipton, boaters can moor in the centre of the town, visit shops and restaurants and explore the 900-year old Skipton Castle, one of the most complete and best preserved medieval castles in England. On a week’s break from Barnoldswick, hire-boaters can travel on to Sir Titus Salt’s Model Town of Saltaire, designated a World Heritage Status destination.
2. Glide around the Breacon Beacons – isolated from the main canal network, the beautiful Monmouth & Brecon Canal runs through the Brecon Beacons National Park. Stretching 35 miles from Brecon to Cwmbran, this peaceful waterway, with very few locks, offers canal boat holiday-makers incredible mountain views. From Drifters’ base Goytre Wharf, near Abergavenny, on a week’s break, boaters can cruise to Brecon and back, passing through Georgian Crickhowell, with its fascinating 13th century castle, and Talybont-on-Usk with walks to the waterfalls at Blaen y Glyn. Brecon itself is home to a cathedral, theatre, cinema, castle ruins and stunning Georgian architecture, as well as some of the best views of the Brecon Beacons from Pen y Fan, the highest point in Southern Britain at 886m. On a short break from Goytre, canal boat holiday-makers can travel lock-free to Llangynidr and back, stopping off at village pubs along the way, including the Lion Inn at Govilon.
3. Potter around the Peak District – on a week’s holiday from Drifters’ Peak District base at the junction of the Trent & Mersey and Caldon canals near Stoke on Trent, canal boat holiday-makers can travel to into the Peak District to the terminus of the beautiful Peak Forest Canal at Whaley Bridge. The route goes through the Harecastle Tunnel, joining the Macclesfield Canal at Hardings Wood and then travelling through Congleton, Macclesfield and Marple, before turning onto the Peak Forest Canal. On a short break, boaters can travel along the Caldon Canal through the stunning Churnet Valley to Froghall and back.
The Canal & River Trust and Drifters member ABC Boat Hire will be exhibiting at the event, which takes place at the Birmingham NEC, 16-19 June 2016.
Visitors to the Canal & River Trust stand (G522, Hall 6) can enter our competition to win a £500 Drifters canal boat holiday voucher.
Mike Grimes, head of boating at the Canal & River Trust, explains: “We are delighted to be working with BBC Gardener’s World Live to help create a fantastic Canal Boat Garden feature for the event.
“The Canal Boat Garden will include a lock side scene complete with a full size narrow boat donated by ABC Boat Hire as well as some old lock gates from the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal.”
Surrounded by planting typical of the ecosystems found alongside canals, the Canal Boat Garden display will also include a Lock Keeper’s cultivated Garden and a “moving roof garden” on the narrow boat itself, to give inspiration to those wanting to grow flowers and edibles in tight space.
The Canal Boat Garden also has a focus on invasive plant species, which cost the Canal & River Trust thousands of pounds a year to clear, can be a real frustration for boaters and are damaging to native wildlife.
Paul Stone is a veteran garden designer and Gold Medal winner having exhibited at RHS Chelsea Flower Show amongst many others. Veolia are supporting the Canal Boat Garden by donating Pro-Grow products.
The Show is open 9am till 6pm daily, 16-19 June 2016. Tickets include free entry to the BBC Good Food Show.
Narrowboat holidays offer families the chance to set off on a summer holiday adventure together – learning how to work the locks, navigate tunnels, spot wildlife, explore traffic-free towpaths and visit waterside attractions along the way.
Drifters offers the choice of over 580 boats from 45 bases across England, Wales and Scotland. All our operators provide hirers with life jackets and boat steering tuition at the start of their holiday. Bikes can be stored on the roof of the boat and pets are welcome aboard most hire boats.
Drifters’ prices in July and August start at £625 for a short break (three or four nights) on a boat for four people, £965 for a week.
Here are our Top 5 Summer Holidays Afloat:
1. Visit Georgian Bath Afloat – on a short break from Drifters’ base at Bradford on Avon in Wiltshire, boaters can travel along the beautiful Kennet & Avon Canal and reach the centre of the World Heritage City of Bath in seven hours, with just seven locks to negotiate along the way. As well as stunning architecture, great shopping and restaurants, Bath has many fantastic family attractions, including the Roman Baths, the best preserved ancient temple and baths in Northern Europe.
2. Complete the Warwickshire Ring – from our base at Coventry Canal Basin, cruising the Warwickshire Ring makes for an energetic week’s cruise or a leisurely two-week expedition. The ring (101 miles, 94 locks, 48 hours) takes in the Grand Union, Oxford, Coventry and Birmingham & Fazeley canals. Highlights include: the flight of 11 locks into Atherstone; the pretty canal village of Braunston; Newbold and Shrewley tunnels; the awesome flight of 21 locks at Hatton; Warwick Castle; Leamington Spa; and Birmingham City Centre.
3. Glide across the Stream in the Sky – At over 38 metres high and 305 metres long, the awesome World Heritage Status Pontcysyllte Aqueduct on the Llangollen Canal in North Wales, is an incredible feat of engineering, offering canal boat holiday-makers panoramic views of the stunning Dee Valley below. On a short break from our base on the Llangollen Canal at Chirk, boaters can travel across the aqueduct and reach the pretty town of Llangollen, with Steam Railway and Horseshoe Falls. On a week’s holiday, canal boat holiday-makers can also reach Ellesmere, the Shropshire Lake District, teaming with wildlife and the pretty town of Whitchurch, offering a wealth of independent shops, cafes and restaurants.
4. Visit Skipton and its medieval castle – on a short break from our base at Barnoldswick, boaters can head east along the Leeds & Liverpool Canal to Skipton and back (total journey there and back of 26 miles, 30 locks, 20 hours). This breath-taking route winds along the contours of the side of Airedale, with extensive views of sheep country – farmhouses, barns, stone walls and the occasional village or town. Once in Skipton, boaters can moor in the centre of the town, visit shops and restaurants and explore the 900-year old Skipton Castle, one of the most complete and best preserved medieval castles in England.
5. Explore the heart of the canal network – our canal boat hire base at Braunston on the Grand Union Canal in Northamptonshire offers a variety of routes through the heart of the canal network. For example, on a short break, boaters can reach the “chocolate box” pretty historic village of Stoke Bruerne, where little has changed since the heyday of the canals the first half of the 19th century, and a visit the Canal Museum to follow the story of the people who created and worked on the canals. On a week’s break from Braunston, boaters can tackle the Warwickshire Ring, travelling through Warwick and Birmingham and passing through 93 locks.
A canal boat holiday offers a different pace of life, says Jaymi McCann in her article in the Sunday Express, published 22 May 2016:
LEANING on the lock, I take in the peace of the timeless Yorkshire countryside. I’m on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, celebrating its 200th anniversary.
Carving through the southern edge of the Dales it meanders its way across country from city to city, for 127 miles and through 91 locks. With every turn the view changes and as spring lambs play in the ﬁelds next to me and a kestrel swoops overhead I am in no rush for the lock to ﬁll with water.
Narrowboat ‘Worcester’ is home for the weekend and my mum, dad and boyfriend Ben complete my crew for this short jaunt between Barnoldswick and the picturesque town of Skipton. With little more than a brieﬁng and a helping hand getting through the ﬁrst locks, we are away. This section of the historic canal traverses valleys and peaks, making it quite a baptism of ﬁre for a novice captain.
But with a speed limit of four miles an hour nothing too terrifying can happen, apart from perhaps dented pride. However it’s not quite as easy as it seems. The ﬁrst few hours are spent ﬁguring out how to make the boat go in a straight line as the smallest nudge of the tiller sends it soaring left or right.
There are a few little bumps but observing the others passing by shows that this is no unusual thing. Eventually we get to grips with it and after a few relaxing hours we pull over in East Marton, passing through the unique double-arched bridge and past a row of moored boats before choosing an idyllic tree-lined spot.
A walk through this tiny, chocolate-box hamlet, past stone cottages and a busy stable yard, leads to the Cross Keys, where we enjoy some much-needed refreshments and fuel before embarking on an evening sail.
After casting off we cover a few more miles before mooring up at the top of a flight of locks, which we decide to put off until the next morning. What is fantastic about boating is that you never know where you’re going to end up but wherever it is, you have everything you need already with you.
After sitting out with a bottle of wine under the stars we eventually turn in, dreaming of the next day’s adventure.
The boat is well kitted out and with each double bedroom having its own bathroom (one with a full-size shower, the other with even a small bath), it was easy to share the tight space. The berths were small but each had a surprisingly comfortable double bed. I had a fantastic night’s sleep with no noise or streetlights.
The next day Ben was up ﬁrst and got us moving while I gave my dad a crash course in lock keeping. We sailed through increasingly stunning scenery, 12 locks and several swing bridges before pitching up in the market town of Skipton.
It is a canal hub and holds the annual Waterway Festival at the start of May. We explored the narrow streets, rows of independent shops and the castle before ﬁnding a sunny spot outside the Castle Inn, which was bustling with people. We had been lucky with the weather and were seeing temperatures in the mid-20s. We lazed and stoked up on pub grub. What would have been an indulgence during my usual sedentary life was now a reward for hard work on the lock gates.
Now, going somewhere then heading back again might seem a pointless task but getting to grips with the boat and the locks had brought us closer together. The following morning we were navigating the locks like old hands and made it back by mid-afternoon. A journey that would have taken 15 minutes by car had stretched to three relaxing hours. This is not a quick way to travel but that is the beauty of it.
To emphasise the point, a campaign to mark the Leeds and Liverpool Canal’s anniversary is entitled the Super Slow Way. There’s not just countryside to look at either. Check out the Exbury Egg, a large wooden egg by internationally acclaimed artist Stephen Turner in Burnley. There are also festivals throughout the year celebrating the region’s industrial heritage.
The canal remains unchanged over its two centuries but its purpose has been transformed: coal barges have given way to leisure boaters. Its engineers could have little envisaged its current use but the languid pace is what makes it such a break from modern life.
As we wound through ﬁelds and hills, the view was the same as it would have been 200 years ago. A car may be a faster, more efﬁcient way to see Yorkshire but the extra hours take you on a trip back in time. The journey really is more important than the destination.