Boating in Britain

Barge and balcony

A narrow boat cruises past a waterside pub in Birmingham, the ‘Venice of the north’. (Allan Lynch Photo)

The world loves to cruise and Britain offers unique self-skippered cruise adventures. In an ultimate toys-for-boys experience, I’ve cruised Britain’s inland waterways on a narrow boat near Birmingham and had a cabin cruiser to travel to golf courses ringing Lough Erne in Northern Ireland.

Narrow boating was my first experience at playing skipper. Fortunately, you don’t need to know much, if anything about boats. To begin, the canals are little more than a meter deep and only five or six boat widths wide, so there’s precious little chance of being lost at sea.

The most work with having a narrow boat is working the locks which take you up or down to the next section of canal. A friend who took his young family on a narrow boat holiday advised me to make sure the boat’s front windows are closed when opening a lock. His rambunctious children twice managed to soak the boat’s living room.

For me, the narrow boat was a luxurious way to travel because it allowed me to step back from deadlines, schedules, appointments and the other urgencies of working life to travel the English countryside at an 18th century pace.

The waterways have a four-mile-per-hour speed limit, making this slow travel. The low speed limit helps prevent shoreline erosion while allowing you to bask in your surroundings. There are over 6,400 kilometres of inland waterways in Britain. Most were constructed in the 18th and early 19th centuries, before the invention of railways, as a way to move goods to market. Since early narrow boats/barges were pulled by teams of horses and oxen, the canals are lined by “tow paths”, which are now used by cyclists, joggers, hikers and local fishermen.

This speed means if you are in a group, you can break up so that some walk, jog or cycle the tow path, alongside the boat. Or rush ahead and wait for the narrow boat to catch up. The canals are laid out to let you float past quaint villages, through pastoral farms, fields and forests without the wheel-gripping angst North Americans have for driving on the other side of the road. Cost-wise it is about the price of a rental car and hotel.

I began my experience at Alvechurch, near Birmingham. The Alvechurch marina, where I picked up a brightly painted, 54-ft.-long narrow boat, is conveniently located across the street from the train station. My narrow boat had small decks fore and aft, a full bath, bedroom, and a large room containing galley, dinette (which converts to a double bed, much like a motorhome), living area with little French doors to the fore deck.

Before novice boaters are unleashed on to the canal system, there is a short orientation on how to operate the narrow boat.

narrow boat moving

Turning a narrowboat around the Birmingham basin. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Narrow boating may not be rocket science, but it can be a little tricky. Moving the rudder arm right or left is simple enough, but you’re standing at the very back, guiding something that, in my case, weighted 13.5 tons. Jim, my boatman said, “Remember, there’s another six feet at the front beyond what you can see.” Important to know when anticipating a turn, mooring and entering a lock.

Steering I learned is a matter of nuance. Abrupt, panicky, over-correcting, last-minute moves sent me sideways. Fortunately, narrow boats are solidly built, with steel hulls. They’re sort of like long bumper cars, hit something and they bounce off.

It was a relief not to be driving. I was free to putter along at my own speed, daydream, bird-watch, gawk at architecture, peek into backyards and chat with passing boaters and pedestrians. I moseyed past turreted manor houses, glided under humpback bridges and escorted by ducks and a swan floated along aqueducts over a highway filled with speeding transport trucks.

I went through the 2.4-kilometer-long King’s Norton Tunnel, which echoed with the

narrow boat in basement

A narrowboat cruising through the basement of a Birmingham building. To the right of the boat are two waterside pubs and a restaurant. (Allan Lynch Photo)

creaks of the boat and the sound of water dripping from the overhead Victorian brickwork. It had a certain gaol-like atmosphere. In Birmingham I cruised through the basement of an old warehouse and moored for two nights in the city-centre Gas Street Basin, making the boat my downtown apartment.

The only crunch on the canals can be around locks, where you may have to wait your turn. There is a surprisingly complete range of services along the canals, from water stops and signage to cafes and pubs as well as waterside communities.

My turn around point was the Black Country Museum in the village of Tipton. In theory I should have been able to back my narrow boat into a small T-shaped intersection then power up to glide forward. Sadly, while I excelled in theory, my practical application was wanting. My feeble, failing attempts provided endless entertainment for the experienced boaters.

One of the museum’s costumed guides tried yelling directions from the shore. Finally, exasperated by my continuing failure to employ his directions, he crawled out on a tree branch, dropped onto the boat roof, then took control of my rudder. In minutes he had me completely turned around, ready to head out into the main waterway.

My other self-skippered experience was a mid-week cruise to golf courses in Northern Ireland. A friend and I had a 32-ft cabin cruiser. It had two bedrooms, two baths, kitchen and saloon and a substantial wheelhouse deck. There are six courses bordering Lower Lough Erne and another three on the Upper Lough. A longer cruise itinerary has access to 20 courses. Away from the fairways, we motored to several of the 154 islands which populate the lough, exploring ruins and mysterious memorials, took in the Marble Arch Caves and dined and drank at a number of restaurants and pubs which line the Lough.

Both the cabin cruiser and narrow boat have a variety of options in terms of duration of hire packages (weekend, mid-week, week-long and longer) and a selection of boats with accommodations from two people to 12.

All boats are equipped with dishes, linens, soap, shampoo, etc. Guests can pre-order groceries.

Both styles of cruising are a doable adventure for most people.

For information about waterways and boat companies, check out:

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