Born in the dying days of the canal boat carrying trade on the Grand Union and Oxford Canals at Braunston, and in the year that Barbara Castle’s 1968 Transport Act officially recognised the nation’s canals as a leisure resource, Drifters’ member Union Canal Carriers helped pioneer narrow boating for pleasure.
The family-run narrowboat hire firm first started to run camping boats from its canal boat hire base below Braunston locks in 1968, using converted British Waterways working boats.
Tim Hewitt, of Union Canal Carriers, explains: “In those days holidays on the rapidly deteriorating canals were in their infancy. Scores of school children, scouts and guides bunked aboard boats that once carried coal, iron ore and aluminium billets, spending blissful, parent-free days just messing about on the canals.”
Today the company has a range of 16 modern hire boats, providing accommodation for up to 12 people, and a very popular day boat ‘Ouzel II’.
Tim adds: “Over the last 50 years we have introduced thousands of people to the delights of narrowboat holidays on the waterways. Many come back year after year and we’ve watched their children grow up. It’s such a pleasure to see our customers returning all happy and relaxed after a holiday on one of our boats.
“This year, we are also celebrating 50 years of canal renaissance, sparked by the 1968 Transport Act.”
Overseen by Transport Minister and canal-enthusiast Barbara Castle after years of campaigning by enthusiasts – the 1968 Transport Act marked the turning point for the waterways from being a declining freight network, to becoming a major leisure resource.
There are now over 30,000 canal boats on the network – more than at the time of the Industrial Revolution – and around 380,000 people holiday on Britain’s canals each year, a figure that has nearly doubled in the last 10 years.
Tim continues: “As well as investment in the waterways themselves, over the years, vast improvements have been made to the standard of accommodation provided on board holiday narrowboats – all now equipped with essential mod cons like central heating, hot water, TV’s, fitted kitchens, showers and flushing toilets.
“New research published by the Canal & River Trust shows that spending time by the waterways can make you happier and improve your life satisfaction. And the research reveals higher levels of happiness and lower levels of anxiety for longer trips – a powerful incentive to book a nice long canal boat holiday!
“It’s vital that the role of the waterways for helping to improve the wellbeing of millions of people is recognised to ensure our canals and rivers continue to be valued and used for the next 50 years.”