Each year, around one fifth of canal boat hirers are newcomers. A licence isn’t required to steer a narrowboat and all our operators provide boat steering tuition as part of their holiday packages.
Here’s a list of our top eight canal boat holidays for beginners:
1. Discover the Breacon Beacons afloat – the beautiful Mon & Brec Canal runs through the Brecon Beacons National Park, meandering from 35 miles from Brecon to the Pontymoile Basin. This quiet waterway, with very few locks is nice and easy for beginners and offers holiday-makers incredible mountain views and some of the darkest night skies in Britain. From our canal boat hire base Goytre Wharf, near Abergavenny, on a week’s holiday boaters can cruise to Brecon and back, passing through Govilon, Georgian Crickhowell, Llangynidr and Talybont-on-Usk.
2. Amble along the Ashby – a sedate journey along the 22 mile-long lock-free Ashby Canal is perfect for narrowboat holiday novices. On a short break from our base at Stoke Golding, boaters can amble quietly along past the historic market town of Market Bosworth and the site of the Battle of Bosworth, where in 1485 Richard III lost his crown to Henry Tudor. Then on to the pretty village of Shackerstone with its steam railway, before turning back to Stoke Golding again.
3. Visit Edinburgh afloat – from our base at Falkirk, it’s a peaceful 33-mile, 11-hour journey along the Scottish Lowland’s Union Canal to Edinburgh Quay, perfect for a week away afloat. The journey starts with a trip through the world’s first and only rotating boat lift, the incredible Falkirk Wheel. Next boaters pass over the magnificent Almond Aqueduct and then on through the lovely lowland villages of Linlithgow and Ratho. Visitor moorings are available at Edinburgh Quay, close to the City’s tourist attractions, including Edinburgh Castle and the Scottish National Gallery.
4. Enjoy Birmingham by canal – With no locks between our base at Tardebigge on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal near Bromsgrove, and City Centre moorings at Gas Street Basin, just a stone’s throw from Brindleyplace, a trip to Birmingham is great for newcomers. It takes five hours to reach Gas Street Basin, passing through four tunnels along the way and past popular waterside pubs, like the Hopwood House at Hopwood.
5. Experience the lovely Llangollen Canal – from our base at Chirk on the Llangollen Canal, the peaceful journey to the Eisteddfod town of Llangollen and back offers a fantastic short break holiday for beginners. As well as the magnificent World Heritage status Pontcysyllte and Chirk aqueducts to pass over, there are just four locks to pass through and views to die for.
6. Journey through the Peak District – from our Peak District narrowboat hire base, at the junction of the Caldon and Trent & Mersey canals at Etruria near Stoke on Trent, a journey along the peaceful Caldon Canal offers a lovely way to experience this beautiful National Park in the heart of England, and an easy introduction to canal boating for beginners. Starting at the National Garden Festival site, home of the industrial potteries, it’s a gentle 12-hour cruise along the Caldon Canal to Froghall Basin back, perfect for a short break.
7. Wonder at the World Heritage City of Bath – from our base at Bradford on Avon on the Kennet & Avon Canal in Wiltshire, in the southern foothills of the Cotswolds, Georgian Bath is a six-hour, one-lock cruise away. The route passes over two stunning Bath stone aqueducts and past a series of historic waterside pubs, including The Cross Guns at Avoncliffe. Once there, canal boat holiday makers can use their canal boat as a base to enjoy all that the World Heritage Status City of Bath has to offer, including the Roman Baths, the Holburne Museum, eateries and shops.
8. Cruise through the countryside to Braunston – from our base at Stretton on the North Oxford Canal near Rugby, the pretty canal village of Braunston is a peaceful 15-mile cruise away. There are only three locks on this route so it’s an easy short break for first timers. The journey meanders through scenic wooded countryside and a series of quiet villages with rural pubs, including the Barley Mow at Newbold and Royal Oak at Hillmorton.
Cruising gently through quiet countryside and stopping off at rural local pubs along the way, a holiday on Britain’s peaceful canal network can offer a great antidote to the hustle and bustle of Christmas.
We offer winter breaks* from a number of our bases, giving you the chance to enjoy snug evenings afloat, visit waterside pubs with roaring log fires, and wake up to crisp clean country air.
And whether it’s a cosy boat for two or a family affair for eight, celebrating Christmas or New Year afloat also offers the chance to visit some of Britain’s most exciting waterside towns and cities, including Bath, Birmingham, Chester, Warwick and Stratford upon Avon.
All our boats have central heating, hot water, televisions and DVD players and some also have multi-fuel stoves and Wifi, so whatever the weather, it’s always warm and cosy on board.
Here’s a run-down of our Top 10 Christmas breaks afloat:
1. Enjoy the Christmas cheer in Chester – from our canal boat hire base at Bunbury on the Shropshire Union Canal in Cheshire, it’s a seven-hour, nine-lock journey to the historic walled City of Chester. With Christmas markets and parades, carols at Chester Cathedral and the magical ‘Lanterns at Chester Zoo’ event, Chester is a great place to celebrate Christmas.
2. Take in a Christmas Show in Birmingham – Birmingham City centre moorings at Gas Street Basin can be reached in just five hours from our narrowboat hire base at Tardebigge on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal. With its dazzling Frankfurt Christmas Market, ice rink, big wheel, Bull Ring and Mailbox shopping centres and Christmas shows, including ‘Dick Whittington’ at the Hippodrome, Birmingham is a great place to get Christmassy.
3. Meander along the South Oxford Canal – from Drifters’ base at Clifton-on-Dunsmore, near Rugby, on a week’s break boaters can travel along the rural South Oxford Canal, passing Cotswold stone canalside villages with a choice of historic canalside pubs. On a short break, boaters can reach Gayton on the Grand Union Canal, passing through the delightful canal village of Braunston with its famous tunnel.
4. Wend your way to Warwick Castle – from Drifters’ base at Stockton on the Grand Union Canal in Warwickshire, canal boat holiday-makers can cruise to Warwick and back to explore Warwick Castle decked out for Christmas, including a 20-foot high Christmas tree in the Great Hall and Story Time with Santa in the Red Drawing Room.
5. Travel through Shakespeare country – on a short break from our base at Stratford upon Avon, canal boat holiday-makers can travel through the Warwickshire countryside along the beautiful Stratford upon Avon Canal to Lapworth and back, stopping off at cosy country pubs along the way, including The Mary Arden at Wilmcote, also home to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s ‘Mary Arden’s Farm’. On a week’s break, boaters can continue on to Warwick.
6. Visit the ‘chocolate box pretty’ canalside village of Stoke Bruerne…from Drifters’ base at Rugby on the North Oxford Canal, canal boat holiday-makers can choose from a number of routes, including a trip through rural Northamptonshire to the lovely village of Stoke Bruerne. With two popular historic village pubs, a curry house, tranquil countryside walks and the Canal Museum packed with canal artefacts, stories and films, there’s plenty of Christmas hospitality to enjoy.
7. Cruise through the beautiful Leicestershire countryside…on a short break from Drifters’ canal boat hire base in the historic market town of Market Harborough on the Leicester Line of the Grand Union Canal, narrowboat holiday-makers can potter through rural Leicestershire to the pretty villages of Crick or Welford, passing through Foxton Locks with magnificent views of the Leicestershire countryside. On a week’s break, they can continue on to Stoke Bruerne.
8. Glide across the Stream in the Sky…from Drifters’ base at Trevor on the Llangollen Canal in North Wales, on a short break narrowboat holiday-makers can travel to Chirk and back on a short break, passing over the awesome World Heritage Status Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. This magnificent feat of Victorian engineering carries the canal 300 metres above the Dee Valley, with incredible views to enjoy. On a week’s holiday from Trevor, boaters can travel on to Wrenbury and back.
9. Travel to Georgian Bath – Drifters’ base at the historic town of Bradford on Avon on the Kennet & Avon Canal in Wiltshire, offers the chance to cruise to the World Heritage Status City of Bath and back. Cosy country pubs to enjoy along the way include the George Inn at Bathampton, once a 12th-century monastery, and the Cross Guns at Avoncliffe, with panoramic views of the foothills of the Cotswolds. Once in Bath, narrowboat holiday-makers can enjoy the City’s beautiful Christmas lights, services at Bath Abbey, world class Museums and a fantastic choice of shops and restaurants.
10. Chug through rural Warwickshire – On a short break from Drifters’ base at Stretton-under-Fosse near Rugby, boaters can head south along the beautiful Oxford Canal to Braunston, winding through classic scenery, much of which hasn’t changed for centuries. On a week’s holiday, narrowboat holiday-makers can travel on to Leamington Spa and Warwick.
*NB some of our routes will be affected by winter maintenance work
Reputedly playing host to hundreds of ghosts, with bats and frogs aplenty, creepy tunnels, spooky locks and misty towpaths, Britain’s 200-year old canal network provides the perfect backdrop for a haunting Halloween.
From shaggy coated beings to shrieking boggarts, we’ve put together our Top 7 spookiest spots:
1. Be stunned at Standedge Tunnel…at 3.25 miles long, Standedge Tunnel on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal at Marsden is the longest on the canal network, and over its 200-year history it has witnessed some gruesome events. As well as tales of leggers who were crushed between boats and navvies dying in explosions (it took 17 years to build the tunnel), the story of the restless ghost of the poor 15-year old Matilda Crowther, murdered there in 1935, offers visitors a particularly chilling watery tale. Standedge Tunnel can be reached as part of a one-way one-week trip from our base at Sowerby Bridge.
2. Get the chills in Chester…visit the City’s old Northgate where the canal was dug into part of the town’s moat and a Roman centurion can sometimes be seen guarding the entrance to the City. What’s more, the King’s Inn, an old coaching house, is believed to be haunted by three separate spirits. Hire a boat from Drifters’ base at Bunbury on the Shropshire Union Canal in Cheshire, reaching Chester in seven hours, passing through nine locks.
3. Look out for the Monkey Man on the Shroppie…the Shropshire Union Canal is said to be Britain’s most haunted canal with five ghosts along its length, including ‘The Monkey Man’ at Bridge 39 near Norbury. This hideous black, shaggy coated being is believed to be the ghost of a boatman drowned there in the 19th century. Head north from Drifters’ base at Brewood on the Shropshire Union Canal in Staffordshire near Stafford.
4. Prepare to be spooked at Blisworth Tunnel…on the Grand Union Canal at Stoke Bruerne in Northamptonshire, the Blisworth Tunnel has spooked a number of boaters over the years. At 3,076 yards (2.81km) it’s one of the longest on the canal system. When construction began in 1793, the tunnel was a major feat of engineering. Teams of navvies worked with picks and shovels for three years until they hit quicksand and the tunnel collapsed, killing 14 men. A new route for the tunnel was found and it finally opened on 25 March 1805. Over the years, a number of boaters travelling through the tunnel have reported seeing lights and a second route emerging. But the tunnel runs straight through the hill so people have must seen the flicker of candlelight at the spot where the first tunnel would have intersected with the main canal tunnel. Perhaps the ghostly navvies are still working there…? Blisworth Tunnel can easily be reached from our bases at Braunston, Stockton, Rugby, Clifton-on-Dunsmore, Stretton or Gayton.
5. Hear about a Killing at Kidsgrove…the Trent & Mersey Canal’s Harecastle Tunnel at Kidsgrove is said to be home to a shrieking boggart – the ghost of Kit Crewbucket who was murdered and his headless corpse was dumped in the canal. Harecastle Tunnel can be reached on a short break from our bases at Great Haywood and Peak District.
6. Watch out for an Aqueduct Apparition…the Llangollen Canal in Wrexham is haunted by an eerie figure that can sometimes be seen on moonlit nights gliding along the towpath by the World Heritage Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. The Aqueduct can be reached on a short break from our bases at Trevor, Chirk and Blackwater Meadow.
7. Beware the bloody steps at Brindley Bank…the Trent & Mersey Canal at Brindley Bank Aqueduct in Staffordshire, is said to be haunted by Christina Collins, who was murdered there on 17 June 1839 and her body flung into the canal. Three boatmen were convicted of her killing; two were hanged, the third transported. As Christina’s body was dragged from the water, her blood ran down a flight of sandstone steps leading from the canal and it is said that the stain occasionally reappears on those stones. Brindley Bank is just over an hour away from our base at Great Haywood on the Trent & Mersey Canal.
Narrowboat holidays are often said to be the best way to relax – and parents with babies probably need the chance to do that more than most.
Canal boats are like floating holiday cottages, with all the comforts of home on board.
Drifters’ six-berth family boat ‘Lucy May’, which operates out of our Stockton canal boat hire base on the Grand Union Canal near Rugby, has some extra adaptations specifically for babies.
As well as a large well-equipped galley (including a microwave), full central heating, lounge with television and DVD player, fixed double bedroom and a bathroom with a small bath, ‘Lucy May’ has a second bedroom at the front with a single bed and full sized cot, plus stair gates in the lounge area.
The dining table in the lounge area can also be converted into a double bed, so ‘Lucy May’ offers a chance to invite a grandparent or two along to lend a hand.
During the day, chug gently along the Grand Union Canal through the beautiful Warwickshire countryside, passing picturesque canalside towns, villages and pubs. By night, moor up for a cosy evening on board, with the boat gently rocking both baby and you to sleep.
On short break, canal boat holiday-makers can cruise from Stockton through quiet countryside to Warwick, Napton or Braunston. On a week’s break, they can travel on to Stratford upon Avon, Foxton or Banbury.
2016 prices for ‘Lucy May’ start at £500 for a short break (three-night weekend or four-night midweek), £790 for a week. ‘Lucy May’ is also available to hire by the week over the winter months, including Christmas.
‘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?