It’s easy to avoid getting into things because they feel like they ‘belong’ to other people. I’ve always been interested in skiing, edgy theatre and amazing bands from the 70s, but sometimes it feels like they belong to a different social class, cultural group or another generation. It can be hard to get past that and simply enjoy the thing you’re interested in.
I felt that same way about boating, and the waterways of the British countryside. From the people you see moored up and the range of canal boat magazines on offer, it feels like boating isn’t just an activity or even a hobby; for a lot of people, it’s a lifestyle. People spend tens of thousands of pounds on their boats and countless hours out on the canals. It’s pretty intimidating.
So when one of my friends suggested hiring a canal boat and taking a long weekend along the waterways, I was a little sceptical. What if we couldn’t get through the locks? What if we crashed the boat? My God, I thought, what if we sunk the boat?
But my fears turned out to be unfounded. The trip was really easy and we all had an amazing time. It’s a fantastic thing to do as a couple, group of friends or a family. Here are some of my highlights and tips from a first-time canal boater!
Driving the boat
Working the boat is really easy, and you usually get some instructions and guidance before you set off. Sitting at the back of the boat, the thing is essentially operated by a start/stop, forward/reverse system, with a tiller to steer. The most important thing to remember is that the faster you’re going, the less you need to steer when turning around corners. In fact, you hardly need to steer at all. I’d advise following this advice, as doing a three-point turn in a canal boat isn’t easy!
Operating the locks
The locks look more complicated than they are – but it’s still definitely a team effort! First you need to ‘pull over’ while someone opens the first lock gate. Then the driver manoeuvres the boat into the lock itself, while helpers attach a couple of ropes to the inner lock moorings. The person on lock-duty then needs to close the first gate, wait for the water level to balance, then walk down to the next gate and open it. The first couple of times you pass through locks it feels tricky, but you get the hang of it pretty quickly.
Life on board
The reason the cost of hiring a canal boat is great value is that it’s accommodation and an activity all rolled into one. It’s a lovely, leisurely way to see the beautiful English countryside; everyone can take it in turns to drive, while everyone else sits around the boat relaxing. It’s best in the sun, of course, but even if it’s rainy being on a canal boat is great fun (well, maybe except for the driver!).
Cooking and socialising on board is charmingly cosy. I’d advise caution about numbers, though – on a 12-berth boat there may only be eight actual beds, the rest are made up of dining table booth seats. So be aware that if you fill a boat to capacity it may get uncomfortably cramped.
Encountering other boaters
Everyone on canal boats is there because they love it, so other boaters are usually incredibly friendly. Good etiquette is just common sense, really: give other people enough space when you’re driving and manoeuvring, don’t be too loud when you’re moored up near other boats and don’t do anyone on-board in full view of other boats that might cause offence. Once or twice we did unfortunately hit another boat, and they weren’t best pleased!
Pubs and restaurants
Most canals seem to have plenty of places to moor up and stop for food and drinks. These are often places that cater to holidaymakers using the waterways, so they usually have a nice, friendly atmosphere and serve traditional food and drink. Be careful not to have fun much fun, though – driving after more than one or two glasses of wine probably isn’t a good idea.
Romance and heritage
Part of the attraction of canal boats is the romance. The boats have an old-world, charming aesthetic that harks back to the days when the canals were the drivers of industry, and used to transport goods all over the country. The locks, too, combined with the surrounding English countryside have a wonderfully romantic feel to them.
All in all, a canal boat break was a very different and interesting experience, and one I really enjoyed. I definitely want to do it again, and if I ever get enough money I’m determined to have my own boat one day. I’m even starting to think of names for it!
Canal boating is definitely a lifestyle for many, but that doesn’t mean it’s ‘their’ thing. They don’t own the waterways, and if you’re interested in this lifestyle you shouldn’t let any reservations stand in your way of exploring it further.
Commissioned Guest Post