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Travel in the slow lane: Narrowboating on the U.K.

Travel in the slow lane: Narrowboating on the U.K.

Old Jan 21, 10, 10:20 pm
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Travel in the slow lane: Narrowboating on the U.K. canals

The canal system in the United Kingdom was the main form of bulk transportation before the advent of railways. What's amazing is that these canals are over 200 years old and are still in use today, maintained by British Waterways. British Waterways is funded by annual boater licences and does maintenance, rebuilding some 400 locks every year. These days, they're not used much for transport anymore but are a form of leisure travel for many Britons, and a home to some. With 2,200 miles of canals, there is plenty to see, at a walking pace. For those of you who have visited Regents Park in London, the canal at the north end is the SE end of the Grand Union Canal which will take you all the way to Birmingham and all over northern England by connecting canals.

View from the Hyatt Birmingham

My partner had a conference in Birmingham and I decided to tag along. With the conference being short, we found that we could take a short cruise on a canal boat, called narrowboats locally. The boats are so named as they're meant to fit canal (or rather locks, aqueducts and tunnels) a mere 7' wide so the boats are only 6'8" wide in most cases.

Canal running through the middle of Birmingham

After her conference ended, we took the train to Leamington Spa and taxi to Stockton Locks base of Kate Boats which was one of the nearest bases to Birmingham (though the city has many canals and locks going right through it).

Checking in, we found our little boat, the Thomas David (at only 38', it was most suitable for those who haven't navigated a boat before) which was already stocked with our grocery and booze internet order from Tesco. After an orientation on how to operate the boat, we were taken out on a short spin to go through a lock, turn the boat around in something called a winding hole (pronounced as in meteorological "wind"), dropped off the boat man and away we went down the Grand Union Canal.

The pace of life and travel on the canals is slow. Top cruising speed is a mere 4 mph to minimize bank erosion (canals are not always lined on the side), with caution to slow down when passing moored boats to prevent rocking them. The boats are so slow that the canal waterfowl will swim up to your boat expecting to be fed. We came to our first set of locks, the Calcutt locks which elevates the canal 16'2" up 3 locks.

The procedure is to drop off your lock operator (LO) and let him or her off (I turned out to be better at steering than my partner). The LO then goes
to the lock. If the water level is at the lower level, the LO just opens the lock gate and the helmsman steers the boat in. If not, the lower gate paddles have to be opened to let the water level down. After the boat is in the lock, the gates (and paddles) are closed. Upper gate paddles are then open to let the water rise, gate opened, and the boat sails out. If there are multiple locks, it's faster for the LO to walk than to take a ride.

After these 3 easy locks, we get to Napton Junction where we have to turn left (onto a stretch of the older Oxford canal before continuing down the Grand Union. This maneuver is a bit tricky here as the turn is blind (steerer is at the back of the boat which can be up to 70' long - the length of most locks). That's what horns are for and one sounds the horn approaching the junction to let other boats know you're coming out.

It got cold, windy and dark that mid May evening as we headed up the Oxford Canal (it predates the Grand Union) to the town of Braunston which used to be a major canal hub it is day (and still is, for the leisure boater). Another 2 locks and we got to a pub marked on the map, which turned out to be closed for the evening. Having a few handy canal guides (based on the excellent Ordnance Survey maps which provide unbelievable detail), we found there was another pub in town so we walked up to The Old Plough for a pub dinner.

The Admiral Nelson by the Braunston locks. Not open some evenings!

Going back to the boat in darkness (and no falling into a canal, though it's said you'd only stand waist deep as the boats draw just over 2'), we converted the dining area into a bed.

The Thomas David is advertised as a 4 person boat. Entering from the front, you come into the dining area which is an L shaped sitting area with a fold-down table which serves at the lounge (equipped with a TV). Turning down the bed and cushions converts in into a double bed. Behind that, you have the galley which had a small 4 ring gas stove with an oven and a separate broiler, a sink and a half-height fridge. Enough to stock a bit of food for a few days. Behind that, one found the wash sink on one side, and a toilet and shower, both separate, on the other. The toilet flushed into tank while shower and washbasin water from the both the sinks are just dumped into the canal. Further back, one came upon a set of bunk beds that we used for storage and warming and equipment closets behind. The boat's hot water heating is heated by cooling the diesel engine, and how water for washing and drinking from a gas heater. Out back is the cruiser deck, which is quite spacious but more importantly easier to get on and off for novices.

Galley of the Thomas David

Front of the Thomas David

The next morning, we had breakfast, went up a few more locks and proceeded through the 2,042 yard (over a mile) Braunston tunnel. With the advent of diesel propulsion, diesel tugs pulled boats along, while the tow horses would be walked over. Before diesel, there would be men who lay on top of the boat and used their arms and legs to propel the boat through. Remains of their shed at either end of the tunnel can still be seen. The tunnel is just wide enough for 2 boats of 7' beam to pass each other. What makes it a bit complicated was that an error was made in tunneling and there's a slight S bend right in the middle. We didn't encounter any passing traffic in the tunnel on the way out but passed 8 boats on the way back, including one in the S bend.

Inside the Braunston tunnel, just a shade over 14' wide.

The journey towards London was scenic and part of the enjoyment is to talk with other narrowboaters while in locks. We met some people who had sold their home and just live on a narrowboat, met someone who was taking his boat to sell so he could buy a doublewide that fits in the Yorkshire canal locks.

Part of the trick is also to find pubs that served good food, preferably a non-chain (on the theory that chains served premade heat 'n serve food). Moderate drinking seems to be acceptable so I often had wine, cider or sometimes tea while steering.

20 miles can be a long day of sailing though some can do 40 miles in a day (having more people to operate locks helps in speeding the process). We
didn't venture more than 40 miles from Stockton Lock base in two days of sailing.

Having some surplus time after turning around, we briefly sailed up the Leicester branch of the Grand Union, right pass a motorway service centre, to the Foxton step locks. This is a series of locks that are connected one to another so opening an upper or lower gate leads you directly into the next lock until you exit.

Foxton step locks

I also found out about mooring a boat safely here. The towpath on this canal branch is narrow and has been undermined by wakes. I thought I had staked the boat well but it got pulled away and I found the boat straddled right across the canal. Fortunately no accidents other than losing a pin.

We found the culture a bit akin to the RV culture in the U.S. though movement is obviously a lot more limited and routes are well defined. There are no canal campgrounds but there's no need to boondock as any place on the towpath side of the canal is a place to moor and sleep for the night (unless it's near/at a junction, lock or tunnel). These 8 guys docked right in the middle of Birmingham district overnight.

Setting sail after a night in the middle of Birmingham

Roses 'n crowns. A popular decorative motif item for narrowboats from the days where boatmen had to carry drinking water in pails

Security is a consideration. The canals pass through the old industrial areas of many British cities. Though canal side homes are now desirable in many cities, they past through the rough part of town in many others so one has to be on the watch for "yobs".

A tank of diesel is included in the price of most rentals and that’s generally more than enough for a week of cruising. Fresh water should be topped up every day and sewage weekly (the guides mentioned below handily inform you of the service points).

A consideration, if you are considering such a cruise, is the size and layout of your boat. We found the 38' boat ideal for a weekend but the
foldout bed was neither comfortable to sleep on nor comfortable to lounge around. A permanent bed would be more comfortable. A cruiser stern allows up to 5 people to sit around the tiller (like a power boat so you swing it left to go right) and is also easier to get on and off when the boat is moving, but also takes up more room and gives you less enclosed space. Some boats, usually of the traditional stern type, have the engine in the boat with a cabin at the rear. No place for the helmsman to sit either, or rear railings to grab only. For those of you who like more space, there are some boats which have 5' bath tubs. As for beds, I'd suggest at least 2 bed spaces more than persons on your party, unless there are young children. For couples travelling together, there are boats with 2 double beds and I have seen plans of boats with up to 4 double beds each in their own cabin. As for the rule above, that can be suspended if the cabin is large enough.

On our next cruise, we booked a boat with 2 armchairs up front as we had enviously seen some private boats which were made for a couple to cruise and stay onboard in comfort. Some even had wood or coal stoves.

Maps and guides are essential and I found the Nicholson (Collins) and Pearson series of guide books to be indispensable.

Oh yeah, for the FT hardcore. Here's how we got to the U.K. and back.

I stared off booking a BC award flight on LH metal with US miles using the handy NH award tool. AC DH8 service YVR-SEA. Had a forced overnight which I used to pick up my fisheye lense bought through EBay. Booked a surprise category car at Dollar and got a minivan. Flew the next day on LH in BC on an A330 (-300 I think) to FRA. Got to enjoy the BA SEA lounge. Connected to BHX on a 737(-500?) from there.

Booked my partner on a KL/NW upgradable ticket courtesy of rcs85551. Managed to snag a BC seat days away from departure so she flew out in KL WBC to AMS on a MD-11 and connected to BHX on a 737 arriving 2-3 hours later. Stayed at the Hilton by BHX before moving to the Hyatt in Birmingham.

Taxied back to BHX from Stockton Locks as it incrementally wasn't that much more to Leamington Spa after one bought rail tickets. Flew to AMS (op up’d to Euro Select) and stayed at the AMS Hilton. Next day she flew home on NW WBC to PDX and QX to YVR. I flew back to BHX (got a GBP 27 rebate for my KL ticket through quidco ), stayed the night at the Hilton BHX, off the next day LH to FRA and stayed at the Mainz Hilton. Got to FRA the next day where I thought I got the direct FRA-YVR which I had asked LH to waitlist me on instead of the booked FRA-SEA-YVR flight. Went to check in at LH, where the check in staff told me US had to reissue the ticket. Ran across the hall to find the US counter which was just shutting down as the US flights for the day had departed. The ticket agents there reissued the ticket which barely gave me any time to go airside and to the gate. Lesson learned: Don’t change US award tickets despite what the airline you’re flying on says.


Thomas David in a lock. 'roach is going to shut the rear lock gates

Approaching a lock

Princess of Austria off to let water into the lock

The canal waterfowl paddle up to your boat expecting you to feed their young.

Virgin train passing overhead. They'll be wherever they're headed before we get to the next pub.

more photos

Last edited by YVR Cockroach; Jan 22, 10 at 1:33 pm Reason: Adding/correcting some factual info
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Old Jan 22, 10, 3:43 am
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Thanks for that. I've always found these boats pretty fascinating.
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Old Jan 22, 10, 8:15 am
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Insightful and fascinating report. Thanks for sharing.
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Old Jan 22, 10, 10:13 am
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Gr8 report.
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Old Jan 22, 10, 12:37 pm
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Oh, narrowboating! How lovely. Sounds like you had a smashing time.
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Old Jan 22, 10, 1:00 pm
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That was a fun read. Thanks.
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Old Jan 22, 10, 3:46 pm
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Very interesting, especially for someone like me who, wherever I have lived, have always been within spitting distance of a British canal!
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Old Jan 22, 10, 3:50 pm
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Thumbs up

Wow, thank you! This is one of the more fascinating TRs I've seen on FT!
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Old Jan 22, 10, 3:58 pm
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Thank you for a very different report! I believe these canals and boats show up in the Bond film The World is Not Enough
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Old Jan 23, 10, 2:44 pm
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I often go hiking along the canals just outside of greater London on weekends and LOVE it.

A friend has one of these, and has offered a ride or two on it, and once the sun comes out again here .......
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Old Jan 23, 10, 4:22 pm
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Thanks for the great report YVR Cockroach
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Old Feb 4, 10, 12:33 pm
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Thanks for all the +ve feedback.

A few interesting things to add: While trains and road vehicles travel on the left side on rail and road ways, narrowboats travel on the right side on waterways. This probably has to do with the tiller steering so a right-handed helmsman would stand on the left of the tiller and would have the better view of an oncoming boat from the left.

I saw a recent BBC series entitle Great British Railway Journies. It seems the canals were a very slow and expensive (just not in time but /ton/mile) way to move freight and were quickly superseded by railways which first started service on a 30 mile line between Liverpool and Manchester. Good thing the canals were never filled in!

Next trip in June will be to go across the Pontcysyllte aqueduct and

Chirk aqueduct.

Last edited by YVR Cockroach; Feb 4, 10 at 1:35 pm
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Old Feb 4, 10, 1:08 pm
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Oh wow! I've got to put that on my "bucket travel list!" We want to go to England anyway, so combining that trip with these boats sounds ideal.
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Old Feb 4, 10, 4:00 pm
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Great report YVR Cockroach, I live next to the canel in Birmingham in Brindley Place, had I knew you were on the boat, could have met up for a cup of tea
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Old Feb 5, 10, 8:39 pm
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It was a delight to read this report YVR Cockroach and your pictures were superb.
I've always had a desire to go on a canal boat holiday.....never got round to it though. Oh well, some day hopefully.
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