Narrowboats, because I dream on the river

A couple of months ago I traveled to Nottingham.  Regular readers will remember my tale of dinner with Robin Hood.  I briefly mentioned one of my other favorite parts of the journey, but until now have not elaborated.  It's time to remedy that situation!


When I was planning my trip to Nottingham, I desperately wanted to go cruising on a canal boat.  I didn't know a thing about them other than that they were boats.  On canals.  But that was enough!


(Click on any photo to enlarge and see a crisper version.)

What delights lie in store?

I love this shot.  So full of potential!  What's around the next bend?


Jamie, the owner of Hire A Canalboat, chatted me up post-cruise and politely inquired, albeit with a slightly pained expression, if I'd really said that I "…dreamed of riding in a canalboat".  I think he was trying to suss out if either I, or the tourism folks, had been exaggerating for the sake of dramatic impact.  Well, I really did say that and it really was true.  Ever since I can remember I've been fascinated with water traveling in narrow channels.

I have a distinct memory of camping in Sequoia Kings Canyon and digging a narrow trench away from the water spigot at the campground.  I loved watching the channel fill up and head downhill.  Small twigs served as bridges and the roofs of short tunnels, temporarily obscuring the view of the tiny stream, turning it into a (rather predictable) game of peek-a-boo.  Even today the recollection makes me clap in delight.  It's a bizarre obsession, I admit, but there you have it. 


Canal dreams

Gorgeous sunset at the Sawley Marina.


The freedom to drive and sail and fly over wide open spaces is something that, as an American, I am conditioned to appreciate.  But something about directional pathways is just magical.  I am sure whatever it is that makes me feel this way is why I love roller coasters, model trains, and river rafting, too.  And yes, Jamie, I actually have recurring dreams about canals and rivers.

When I got the word that I would have the opportunity to ride in a canalboat, I was overjoyed.  I thought, at best, it would be a nice day of riding serenely around with a small tour group – the smaller the better – snapping photos of the lovely English countryside.  I didn't realize that with canalboats (also known as narrowboats), the idea is that you take yourself around.  No tour groups, no set schedule, just a boat, a key, some maps, and instructions on how to go.  A-MAZ-ING!


Using the wee to unlock the "wheeee!"

Learning to unlock the locks.


Usually renting a canalboat is a family or group outing.  Traveling by oneself is not really encouraged for newbies, as there is a lot to learn and manage.  Max, one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet, instructed me how to open and close locks using a cute scale model outside the office.  The model has only single gates rather than double, but the terms are all the same.


loads o' info!

Handy maps and other info are included on every boat.


Vicki showed me the basics of how to start up the engine (reminds me of a tractor – has a kill switch and all) and what to do about power.  The battery charges when you have the engine running or, if you're moored in a marina, you can plug in.  Usually a day of cruising will give you all the charge you need for lights, the hot water heater, and other basics, but if you run things like hair dryers and microwaves you need to plan ahead and mind your consumption.


One of the essentials.

Of COURSE there's a kettle!  Got to have tea, don't you?


There's also a DVD everyone has to watch about the safety features onboard.  I actually enjoyed it and kept pausing to run back into the boat to locate the features being discussed.  The one thing not mentioned – and that is probably very obvious to English people – is how to turn on the cooker.  My Irish cooker (stove) has a very obvious button for the clickety-click spark action to set the gas alight.  This one was, for some reason, more difficult for me to find.  I managed to figure it out without blowing anything up, though, so we'll call it good.


getting rocked gently to sleep...  heaven!

I wish I was there getting rocked to sleep right now…


The boats come nicely equipped with kitchenware (plates, cups, cutlery, pots and pans), a small refrigerator, bedding and towels, and even fuel is included in the cost of the rental*.  Everything was comfy and clean, just worn enough to relieve any nervousness one might feel over bringing kids along for an outdoor adventure, well cared for, and utterly delightful.  Since space is at a premium, storage areas are cleverly placed under seats and behind doors, and tables fold away.

*Note: most outfits don't include the fuel.


down the rabbit hole!

My predilection for delighted hand clapping
is making itself known as I review these picture.  Such fun!


The boats come in two lengths: 45 feet (sleeps 4) and 55 feet (sleeps 6).  They are nearly identical inside, but the longer version has an extra cabin with two single berths.  Since I was only one, I had a 45 foot model.

The key with narrowboats is to think… slowly.  You might be able to get up to the rip-roaring speed of 6 mph (9.6 kph), but you really don't want to get above 3-ish.  Besides breaking safety rules and making it unpleasant for your fellow canal-goers, why do you want to rush on your holiday?  It's all about unwinding and having time to relax.


It's a dog's life on the canals...

Slow down!  You wouldn't want to dislodge such cute pups, would you?


Narrowboat life is not just for vacationers.  There's a whole subculture surrounding the lifestyle.  People who want to own their own home but can't quite afford a house sometimes purchase a canalboat.  I saw several pensioners living out their dreams, just cruising around smiling and happy.  There were younger folks, too, people who simply enjoyed being on the water.  It all seemed polite, comfortable, and idyllic.

So how DO you get through those locks?  When a first timer rents, one of the staff members rides with them through their first lock to make sure everything goes smoothly.  It's a relatively simple process, but putting the pieces together in your head the first couple of times can take some effort.  Following is a series of photos showing some of the steps, starting when two boats enter from the lower side of the canal.


Howdy, neighbor!

Vicki watches as another boat joins us in the lock.


Some locks fit two boats at a time, as this one did.  It's considered polite to wait for other nearby boats to join you if you see one heading in your direction.  If you see a boat heading in the opposite direction, but the water in the lock is at their level, wait for them to go first.  You know, common sense and courtesy kind of thing.

The gate is then closed behind the boats.  Usually the flow and pressure of the water is enough to keep them shut once in place.  Sometimes, if a gate has been damaged or is in need of maintenance, it might be necessary for one member of the crew to hold part of it shut until the water pressure starts to build, but this is rare.  The Canal & River Trust (formerly British Waterways) does a good job of maintaining things.


Cill-y paddles!

Max opens up the gate paddles (holes to let water in or out of the lock) on the left. 


You can see the cill (pronounced "sill"), the ledge just under the gate paddles, on the upper end of the lock.  There are corresponding marks on the side in white paint.  Have to be mindful of where the cill ends to avoid getting your boat grounded when going from the high side to the low.  Also need to leave space to avoid getting water dumped into the front of your boat.


Lock key, aka, windlass.

Max poses patiently, displaying a lock key, for this snap-happy blogger.


There can be another set of paddles, the "ground paddles", that let water in or out through holes that are below the waterline.  Some locks have both types of paddles on one gate; some have ground paddles on one gate and gate paddles on the other.  In either case, you'll need a windlass or "lock key", a detachable crank, to operate the paddles.  The lock keys don't stay at the locks; each boat has one or more aboard.



Our fellow canalboater joins in and opens up the gate paddles on the right.


After the lock is filled to the upper level of the canal, the gates are easily opened.  There are mistakes that you can make, but the physics of the situation are pretty clear.  Gate doesn't open?  Water's not level yet – simple!


Good thing they're narrow.

Squeeeeezing out of the lock…


Ta da!

Voilà!  You have made it through your first lock!


I was only onboard for one night and a day, which is really a very silly thing.  The right way to do this is take at least a week.  There are canals all over the UK and to do a nice circuit you need to allow around 7 days.  If you want to take a bigger circuit – maybe even visit London! – allow 2 weeks.  The maps and charts have distance / time markers that help you plan your trip based on traveling at the recommended speed.  The wonderful staff (yes, biased, but I really liked them) at Hire A Canalboat will help you make plans, too.

Why, you ask, would someone not obsessed with water coursing through channels be interested in doing this?  Here are some reasons:

  1. Relaxation.  Yes, you have to work those locks yourself, but it's slow-paced and easy to do.  Bonus: fresh air!  The tow path side of the canals, where horses used to pull the barges, also provides a nice place to get out and stretch your legs.  (Play games with unruly youngsters by pretending to leave them behind!  *evil laugh*)
  2. You can take the whole family – and it brings you closer together.  Each member of the staff related different tales of families with kids, notably teenagers, who initially embarked with lots of eye rolling and exasperation but who, by the end, were having the times of their lives.  Being a valued member of a team, learning new skills, taking part in an unusual and unique activity…  it's like facing the dangers of the wilderness together, but with all the comforts of home.  Real character-building stuff!
  3. Cost effective.  For the price of one week's rental you get transportation, lodging, and activities built-in.  And since the accommodations are self-catering, you can cook your own meals.  There are plenty of canal-side pubs and eateries, so it's easy enough to enjoy a meal out, as well.  (And remember that fuel is even included.  Most outfits don't do this, however, so choose carefully.)
  4. Scenic!  There are bits of the canals that necessarily pass through city areas, but much of it is through the beautiful English countryside.  Watching the waterfowl and farm animals was a treat for me, as was taking in the spring flowers along the waterways.  People who live on the canals often have adorable little gardens with all manner of lovely trees and cute, manicured lawns.  One house even has a model railroad big enough for people to ride.
  5. Fulfills your dreams…  It did mine, anyway!  Besides giving me electric thrills that chase up and down my spine even as I type this, it was absolutely marvelous to be rocked ever so gently to sleep.  I absolutely MUST do this again!


A couple of family friends who now live in The Cotswolds came up to spend the afternoon with me.  It was wonderful being able to meet at a pub along the way, then invite them aboard for a short cruise, sharing tea and tales of the past (my first visit to the UK at the age of 8!).  One of them was English but had never been on the canals himself.  After the ride, which they both enjoyed thoroughly, they said renting a narrowboat for a holiday was definitely on the list.

I had originally planned on keeping the number of photos in the post to the minimum.  I put together a slide show to insert instead.  Turns out I couldn't help myself and put in bunches, as you may have noticed.  Still, there are a few in the collection that you haven't seen yet.  (When the slide show is playing, be sure to roll your mouse over the frame and click on the little speech bubble in the lower left to view the captions, then click the play button again.)


Can't see the presentation?  View it here:


The swan at the end of the slide show peeked in the window just as I was packing up and having my final conversation with Jamie.  The gleam in the bird's eye seems to indicate that it knows I will be back for more.  And you know, I believe it is correct!


My trip on the canals was arranged by the lovely folks at Experience Nottinghamshire
and Hire A Canalboat, but the opinions are entirely my own.

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  1. Hi from Cardiff (we met earlier today, you left your card and I had to have a look at your blog).

    What a lovely and eye-opening story! Canals are one of those things we Brits tend to take for granted. We forget that most countries don’t have them, or if they do they’re for carrying irrigation water rather than for transport. I think most Brits appreciate them more now than they used to.

    I’ve never done a canal trip, but have spent a lot of time walking the tow-paths. It’s a great way of being sure you won’t encounter too many steep hills. I’m generally accompanied by a sodden dog. Happy travels.

    1. Thank you, Richard! So glad you enjoyed reading it.

      Jamie, the owner of Hire A Canalboat, also tells me that, while France has plenty of canals, they are all straight! I must say that having bends around which you cannot yet see is part of the excitement. :D

  2. Beatiful pictures :) Great trip and post.

    1. Thank you, Leonard! Glad you enjoyed it. I hope it will inspire you to give narrowboat travel a try. :)

  3. Martin & Sue says:

    We are those Cotswold friends! You have a lovely, fluid and entertaining descriptive style, Katrina! Yes, we do plan to take a narrowboat trip at some stage. Love the photos, especially of that dog in the pub!

    1. Aww, thank you, Martin and Sue (and the doggies)! Heh, that dog picture IS quite something, eh? ;)

      I was recently in London and spent quite an entertaining evening with Jamie. I actually asked for water more than once, but he insisted on buying me cider! So watch out – if you do take a narrowboat trip, that Jamie guy is dangerously friendly!

  4. that first picture looks like a painting

    1. Thank you! I do my best to wield my camera like a brush. …ok, not really, but when it turns out well I AM quite pleased!

  5. No idea that you take yourself around on canal boat rides. I’d think that opening and closing the locks would be a tricky business. I also love the idea of taking a canal boat tour/excursion. Nice experience, Katrina.

    1. I think after trying it a few times it becomes old hat. Likewise with learning the ropes – literally – and a few important knots. Hope to see you on the canals one of these days, Cathy!

  6. Elaine says:

    Katrina, you have absolutely nailed the appeal of the narrowboat life. I’m lucky enough to own a canalboat, and one of the real delights is that cruising offers an entirely different perspective on travel. Of course, there are rural stretches where it can feel like a secret route through ever-changing countryside, but I also like travelling through towns and cities, and being able to moor up wherever there’s a suitable spot, just on a whim.

    For a holiday, it really does suit all ages and interests. Learning how to manage locks and other skills means that even though it’s slow (4mph speed limit on most stretches) it doesn’t feel dull, and as you’ve said, there’s plenty to see, even if it’s just peering at some of the lovely canalside houses. It’s perfect for wildlife-lovers. There’s a swan and seven cygnets outside my front door right now.

    I hope you get the chance to do this again soon: I think you’re a natural water gypsy! And Linda, I’ve never been canal-sick, but I still sometimes develop a strange rolling gait if I’ve spent more time on the boat than on land.

    1. Thank you, Elaine! It's very validating to have an outside opinion from someone in the know!

      I am trying to convince some of my fellow travel bloggers to make an event of it next spring. Maybe you can be our resident expert. Or maybe, if I manage to hop over before then, we can have tea at your place and watch the swans. ;)

  7. One of the most perfect and idyllic ways to spend an English summer day is floating along, lying on top of the boat, watching the sun dazzle and then hide amongst the tree branches which overhang a canal. It is so unbelievably relaxing. We spent a couple of summers cruising canals in the north of England when I was in my 20s.

    On the other hand, I may be the only person to have been seasick on a canal – honestly, hand on heart! It had something to do with those nice, canal-side pubs you mention, bacon and, like, 17 point turns!

    1. Hahahaha! Oh, sorry. Is that the wrong response? Well, let’s just say that when I go back to do this again, I shall take your advice to heart (or stomach, as the case may be) and limit my alcohol + bacon consumption!

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