I believe that if lockdown has taught us anything, it’s to take life more slowly; to explore locally and have time to stand and stare – and how better to do that than on a holiday afloat exploring Britain’s glorious inland waterways? If you’re hankering after the simple joys of canal life – the really relaxing moments – then leave the routes that tout one hundred miles and one hundred locks in a week to the macho types who equate the word “holiday” with “challenge”.
Instead, think of your hire boat as a cosy floating cottage from which to explore and pursue activities nearby before gently cruising on – for just an hour or three – to a new view. I have lived on a narrowboat for 10 years, exploring many of the 2,000 miles of inland waterways that our nation has to offer.
Here are a selection of some of my favourite holiday ideas – some of them on jolly nice vessels, a cut above the boring beige of most hire boats. Many allow you time to take it all in and enjoy the slow pace of life, but I have also included a couple of options for those of you that inexplicably relish cruising 10 hours a day, whatever the weather, working as many locks as possible – oddballs though you may be.
Tuck in: Berkshire
Jerome K Jerome’s 'Three Men in a Boat' heaped their rowing vessel with meat pies and tinned pineapple. It’s not for everyone. If you’re more of a culinary connoisseur, the Berkshire stretch of the Thames has more riverside hostelries with fabulous food than you can shake a tin-opener at. There’s The French Horn in Sonning; Roux at Skindles in Maidenhead and rising above them all, quite literally, Cliveden House – former home of the Astor family, where a seven-course tasting menu costs £99.50.
Georgia, sleeping 8, costs from £2,165 for seven nights in August (07780 887172; myrivercruising.com). Locks are operated for you on the Thames.
Off the beaten track: Wales
All canals have a feeling of remoteness; of silence and slow time. To really get off the beaten track, choose one not connected to the rest of the network. The 35 miles of the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal in South Wales wends its way among the Brecon Beacons and Usk Valley with just six locks. You may think such a short distance doesn’t merit a week’s cruising, but with market towns such as Brecon and Crickhowell, hilly hikes, bike rides, canoe hire, castles and more, you’ll wish you had booked a fortnight.
Seven nights on Wren, sleeping two, costs from £1,970 in August (01873 858277; beaconparkboats.com).
Picture perfect: Scotland
There’s scenery and there’s Scenery. For the real McCoy, head to Thomas Telford’s Caledonian Canal, linking four lochs along the diagonal fault of the spectacular Great Glen. Cruising on 23-mile-long Loch Ness can be choppy but in the comfort of a vessel from Caley Cruisers – as seen on TV’s Great Canal Journeys with Prunella Scales and Timothy West – you’ll barely notice. There are 38 miles of natural waterway and 22 miles of man-made, with all of the locks and bridges operated for you. At your westernmost mooring, near Fort William, Ben Nevis looms large. Allow a week for the 120-mile return journey, from Inverness to Banavie.
Seven nights on a Torridon class, sleeping six, costs from £2,730 in August (01463 236328;
Thrills and spills: Shropshire
Tunnels are unlit, dripping, claustrophobic and terrifying for some, exciting for others. Standedge Tunnel on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal is more than three miles long (shirecruisers.co.uk) but perhaps the most photographed narrowboat thrill is high above ground. Pontcysyllte aqueduct has only a tiny lip of steel between boat and a 125ft plunge to the river below. From the Shropshire village of Grindley Brook, you have three thrills to decide between: Pontcysyllte, the mile-and-a-half long Harecastle Tunnel, or the Anderton boat lift, the oldest working boat lift in the world.
For a characterful, privately-owned boat, choose Acorn, sleeping four, from £1,190 for seven nights in August (07821 313093; driftingwood.co.uk).
Twitchers’ paradise: Cambridgeshire
Feeding ducks from your boat is a simple joy of any waterways holiday but some routes have more waterfowl than others. Wicken Fen is the oldest National Trust nature reserve in Britain and aboard a narrowboat you can cruise down narrow and shallow Wicken Lode to moor near the last working wooden wind pump in the Fens. The National Trust visitor centre with its eight hides is a short walk away. Or, you can sit in your boat, cuppa in hand and watch wigeon, teal, shovelers, marsh harriers and more.
Hiring a four-berth narrowboat from Ely, seven miles and one lock away, costs from £1,849 for seven nights (01527 575115; black-prince.com).
Stay in your bubble: Wiltshire
Ahoy grandparents! If your grandchildren think you’re ancient, show them 200-year old locks in fine working order. Caen Hill flight on the Kennet & Avon Canal is the most spectacular on the network. You don’t have to descend all 29 locks if you hire Moonbeam – the hire base is in a 15-mile lock-free stretch – but if you do, it’ll be six hours of challenging team work (and the same back). After all that exertion, relax in the Jacuzzi bath while the kids feed ducks and their parents prepare dinner in a well-equipped kitchen.
Moonbeam, a spacious widebeam sleeping nine, costs from £2,652 for seven nights in August (01672 851550; moonboats.co.uk).
A trip down memory lane: Oxfordshire
If in search of an elegant way to explore the upper Thames, hire a classic wooden 1950s vessel and slowly motor to serene, middle-of-nowhere moorings such as Day’s Lock near Dorchester-on-Thames. The Wittenham Clumps rise above the river and all is peaceful, away from roads. In his 1951 book, The Thames from Mouth to Source, LTC Rolt, co-founder of the Inland Waterways Association, declared this stretch of the river his favourite.
A four-berth boat costs from £1,300 for seven nights in August (07375 677823; bygoneboating.co.uk). Experience required.
Fun for all the family: Worcestershire
Hire companies allow children as young as 12 to take the tiller – under adult supervision. Operating locks and watching your boat travel uphill is also a thrill, especially when you tackle 35 in the first day as you travel up the longest flight in Britain in Tardebigge. Tell the kids your cruise takes in a Willy Wonka experience, a walk-through aquarium and vintage double-decker trams and any cancelled overseas holiday will soon be forgotten. The 76-mile, 109-locks Stourport Ring has been rebranded as “Chocs Away” by Black Prince, with stops at attractions such as Cadbury World in Bournville, Birmingham’s National Sea Life Centre and Dudley’s open air Black Country Living Museum.
Ten nights on a four-berth boat costs from £2,473 in August (01527 575115; black-prince.com).
Wonder at wildlife: Norfolk
For a back-to-nature holiday, it’s hard to beat sailing on the 120 miles of lakes and rivers that make up the Norfolk Broads. In these flooded medieval peat cuttings, Cetti’s warbler and bearded tit call from reeds while common cranes fly overhead. Rare insects such as swallowtail butterflies and Norfolk hawker dragonflies investigate your boat. Otters hunt in the dawn light. There are plants so rare, botanists from Kew weep with joy to see them.
Seven nights on Seabreeze, a traditional gaff-rigged yacht sleeping two, costs from £835 in August (07876 141 971; oliverssailingholidays.co.uk). Experience required.
Take a hike: Yorkshire
According to Ordnance Survey, the square kilometre with the most public rights of way in Britain can be found in Yorkshire’s Calder Valley, near Hebden Bridge (grid ref SD9626 has 11 miles of rights of way). The Rochdale Canal – 33 miles and 91 locks – passes nearby as it ascends the Pennines. Hike up hills and rejoin your boat further along the canal. Experienced boaters could cruise one-way across the Pennines on the Rochdale Canal. A return trip to arty Hebden Bridge and beyond is a walker’s delight.
Seven nights on a four-berth narrowboat with Shire Cruisers costs from £1,440 in August (01422 832712; shirecruisers.co.uk).
See the sea: Lancashire
Study a map of the network of inland waterways and there’s only one canal that appears to hug the coast. The Lancaster Canal, 41-miles of lock-free rural cruising between Preston and the Cumbrian border, is close enough to the glittering expanse of Morecambe Bay that you can see the sea from your narrowboat. Combine inland boating with coastal bike rides, ambles on the prom, sandcastles and kite flying. With an expert guide, you could even hike across the bay, renowned for quicksands and fast tides (guideoversands.co.uk).
Seven nights on a four-berth narrowboat with Duck Island Boat Company costs from £995 in October (07925 236621; duckislandboats.co.uk).
A tale of two cities: Scotland
Huge investment over the last two decades means you can now cruise between Glasgow and Edinburgh. In Edinburgh you can moor just a mile from the castle and the three-day journey along the Union Canal starts with the excitement of the Falkirk Wheel. This marvel of modern engineering, the only rotating boat lift in the world, raises boats 79ft between the Forth & Clyde and Union canals. The towpath is perfect for cycling so you might want to take bikes and stow them on your boat’s roof.
A four-berth boat with Black Prince costs from £1,649 for seven nights in August (01527 575115; black-prince.com).
Cruise in style: the best all-inclusive hotel boats
If skippering a boat and operating locks seems too daunting and you’d rather relax and watch the world go by, then an all-inclusive hotel boat is the way to go. There’s usually the option to operate locks and bridges or take the tiller if you fancy.
This 1930s converted Dutch barge, below, sleeps eight in four spacious en-suite cabins. With tartan rugs, polished panelling, deep leather armchairs and single malt whiskies, you might imagine you’re in a floating hunting lodge, left. Nothing compares to the stately scenery of the Great Glen as you cruise through the Caledonian Canal.
A six-night cruise costs from £3,690 per person (01753 598555; europeanwaterways.com).
This 60ft ship, above, has a rooftop deck, above, where you can relax with your G&T as you cruise among the Pennines on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, tackling sections like Bingley Five-Rise Locks, right
Seven nights costs from £1,380 per person (07834 320199; ladyteal.co.uk).
This hotel boat, below, is the only one permitted to cruise the tidal Thames. In 2020 Kailani is cruising on the Thames and Grand Union Canal. Expect tasty treats from the galley.
Seven nights costs from £1,360 per person (07447 051558; hotelboatkailani.com).
Due to coronavirus, government restrictions can be enforced with little notice and local lockdowns could affect attractions and canal cruising, so be sure to check before setting off.
Hire companies are also taking extra precautions. You may have to wear personal protective equipment during handover, make your own beds, be shown around the interiors virtually or nominate just one person to learn how to operate the boat. Shared maps, books and games have generally been removed.
For more information, visit canalplan.uk. For general information: canalrivertrust.org.uk (England and Wales); scottishcanals.co.uk.