Know first that canal and waterway cruising is not a holiday that will please everyone. If you like playing tennis and golf all day, if your idea of happiness is lying beside a pool looking at the young ladies in their miniature bikinis, if you must absolutely be able to enjoy a hectic night life every day of your holiday – then a canal cruising holiday is most certainly not for you.
On the other hand, if you don’t mind gliding peacefully through some of the most beautiful country in the world at a speed of around 7 km an hour, seeing parts of the countryside that other people never do, avoiding all the rush hour traffic, and slowing down the pace of your life to a gentle amble, then a canal cruising holiday will be very much your speed.
Canals are not straight roads you rush down. Typically they turn around following the bends of the countryside, although, occasionally, you may find yourself going through a town – even through the center of a major city.
To liven the proceedings you will frequently come across locks which, in almost every case, you will have to work yourself. You soon get used to it. It is a small but pleasant skill that provides an enjoyable break in the day. It is also a good place to meet people from other boats who will be full of information and advice – some of it correct and valuable.
There are several guide books available for each country, and they list the waterside pubs, which are some of the most interesting and attractive of hostelries in Europe.
If you are going to be operating the boat yourself – and there is no other way to totally enjoy the experience – then you need to be agile enough to get on and off the boat fairly quickly and you need to have somebody to steer the boat. In fact, a three person crew is preferable. If that is impossible, then there are hotel boats, especially in France, which cater to your needs.
There are no high levels of skill involved in handling a canal boat. It is not like a yacht. Steering is either from a small hand wheel or a tiller at the back of the boat, and you have a throttle lever to control the speed.
When you hire the boat you will be given a very short training course to show you how to handle the locks, bridges and other items of canal technology.
There will be a towpath running along one side of the canal, which is where the horses used to walk when they towed the boats. When you want to stop you can moor the boat on the tow path side. There is no charge for mooring and you either use mooring posts or hammer some stakes into the ground.
You, of course, carry your water with you and you will have to re-fill the tanks every second day or so. You will not have that trouble with fuel as typically you will be supplied with enough to more than last for the duration of your holiday.
You can cook on the boats – all utensils are supplied – but you will probably find yourself having dinner at one of the many waterside hostelries. You will have to take with you proper boat shoes so that you do not slip on wet decks.
On older boats, the person steering can sometimes be annoyed by the sound of the diesel engine. This is not a problem on the newer boats which are normally those for hire. In either case, it is only the person steering who notices. At the front of the boat there is no noise except for the lapping of the water and the swishing of the reeds.
In Britain, the canals are fairly narrow – two meters is fairly wide – and that is why the boats are called ‘narrowboats’. Despite their lack of beam these boats have all of the conveniences of home including showers, kitchens and the inevitable television. Note that they never come equipped with telephones – it is not meant to be that sort of holiday. But if you need to be in constant touch you can hire a mobile phone.
Almost all boats have a dining area which can be made up into an extra double berth. Unless you are very pushed you should avoid this. It is only suitable for young people. Thus the rule is that if you are hiring a boat for four people you hire a six person boat.
The electricity – after all, this is Europe – is weird and wonderful and if you need to use a hair dryer or recharge a camcorder you need to check with the hirers very carefully before you start out.
In Europe there are several cruising grounds, some more attractive than others. For example, canal boating in Scotland sometimes means that you are sailing across quite large bodies of water and you need something other than a narrow boat. Ireland, on the other hand, has become a major area for canal cruising and many of the canals have been restored and reopened.
In Ireland the Grand Canal and Barrow Systems and the Shannon River offer you the freedom of 240 kilometres of uncrowded waterways. The start of the Grand Canal is only 100 km from Dublin. The Shannon is the backbone of a vast network of inland waterways, joined to the Erne via the newly restored Shannon-Erne link. The Grand Canal connects it to Dublin and the east coast, while the Barrow Navigation makes it possible to travel to the south east. The river immediately to the south is ideal for beginners. But it is in England that British canal cruising comes to perfection.
There are three areas.
The first is the Norfolk Broads which consists of canals and rivers connected to lakes which are called Broads. There are no locks in this area, but there are tides and you need to acquire the skill of using the tides to move you along.
This is some of the most beautiful country in Europe, and even for England, it is a very quiet and remote place.
The river Thames provides yet another area for cruising, but it has some differences. The locks right up to Oxford are worked by lock keepers, who know the area and are normally great characters in their own right. The banks of the Thames are a panorama of English history and you could not be bored for one minute.
Then there are the canals which run throughout England and Wales. There are about 3,000 km still available for recreational use, as they are rarely used now for commercial transportation. It is here that you have to use a narrow boat. It will come with all the comforts of home and is very simple to use. Anyway, you cannot do much damage at a maximum speed of about 7 km an hour.
The centre of the canal system is in the city of Birmingham, but most of the canals run through the countryside. You amble along and enjoy the scenery and then at night moor beside a waterside pub. You probably will only travel for four hours or so a day, which will leave you plenty of time for exploring.
It takes about 15 minutes to get through a lock and you need to change your way of thinking of distance from km to lock km. You will it normally find that you travel at something under 30 lock km a day.
You can either cruise from your starting pint and back along the same canals or you can go on a circular tour which brings you back to your starting point. Take the advice of the boat yard as to how long a trip will take. Their judgment is better than yours. Canal cruising on the Welsh borders between Chester and Llangollen can get a little crowded at the height of the season, but many regard this as the ideal first trip.
There is much discussion as whether to carry a bicycle. You will find that carrying a bicycle for each person on-board will make the trip much more interesting because it is very easy then to cycle along the tow path to some close by destination. On the other hand storing them can be a dashed nuisance, and if you put them on the cabin top you will find problems with overhanging trees and some of the bridges, which can be very restricted. Nevertheless, they improve the holiday no end.
When you have finally decided where to go, and have arranged to hire a boat, buy a guide for the canals you intend to cruise. In Europe Nicholsons, Pearsons and Waterways World each publish a series of guides. These are useful on the cruise, as they will show you where the villages, pubs and water points are. An overall map of the system is useful for appreciating where the canals are in relation to the rest of the country, and for overall planning.
There are no big differences between cruising in Britain and cruising on the continent. Perhaps the biggest difference is that on the continent the major canals are still used for commercial traffic. But otherwise it is much the same. You never go faster than eight km per hour – there is a speed limit – and you need to allow 15 minutes for going through a lock. Otherwise, it is a very similar experience and the canal system extends through France, Germany and Holland.
George’s: Canal Boating in the U.K. and Europe http://www.canals.com/index.htm The definitive guide. Has everything you want to know plus links to lots more. Says of itself, modestly, ‘Being an introduction for those unfamiliar with the pleasures of canal and waterway cruising, as well as a resource for experienced boaters.’
UK Canal Network http://www.ukcanals.net/ Has more links than you can poke with a stick. Total coverage. Whatever you want to know, this site has a link to it. Quite amazing.
UK Vacations Afloat on Canal, River and Sea http://www.holidayuk.co.uk/canals/index.htm Commercial site listing what it has to offer. There is an immense amount.
AccomoDATA – Canal Boating http://www.accomodata.co.uk/boats.htm Another commercial site dealing with canals in Britain.
Croisières Le Dauphin / Dolphin Cruisers, Pelican Canal Boat Rental http://www.le-guide.com/dolphin/pelican.html Commercial site on cruises – more powerboat than true canal boats – in France.
Waterways Holidays http://www.waterw