We may have found one of the best ways to get out of the tourist track and to see the real United Kingdom: Rent a narrowboat and meander the canal system for a week. This is a slow motion vacation that cuts across English countryside with hardly a gift shop anywhere. Instead are mostly other Brits, people on vacation who have also rented or share a narrowboat or retired couples spending the grandchildren’s inheritance in a slow motion migration east to west and north to south. On this week, we were the only Americans in the fleet of rentals. I might have overheard one other language (French) once. Instead there is an opportunity for not only a slow, careful examination of the classic English and Wale countryside, there are many opportunities to talk to people who aren’t trying to sell you something. Its about as Back Door as Rick Steves could get, if you follow his travel philosophy.
This blog entry is the first of probably three parts. I will start with a general overview, then give the day by day highlights and try to describe a couple parts of the Canal life in deeper detail. Think of it as a slow read…
Starting in the 17th century and getting serious in the 18th century was a need to get raw goods and finished products to centralized manufacturing and market sites. Going by road was slow, bumpy, and unpredictable. So unpredictable that digging a long, narrow ditch straight across the countryside and filling it with water seem a reasonable alternative and thus a extended network of canals connecting rivers and the ocean began to stretch out over the countryside. Boats were pulled by horses except in the tunnels where humans did the hard work while the horse went around. Eventually folks started mounting the boats with engines and whole families puttered up and down the canal ways delivering coal, cheese, and salt among other goods.
While the arrival of trains certainly gave good competition to the canal transist economy, it was the surplus trucks from WWI plus much better roads that started to seriously hurt the industry. After the end of WWII, many canals were drained, covered over, and otherwise ignored in the name of progress.
However, sometime in the early sixties, a few folks started reclaiming the waterways. They opened up and refilled some canals and campaigned for money to open the rest. Life on the canal became a thing ranging from hippy organic alternate lifestyle to families out for a week of low tech togetherness time to a retirement of long slow cruising. There are now about 2,000 miles of canal and waterways open to the narrowboat experience. Most of the folks on the water these days are renting the boat. A rental narrow boat is like an RV but longer, skinnier, and on the water.
The renters are extended families, groups of friends with Pirates being a frequently expressed cos-play theme, and lots of couples. We all get about an hour of orientation to the boat, the canal, and the locks which includes about 15 minutes of how to pilot the thing before we’re left to drift off and away from the mother mooring slip. They actually allow complete newbies with minimal training to go out and drive the boat for days and days all by ourselves. “Here’s the emergency phone number,” they point out to us in the manual. “Try not to need it, we don’t always answer it.”
I think they were kidding. Maybe. At any rate, it turns out we didn’t need it.
“Oh, we think of canal boats as a contact sport,” on of the rental workers told us when we returned out boat at the end of the week apologizing for the latest set of dents and scrapes on the boat. “Why do you think they are called barges,” one of my co-lock workers told me as I apologized for bashing my way into the lock. It is possible to be seriously hurt on a boat but it would take an effort. Mostly its keep your hands and legs inside the boat, try not to make big jumps from shore to deck, and don’t fall into the lock. Everything else is something of a game of bumper boats until one get the hang of how to turn just so and then slip through an arched bridge with six inches to spare on either side of the craft. Which is a beautiful moment.
Basically, go find a boat rental company. We used ABC and they were great to work with from beginning to end.
We picked the Llangolen Canal as our first and probably only UK canal cruise (we might go French canal next time). This is one of the most beautiful and amazing paths and we loved it. While It has a reputation for being among the most crowded as well as most saturated in classic English/Wales weather (think rain and by rain I don’t mean mist) we often had long stretches of the canal to ourselves. We got locked out of two of our desired mooring sites, including a town with pubs(!), but we also spent three nights we hardly a neighbor near us. We even had great weather up till the last day. One of the things I am noticing is that this is a great summer to be a tourist in Europe, the thundering herds are staying home.
We showed up at the dock with bags of food and soft-sided luggage. There isn’t a lot of room to store stuff on the boat. Think of it as a week of tiny house living, so even the suitcases had to compress down. After our ridiculously short but actually just right length of orientation, we were on our way and on our own an hour or so after arriving. It turns out that traveling through narrowboat canals is a lot like a Disneyworld water ride. You think you have choices but really your choices are simple: go forward, drift around backward, tie up, or crash into something.
What we learned:
It turns out you can steer a boat going forward but not going backwards. The flow of water needs to be passing over the rudder, otherwise you have nothing. (No Gear, No steer – one of the favorite mottos of the waterway)
You can drag a multi-ton boat around with a persistent tug on a skinny rope. Like walking a dog, only bigger. Sometimes there’s a line at the lock so everyone hold their boat on the side of the canal waiting for their turn. When it comes, we all tug on our boat till it decides to move. And then we tug on it to make it stop. Its a physics problem actually.
Spending six days going 4 mph is not the worst way to travel.
There is hope for the printed word. Every single boat had at least one nose buried in a book.
Cows know they don’t like narrowboats but sheep don’t get them at all, and you can’t run over a duck.