Narrowboating on the River Thames

Marion Collinson, of Love Travelling enjoyed a Drifters’ press trip on the River Thames earlier this month, describing it as one of their ‘best family holidays ever’

I’d spent many a happy hour strolling along canal towpaths and riverbanks enjoying watching narrowboats pass by, and now the time had come to experience a boating holiday for ourselves. My husband and two adult sons were equally excited as it is a lovely way of spending time together.

Our four night River Thames adventure started at the Drifters base at Eynsham near Witney, Oxfordshire. 

Setting eyes on ‘Cunningham’, our 65ft Admiral Class narrowboat with her blue livery and gold detailing; she oozed luxury even before stepping on board.

With two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a lounge/dining area and fully equipped galley kitchen, our boat was so long it felt like a train. Bed linen, towels, and high quality pots, pans and utensils were included and we adored it all. The boat even had central heating, a wood burning stove, Wi-Fi, a TV, radio and DVD player making it almost a home from home.

Day 1: Eynsham to Oxford

After loading our gear on board, we were given a full briefing on operating the boat. Handover complete, we felt reasonably confident and were soon edging out of our mooring to make a mid-afternoon start downstream towards Oxford.

For this first 35 minutes, my husband (David) and older son (Mark) took turns at the tiller, whilst younger son (Simon) and I sat comfortably at the front of the boat enjoying the slow pace of the River Thames as it meanders through the reeds.

At Eynsham we encountered the first of two manually operated locks; further downstream they are all automatic (self-service button operated).

There was a lock-keeper on duty, and he showed us how to operate the sluices before opening the heavy wooden lock doors.

My job was to hold the boat steady with the foredeck rope as the water emptied out of the lock.

With the first lock under our belts, I took my turn at the helm; having to remember that I had to turn the tiller the opposite way to where I wanted the boat to go!  This took a bit of thinking about but thankfully I managed without veering towards the bank.

We continued to observe life on the river. At Kings Lock we were watched by a couple sitting on a bench who waved to us as we passed.  Then by the water meadows below Godstow we were joined by several rowing boats and their motorised coaching launches.

Arriving in Oxford, we moored for the night just above Osney Lock. After securing the boat, we wandered into the city centre – taking only 10 minutes, and were soon tucking into steak and chips in one of Oxford’s many pubs. Back on the boat we were warm and cosy with the central heating turned on and after a cup of tea were snuggled up in our comfortable beds.

Day 2: Oxford to Clifton Hampden, via Abingdon

We all slept like logs and the next morning whilst David performed engine checks, I set to work making bacon sandwiches and a pot of fresh coffee.  Ready for off, we slipped out of our moorings at 10.00 a.m. passed through Osney Lock  and along the narrow channel to Folly Bridge.  Here the river widens as the Cherwell joins the Thames. The view is the epitome of Oxford: dreaming spires; punt hire; the Salters Steamer base; and university boathouses along Christchurch Meadows.

Iffley Lock had the prettiest lock keeper’s cottage we’d seen so far, and as we entered the lock several people gathered round to watch.  I’m not sure if they were hoping for a little drama but we got through without incident.

On our way again, we glimpsed some very desirable properties with their large gardens sloping down to the water’s edge.  I think we’d have to win the lottery to afford one of those!

The stretch from Sandford to Abingdon was full of bird life; the blue flash of kingfishers along the banks; and the frequent but more sedate presence of herons, cormorants and geese.

At Abingdon we moored just above the lock to offload the rubbish and replenish our water supplies – a process which seemed to take forever as the flow from the tap was very slow. Then moved a short distance downstream, securing the boat by hammering in metal pegs whilst we looked around the town.

Abingdon is an attractive town and we combined our sightseeing stop with a chance to stock up on provisions in Waitrose.  On the way back we noticed logs for sale so bought a bagful so we could light our wood burning stove.

Back on the boat, we headed five miles downstream to moor overnight at Clifton Hampden. Our evening was spent at the Barley Mow, a picture postcard pub complete with thatched roof serving delicious, reasonably priced food.  We then cosied up around our log burning stove with glasses of wine before bed.  What bliss!

Day 3: Clifton Hampden to Burcot, then back to Sandford Lock via Sutton Courtney

The next morning we stretched our legs with a short walk around the thatched cottages of the village. Then we continued downstream as far as Burcot, where we ogled at more beautiful waterside homes.

It was time to turn the boat around. The river is quite broad on this stretch and in careful hands, Mark skilfully steered our 65ft boat round like a pro.  Back at Clifton Lock it was a new experience for us to be heading upstream, and I soon discovered that I needed to improve my rope throwing techniques from down in the bottom of the lock!

Safely through, we turned into the narrow channel of Culham Cut, and moored by the footbridge to enjoy an al fresco lunch out on deck.

It was so warm and sunny you’d be forgiven for thinking that we were on the Canal du Midi and not Oxfordshire in mid-October.  

A stroll across the weirs to a backwater of the Thames and pretty village of Sutton Courtney followed. It’s definitely worth a visit to admire its beautiful half-timbered cottages and Norman church.  We spent some time looking around the churchyard to find the graves of Prime-Minister Henry Asquith and author Eric Blair (George Orwell).

It was then back on the boat for the journey upstream through Abingdon (more water!), mooring up for the night at Sandford Lock.  Conveniently it’s overlooked by yet another idyllic pub, The Kings Arms so we only had to cross the walkway on the lock gates to get there.

Day 4: Sandford Lock to Eynsham Lock via Godstow

The day started with an Autumnal mist over the river, but the sun soon broke through and we were on our way towards Oxford. Here again we saw university rowing teams out practising, and this time gave them a wide berth.  At Osney Lock a new experience awaited as it was the first time we had shared a lock with another boat – a small river cruiser whose passengers were enjoying a pot of tea. We gave them a wave and said hello.

Taking our turns at the helm, we chugged upstream through Oxford to Godstow.   Here we followed the towpath past the remains of Godstow Nunnery and across the bridge to The Trout Inn.  We’d long wanted to visit this pub, which is famous for being featured in the Inspector Morse television programmes. It’s definitely worth a stop and boasts a large riverside terrace for sunny days.

Back on board again, we moored for our final night at Eynsham Lock so that we just had one more lock and a short journey the next morning enabling us to return our boat back on time.

All four of us agreed it had been one of the best family holidays ever.

We’d taken the slow life but kept active on board steering the boat and working the locks. We’d adored every minute of our narrowboat adventure so much so that we can’t wait to do it all again!

To find out more about Marion’s Thames boating holiday, go to