Canal Boating? Lock it in

JENNY EVANS rekindles some cherished childhood memories during a family holiday on the water.

IF YOU’RE looking for a quintessential English holiday, canal boating is it.

Think caravanning but at six-kilometres-an-hour, in the fresh air and without the need to bolt everything down.

We have had a narrow boat in our family for most of my life and I have many memories of travelling the canals of England. We used to spend every summer holiday on the boat. In fact, I didn’t go overseas for the first time until I was 14.

Unlike most things in life, canal boating has not changed in the last few decades. The locks still rely on elbow grease, fishermen still frequent the towpath, there is no WiFi (and in some boats no way to charge your phone) and the pubs are still plentiful along the way.

As a child, I enjoyed what seemed like endless days and sibling bonding. Later, and as a couple, it provided a romantic getaway from the world while still enjoying the comforts of life.

Now with my family it provides screen free, outdoor activities in a unique environment that we don’t encounter in Australia, as well as plenty of time in pubs!

Pubs provide the perfect complement to a canal holiday. There are many canal-side pubs that you can moor alongside as well as nearby rural watering holes that can be walked to.

For example, our recent weekend on the Aylesbury Arm of the Grand Union Canal involved 30 locks, 16 kilometres and two pubs.

Narrow boats travel at walking pace, it is impossible to rush. Although in saying that, my dad usually had ambitious plans of where we should get by when. He would get us to ‘lock wheel’. This is where 2 people work the lock and one person goes ahead to prepare the next lock, one person stays to close the gate and then wheels past the current lock to set up the next one etc. In the meantime, my dad would relax at the stern steering and issuing captains orders.

Nowadays I’m the captain and often go on with inexperienced crew. I try to hold it together when they take their time with the locks!


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Manually operated, these locks enable boats to go up and down hills. They can be hard work and are great for putting the children to good use. They are often close enough together to be able to walk between.

Over the years we’ve had our share of mishaps. The most common being losing windlasses (the tool used for lock paddles) into the canal and falling in, a necessary requirement for all boaters at least once, but not frequently. I have only fallen in twice in my 49 years of boating, the last time being at the age of 7 so I’m probably overdue.

Luckily the fact that most narrow boats are steel has meant that the odd bump has done no damage…and there has certainly been the odd bump. Steering an 18-metre-long boat (which even travelling at 6kph takes time to slow down) on winding canals and through narrow bridges does take some skill.

There are 7,600kms of navigable canals and rivers in the UK. They meander through the countryside, passing near ancient castles, stately homes, historical market towns and cities. They can be found in the centre of many towns. In fact, Birmingham is a city with more canals than Venice.

It has a 160 kilometres of canal network running through the city centre, enabling boaters to easily enjoy the sights without the worry of hotels and parking.

In London, the Regent’s canal starts in Little Venice and ends in the Docklands. It offers the chance to see a side of London that is often missed by others.

While we are lucky enough to have our own boat, there are many hire companies in the UK making this type of holiday available to all. You don’t need a licence and you can rent boats for as short as a day trip or for weeks at a time. Prices start at around £1,000 (approx. $AU1,7000) for a week. Tuition is provided.

It takes a certain amount of organisation to prepare for the boat but once aboard it is simple to unplug, enjoy each other’s company and unwind. Your days shrink down to a simple objective of getting to the next pub by nightfall.

For us, no trip to the UK is complete without some time on the boat.