Some people enjoy lounging on a beach, others prefer to ski down mountains chasing adrenaline (whatever that is), whilst some like to sit on rollercoasters with screaming children for days on end. But some of us (a small percentage I will admit) have a passion for the calm and tranquil beauty of our nation’s inland waterways. There is, in my humble opinion, nothing that even compares to steadily drifting down a peaceful canal in the spring looking at the flowers coming into bloom whilst enjoying the nature that is all around you.
The United Kingdom currently has over 4,000 miles of waterways which are being thoroughly enjoyed by millions of people every year. They cover England, Wales and Scotland, with almost all of those in England interconnected, and they can only be fully appreciated when you are floating along them on a canal boat.
There are two main types of boats on the waterways of Britain. First off is the classic narrowboat, which for me sits as a pillar of English tradition, along with the beefeaters at the Tower of London and the classic ‘Sunday Roast’. Narrowboats are built from steel and tend to be around 6’ 10” wide. They were originally built in the 18th century for carrying goods down the country’s narrow canals, however, they are now a popular choice for recreation and are even used as homes by some lucky people. The second of the two main types of boats found in our canals is the cruiser. These vary in widths and lengths and tend to be constructed out of plastics.
Buying a narrowboat
Buying a narrowboat is the first step towards canalling bliss. Renting and hiring them for the week is thoroughly enjoyable, but owning your own, well that is something else entirely. The process of purchasing your very own narrowboat is a minefield which you need to carefully navigate. The more expensive boats can cost you upwards of £75,000 and new-builds are also priced too high for most, but if you are looking at lower priced models then there are plenty of opportunities.
One thing I will advise, before you run out and buy the first boat you see, is to take your time. If you have no experience of narrowboating then you should most certainly hire one first in order to get the feel. You may love it, but you may discover that it just isn’t for you. Another thing that should be done before you start searching for your dream boat is plenty of research. You should read websites, check forums and speak to experts or other people who are either in the industry or own their own boats. The more you know about what it is you are after, the easier the process will become. As Benjamin Franklin once said: “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail”.
As with buying cars, or anything else for that matter, if you are buying privately, then make sure you see some documentation to confirm that the person selling you the boat is the legal owner. If you are buying from a broker they have to carry out certain legal checks before they agree to sell a boat, but it is still worth asking to see the correct documents.
When you have found the perfect boat it is vitally important that you carry out as many checks as humanely possible. In fact, once you have checked the boat for damage it is always worth getting a second opinion. Marine surveys may not be cheap, but there is nothing better than a professional’s opinion.
Another thing to consider, before you sign on the dotted line, is where are you going to keep your boat? You should look into the moorings in your surrounding area to make sure that you have somewhere to keep it otherwise you could end up in quite a pickle. You cannot just park a narrowboat on your drive – no matter how hard you try.
Once you have bought the boat and celebrated your wonderful purchase it is time to get stuck in yourself. Second-hand boats will tend to need a few tweaks before you start cruising around your local waterways. Getting the engine serviced is very important. You may be lucky and it may have been carried out prior to your purchase, but if you don’t have the documentation, then get it serviced straight away. You should then look into making as many improvements as possible and a few pieces of maintenance may be required. For example – it is always a good idea to have the hull blacked before you put it back in the water.
Inland waterways and boating etiquette
For those of you who are new to canal boating, or are considering starting for the first time, here are a few hints and tips to help you begin.
As in all walks of life, rule number one is to always think of others in everything you do. If you can manage this then all of the other pieces of advice I am about to give you will fall seamlessly into place.
Your fellow narrowboat users are of high importance. When you drift past them you get an instant sense of oneness which comes from sharing a hobby or pastime. The waterways are an extremely auspicious place to be so expect fellow boaters to smile and wave at you as you pass by. To make the passing extra smooth you should ensure that you slow down when meeting boats coming in the opposite direction to reduce the bow wave, and keep to the right. If the waterway is too narrow for boats to pass one another, then you should give way. It is also a good idea to give your horn a toot when you are approaching a blind bend or a bridge in order to let anyone coming in the opposite direction aware of your presence.
In order to be considerate to other boaters, it is always a good idea to slow down when you are passing moored boats. This will help avoid you rocking their boat, which is a safety hazard and is also bleeding annoying. You should also allow boats that are behind you to pass by where applicable.
So that is your fellow boaters taken care of, but there are plenty of other people you will encounter on the waterways of the United Kingdom.
Everyone has the right to use the tow path, so when you are mooring up make sure that you aren’t blocking it. Also, if you are stopping somewhere for a prolonged period of time, make sure that you don’t leave all of your belongings strewn across the path. You should also remember that if you are bringing a dog with you, it must be kept under control and you should always clean up after it.
When you see anyone fishing, it is important to slow down and make sure that they know you are coming. This means that if they need to, they have time to pull their lines in before you go passing by.
You should also remember that some people live in their canal boats. So, when you are mooring up for the night you must ensure that you respect them and keep the noise down. Making sure the engine is not running all night is essential and you should always think of anyone who lives near to the banks of the waterway when you are preparing to bed down for the night.
Always remember that the main reason canalling is so wonderful is the environment through which you travel. It is vital that you respect the wildlife and take extra care not to disturb any animals that are around you. You should never moor up on the side of the canal which does not have a tow path and avoid the faux pas of all faux pas by picking up your litter!
Locks, bridges and mooring
When you are approaching a lock it is essential that you are as helpful as possible to make the process as quick as it can be. You should always make sure that you queue up properly and don’t barge your way past (no pun intended, honestly). It is also a good idea to offer your assistance to anyone who is in front of you as this will speed up the time that you, and anyone else queueing will have to wait. I personally, love going through locks as it is a great place to stop and chat for a bit with fellow boat-people as I like to call them.
Lifting and swinging bridges are also great fun. Always make sure that there aren’t any unsuspecting pedestrians already on the bridge and allow people to make their way over before you get it lifting or swinging. Always close the warning barriers before you open the bridge and, to be extra helpful, if there is another boat behind, wave them through and close the bridge behind them.
When you are stopping for a break or for the night you can plonk your boat almost anywhere so long as you are on the side of the canal where there is a tow path. There may be mooring restrictions at certain spots, so if you do come across any of them make sure that you play by the rules. As I mentioned earlier, you should avoid tripping up unsuspecting pedestrians by making sure that your mooring ropes do not obstruct the path and that your pins are clearly visible. Oh, and one more tip for mooring, avoid mooring near weirs, water points, winding holes and bends, you will just be getting in someone’s way.
Why do we do it?
So, why do we spend our time navigating canals in our narrowboats? Well, as I have mentioned previously, there are very few ways to really appreciate the natural wonder of this beautiful country and in my opinion the best way in which to see the countryside is by boat.
Canalling can take you on many adventures as you pass through tunnels that are over 200 years old; navigate your way up long chains of locks; and float over stunning aqueducts. Here are some amazing places that you must consider visiting when you are planning your next boating holiday.
Standedge Tunnel – Now, this magnificent and unique spot in the heart of the Pennine countryside is a great place to go on your next boating trip. Standedge Tunnel is the highest, deepest and more impressively, the longest canal tunnel in the United Kingdom. It stretches for 3.25 miles beneath the Pennine Hills from Marsden to Diggle.
Tardebigge Locks – Well, we have just had the longest tunnel in the country so why not have a go at the longest flight of locks the United Kingdom has to offer. I cannot stress it enough, but this is no mean feat and should only be attempted by experienced boaters. Tardebigge Locks or the Tardebigge Flight, as it is also known, raises the waterway around 220 feet and is comprised of 30 narrow locks over a two and a quarter mile stretch of canal.
Pontcysyllte Aqueduct – ThomasTelford and William Jessop built this stunning creation in the early 1800s and it is the highest and longest navigable aqueduct in the country. Not only does it offer you a breathtaking view when crossing but it is also recognised as a World Heritage Site and has been since 2006.
Llangollen Canal - This scenic waterway is one of the most stunning in the country, couple that with the fantastic architecture you will see on your journeys and you have yourself the perfect boating holiday. Narrowboating through this utterly delightful area is made even better by the pretty market towns and the awe-inspiring scenery that is has to offer. The Llangollen Canal is such a popular holiday destination that it has even had celebrity endorsements, from Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart none the less.
So there you have it, I do hope that this little piece I have written has whetted your appetite for the beauty and tranquility of our much loved inland waterways and I hope that you can enjoy as much pleasure from this wonderful past-time as I have over the years.
By Adam Rowden