Canal boats: on the straight and narrow
April 27, 2011 | By:
Do yourself some good, and spend August's lazy days chugging along our waterways. Julie Welch boards a narrowboat and unlocks its secrets
Narrowboat at Stratford

Simple pleasures: less is mooring. {a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/34179117@N00/5128371832/" target="_new"}Photo by Chris Shervey{/a}

Political scandals, a struggling economy, the premature onset of the football season: for anyone seized with the inclination to put their heads under the duvet until August is over, here is a tip. When you’re cruising along a canal in a narrowboat, the world will instantly seem a more benign and peaceful place.

It could hardly be anything else when the top speed is four miles an hour and you are swapping a television disgorging news of yet more catastrophes and outrages for an eye-level view of roe deer, mink and kingfishers. In August the nights are still light enough to moor up, put your table in a field and eat supper in a field in the dusk. The days are occupied with gently floating between heath and woodland, alongside flower-strewn watermeadows and what Patrick Kavanagh described in the poem Canal Bank Walk as “Leafy-with-love banks and the green waters of the canal”.

Of course, should your cruise take you through an urban area, you will also be able to study post-industrial blight, graffiti and the odd crop of floating plastic bags. But no matter. “It’s the peace and quiet, getting away from the telephone and the TV that matters. You only have to worry about where you stop for your next meal,” says Joanna, skipper of the narrowboat Trincomalee II (featured by Sandi Toksvig on Radio 4’s Excess Baggage).

Narrowboats today are replicas, complete with painted decorations of roses and castles, of original working boats. From the 18th century onwards, these were used for carrying goods on Britain’s canal network, where locks and bridge holes could be little more than seven feet wide. You can hire one for a day or more, and will be given brief instruction in how to take a boat through a lock before, armed with notes and a map marked with danger spots, you are let loose on the canal network.

The challenge of negotiating locks can be part of the fun and you will certainly get all the exercise you need jumping between the boat and the towpath. Daunted? These boats are made of steel. If you go into a side they’re not going to dent. What’s more, boat owners are friendly sorts who are quite happy to lend a hand on the river so you’re not alone.

If all else fails, the form is to wait for someone to come along who knows how to go through and will take you through with them. That said, if you have never been on a narrowboat and would rather leave piloting one to an expert, most boat hire companies offer skippered cruises.

England, Wales and Scotland have a wonderful network of canals. Go to Canaljunction.com for  route maps of the most popular cruising canals and navigations. They include old favourites such as the Norfolk Broads and the Leeds and Liverpool Canal to the Wey Navigation in Surrey and the (almost) spanking new Chesterfield Canal. There are also links to canal holiday advice and useful information about essentials such as canalside pubs.

Fretting about access to Wi-Fi? Get away. The whole point of this sort of break is to have a few days’ respite from the urgency of the Blackberry and to put as many miles as you can between yourselves and the sturm and drang of modern existence. “It makes life very simple,” says Joanna. “If you stay on the boat you come home feeling you’ve been in another world.”