Visit a Christmas Market by canal boat

Drifters offers winter cruising* on the canals from a number of its bases, with boats ranging from snug narrowboats for two, to larger vessels for twelve.

It’s free to moor almost anywhere on the network, so a narrowboat could provide the perfect base for a self-catering rural retreat with stops at historic waterside pubs and visits to Christmas markets and fairs at canal and riverside towns and cities.

All our boats have central heating, hot water, televisions and DVD players.  Some also have multi-fuel stoves and Wifi.  So, whatever the weather, it’s always nice and cosy on board.  We also offers boats for hire over Christmas and New Year.

Drifters’ winter 2021-22 cruising prices start at £560 for a short break (three or four nights) on a boat for four, £775 for a week. Here are our Top 5 Christmas markets and fairs to visit afloat:

1. Visit Stratford on Avon’s Victorian Christmas Market

This award-winning event is scheduled to be held 9-12 December.  Stall holders dress in Victorian costumes and there’s a range of entertainment planned throughout the town, including live performances.  From Drifters’ canal boat hire base on the Stratford Canal at Wootton Wawen, it’s a six-hour cruise to Stratford upon Avon.  The journey takes boaters through the Warwickshire countryside, passing through 17 locks along the way.

2. Moor up in Birmingham City Centre for the Frankfurt Christmas Market

From 4 November to 23 December, Birmingham’s Frankfurt Christmas Market will fill New Street and Victoria Square, with stalls offering a variety of tempting food and drink, traditional toys, ornaments and gifts. Departing from our narrow boat hire base at Tardebigge on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, it takes around five hours to reach Gas Street Basin in the heart of Birmingham.  There are no locks to pass through along the way.

 3. Travel to the Leamington Christmas market

On Sunday 21 November Royal Leamington Spa’s Christmas Market will offer over 60 stalls with goodies, unusual gifts, stocking fillers, decorations and artisan food and drink.  From Drifters’ canal boat hire base at Warwick on the Grand Union Canal, it takes just under an hour to reach moorings close to Leamington Spa town centre.

4. Navigate to the Whitchurch Silk Mill Christmas Fair

On 4 and 5 December, the Whitchurch Silk Mill will host a weekend Christmas Fair with a variety of stalls in the Mill grounds.  From Drifters’ narrowboat hire centre on the Llangollen Canal at Blackwater Meadow, it takes around five hours to reach the historic market town of Whitchurch.  The journey travels 12 waterway miles through the Shropshire Lake District.

5. Moor up for a festive break in Bath

Bath’s Christmas programme this year includes festive stalls in Kingston Parade and Abbey Green and an artisan market in Queen Square.  There will also be an illumination trail of historic buildings and traditional Christmas celebrations around the Abbey Quarter.  From our canal boat hire base on the Kennet & Avon Canal at Monkton Combe, it takes around four hours to reach moorings in Bath City, passing through six locks along the way.

*Some routes are affected by the Canal & River Trust’s winter stoppage programme

Top 9 Canal Boat Holidays for 2022

From rural retreats to vibrant city centres, narrowboat holiday-makers can explore Britain’s beautiful 3,000-mile network of inland waterways.  And there’s a choice of hundreds of waterside destinations and historic canalside pubs to visit along the way.

Drifters offers over 550 boats for hire from 45 locations across England, Scotland and Wales.  2022 hire prices start at £550 for a short break (three or four nights) on a boat for four, £760 for a week.  Tuition is included in all Drifters holiday packages.

Here are Drifters’ Top 9 canal boat holidays for 2022:

1. Cruise to historic Shardlow

In Spring 2022, Drifters will open a new narrowboat hire base at Springwood Haven Marina on the Coventry Canal in Nuneaton.  On a week’s break from Springwood Haven, you can travel to the historic inland port of Shardlow and back.  The journey passes through Atherstone, across the Tame Aqueduct, through Fradley Junction, Alrewas, Branston and Burton-on-Trent, home of the National Brewery Centre. At Shardlow there are over 50 listed buildings, including the Salt Warehouse, housing Shardlow Heritage Centre.  The journey there and back passes through 58 locks and takes around 49 cruising hours.

2. Visit the UNESCO World Heritage City of Bath

On a short break from our base at Devizes in Wiltshire, you can travel along the Kennet & Avon Canal to Sydney Wharf, on the edge of Bath.  The journey travels 19 miles, passing through eight locks and takes around nine hours.  Along the way, the route passes through the village of Seend with its canalside Barge Inn.  And the historic town of Bradford on Avon, with a choice of independent shops and restaurants.  The route also takes boaters over the beautiful Avoncliff and Dundas Bath stone aqueducts.  Once at Sydney Wharf, boaters can moor up and take a 15-minute walk into Bath City Centre.

3. Navigate to Manchester and back

On a week’s break from our canal boat hire base at Acton Bridge, you can cruise to Manchester and back.  The journey allows you to enjoy time in the countryside as well as well as the City.  The route, which travels a total of 68 miles of waterway (34 each way) passes through just one lock.  Places to stop off at include Stockton Heath, with a choice of shops and eateries, and the historic village of Lymm.  On arrival in Manchester, there are places to moor at Castlefield Basin, within easy reach of City Centre attractions.  To visit the Trafford Centre, boaters can return via Worsley on the Bridgewater Canal.

4. Visit Warwick Castle afloat

From our boat yard at Stockton, on the Grand Union Canal in Warwickshire, you can cruise to Warwick and back.  The journey there and back takes around 14 hours, and passes through 40 locks (20 each way).  Overnight moorings are available close to Warwick Castle on the banks of the River Avon.

5. Potter through the Shropshire countryside to Market Drayton

From oure base at Brewood on the Shropshire Union Canal, it takes around 10 hours to reach the historic market town of Market Drayton.  Along the way, you’ll pass through just six locks and a series of villages with canalside pubs.  These include the Junction Inn at Norbury and the Royal Oak at Gnosnall.

6. Cruise along the Shropshire Union Canal to Norbury

From our base at Autherley, on a short break you can cruise along the Shropshire Union Canal to Autherley and back.  This rural route, which is perfect for beginners, takes boaters through 15 miles of peaceful countryside.  It passes through just two locks and a series of pretty villages with canalside pubs. These include the Bridge Inn at Brewood and the Hartley Arms at Wheaton Ashton.

7. Spot wildlife on the Ashby Canal

On a week’s holiday from our Braunston base, you can cruise to the pretty village of Snarestone and back.  You will travel a total of 47 miles, passing through just eight locks (four each way) in around 32 hours.  This largely rural route goes up the North Oxford Canal to Rugby and on to Hawkesbury Junction to join the Coventry Canal.  Five miles later, the route transfers onto the lock-free Ashbury Canal, which winds gently through countryside for 22 miles.  From Carlton Bridge to Snarestone, the canal is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).  This recognises the diversity of the waterway’s plant, insect and animal life, including nine species of dragonfly, and rare native white-clawed crayfish.

8. Float across ‘The Stream in the Sky’

Our base at Trevor on the beautiful Llangollen Canal in North Wales, is next to the awesome UNESCO World Heritage Status Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.  From there, you can reach historic Ellesmere in the heart of the Shropshire Lake District on a short break.  Standing 38 metres high above the Dee Valley, the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct carries the canal in a cast iron trough, supported by 19 enormous hollow pillars.  With not even a hand rail on the south side of the aqueduct to obscure the stunning views of the valley below, you feel like you are floating above the earth!

9. Cruise to Todmorden for stunning Pennine scenery

On a short break from our Sowerby Bridge base in West Yorkshire, you can travel to Todmorden and back along the Rochdale Canal. The journey, which travels a total of 20 miles, passes through 34 locks and takes around 16 hours.  The historic town of Todmorden offers visitors fine Victorian architecture, plenty of pubs and restaurants, and a busy market.  Along the way, you’ll pass through the beautiful Calder Valley village of Mytholmroyd, the birthplace of Ted Hughes. And the old mill town of Hebden Bridge, with a variety of shops, cafes, restaurants and pubs and a series of scenic waymarked walks.

10 Top Tips for Canal Boat Holiday Beginners

You don’t need to be an expert to hire a canal boat, and each year around one fifth of narrowboat hirers are new to the waterways. 

With Britain’s 3,000-mile network of inland waterways in great shape, there’s never been a better time to try a narrow boat holiday.

To help make your first canal boat holiday smoother, we’ve put together our Top 10 tips for beginners:

  1. Do some advance prep – boat steering tuition is provided as part of our holiday packages.  To get ahead of the game, take a look at the Canal & River Trust’s Boaters Handbook Video for some sound advice
  2. Plan your route – the Canal & River Trust has interactive maps online to help you plan your narrowboat journey.  You can work out where to moor each night and canalside pubs to enjoy along the way.  It’s best not to be too ambitious so you can stay relaxed
  3. Pet friendly – if you are bringing your dog, or you simply want a bit of extra outside space, opt for a cruiser stern narrowboat rather than a semi-traditional stern.
  4. Be greener – remember to pack your re-useable shopping bags, re-useable plastic bottles and coffee cups to help limit the amount of plastic used on your holiday afloat.
  5. Bring some on board entertainment – for cosy nights in, bring along some cards and board games, as well some DVD’s. TV reception isn’t always available on the canals and WiFi strength can vary too.
  6. Keep to the right – unlike cars on our roads, canal boats travel on the right side of our canals and rivers, so when you meet another boat, keep to the right.
  7. Watch out for the cill – when in a lock, make sure the boat is kept forward of the cill (step) inside the lock.  And check all paddles and gates are shut after you’ve used a lock, unless you see another boat approaching.
  8. Sharing is caring – if possible, always share a lock with other boats to save water.  And it means you can share the lock operating work too.
  9. Embrace the slower pace – there’s a 4mph speed limit on the canals, but you’re going too fast if you’re creating too much wash.  This disturbs wildlife, moored boats and anglers and it erodes the banks. So keep it slow and enjoy a more relaxed pace of life.
  10. Mooring etiquette – when mooring up at busy spots, make sure you don’t leave a big gap. And never moor opposite winding holes, on bends, near to bridges, on lock landings (unless waiting to lock through) or at water points (unless filling up).


Exploring the Kennet & Avon Canal from Hilperton

Countryman Magazine editor Mark Whitley describes his recent Drifters narrow boat holiday, cruising the Kennet & Avon Canal from Hilperton to Keynsham, via Bradford on Avon and Bath.

Created in the white heat of the Industrial Revolution, canals are nowadays places for pleasure and relaxation. One of the most popular canals is the Kennet & Avon Canal, and it’s a delight to explore by narrowboat.

I and three friends (my crew for the week) met up at Hilperton Marina, for a week-long cruise on the Kennet & Avon Canal.

Day One – to Bradford on Avon

At the marina, we were given a tour and tuition for navigating the canal aboard the ‘African Swift’, a luxuriously fitted out narrow boat, with all the mod cons. Then, we were off!

It was a short trip for the first day. Around three miles, and an hour-a-bit, later, we were tackling our first lock at Bradford on Avon. We’re all fairly experienced narrowboaters, but even for first-timers the locks are nothing to get nervous about.  Just take your time, and there’s often a Canal & River Trust volunteer or fellow boater on hand to offer advice or a helping hand if needed. We moored up and went to the Lock Inn Café for our evening meal and a few drinks overlooking the canal.

Day Two – to Bath

After a leisurely brunch on board, we set off towards Bath.  We crossed the Avoncliff and Dundas aqueducts – two of the most spectacular and impressive structures on the whole of the canal network. There are moorings below Sydney Wharf for those who want to walk into Bath City Centre on a short break from Hilperton.

But as we were experienced boaters and we were away for a week, we navigated on through the Bath locks to join the River Avon. After a few hair-raising moments when the river current caught the boat, we managed to moor up. The strong currents, and rapidly changing river levels especially when it’s raining, mean boating on the River Avon is often more suitable for experienced boaters.  We spent a very pleasant evening exploring Bath, one of the most beautiful and historic cities in the country.

Day Three – to Bitton

In the morning we continued on along the River Avon, and moored up on the floating pontoon alongside Bitton Picnic Area. From here it’s a short walk to Bitton Station, home of the Avon Valley Railway. This heritage railway runs trains most weekends, and we arrived on a ‘steam day’. There-and-back trip takes about an hour, and it’s a heart-gladdening experience. We overnighted at the pontoon, and enjoyed the peace and calm of the water.

Day Four – to Keynsham

We had planned to boat into Bristol, but, at Hanham Lock we phoned ahead to the Bristol lock keeper (as advised) and he suggested, as the river levels were very high following so much rain, we should avoid the tidal stretch of the River Avon. So, we erred on the side of caution and turned round to overnight at nearby Keynsham.

Day Five – back to Bath

A couple of us took the train into Bristol to visit the Floating Harbour and the SS Great Britain. Then in the afternoon, with everyone back on board, we returned along the River Avon to rejoin the Kennet & Avon Canal at Bath.

Day Six – exploring Bath

We spent the day exploring the delights of Bath. It is a World Heritage site, so there is plenty to see and do. In glorious summer sunshine, we visited the Holbourne Museum, Pulteney Bridge, the Royal Crescent and the Abbey.  After drinks in the beer garden of the White Hart, we enjoyed a take-away curry from nearby Bikanos Indian Cuisine.

Day Seven – back to Bradford on Avon via Claverton Pumping Station

Around lunchtime reached moorings outside Claverton Pumping Station. This rare and remarkable surviving example of Georgian industrial technology is now run by the Claverton Pumping Station volunteers.  They maintain it as an industrial heritage museum, which is open to the public most weekends.

In the afternoon, we re-crossed Avoncliff and Dundas aqueducts. Dundas Aqueduct is also the junction with the Somerset Coal Canal, and we enjoyed a pleasant short walk along its towpath to the café at Brassknocker Basin.

Then we continued to Bradford on Avon to stop overnight there again, visiting the Barge Inn this time.  This left us with just a short journey the next morning to return our boat at Hilperton Marina.