A Family Adventure on England’s Canals

A narrowboat trip through England’s canals is a good way for families to avoid the daily hassles of travel, and take part in an English way of life even many Brits don’t know. It’s like being a turtle: You carry your home with you, sleeping in a new town each night without having to pack and carry luggage every morning.

Traveling by narrowboat has something else in common with the turtle: You go only 4 mph. That’s just the right speed for enjoying the countryside you pass, and it means kids can run (or bike) alongside and race the boat to the locks. They can open and close the locks to prepare them as you approach, so they will be a real part of the trip.

Holiday barge crossing the Pontcysylite Aqueduct on the Llangollen Canal, Wales

© Stillman Rogers

Since England is far from flat, canals must move up and down with the terrain, ride over it entirely on an aqueduct or burrow through it in a tunnel. Locks, which sometimes come in groups called “staircases,” and long spooky tunnels are part of the experience. Aqueducts are rarer, but it’s certainly a thrilling experience to float in a boat high in the air above a valley.

Don’t worry about a long learning curve to pilot the boat. As they told us when we set out, if you have a driver’s license you’re over-qualified. The people at Black Prince who provide the boat will take you on a short practice run and show you everything you’ll need to know. You can even order your groceries ahead and find them all stowed in the compact little galley when you arrive.

Handling locks is quite easy, and kids will be fascinated with how they work. Each lock is just barely bigger than your boat, with about 6 inches of clearance on each side. Entering from the uphill side, you must enter it full of water and close the gates behind you. Then the “ground crew” runs to the other end and opens the paddles, allowing the water to run out, and the boat to drop. When the water is level with the lower canal, open the gates and sail out. Going up in a lock, you do just the opposite, entering it empty, closing the gates, opening the upstream paddles and letting it fill.

Of course, all this takes one person at the tiller, and at least one to tie the boat, work the gates and in a series of locks to prepare the next one. Even fairly young children can master most of these tasks (although an adult needs to mind the tiller).

While we suggest having enough food on board to make dinner if you want to moor in a quiet rural stretch, one of the joys of canal travel is joining into the local life. Nowhere is this more possible (almost inescapable) than at a pub, particularly on a canal. People there will immediately recognize your strange accent and be curious about you, so expect to engage in some interesting conversations. The children will be welcome, and you’ll find other families eating at canal-side pubs.

Great Britain, England, Canal boats on the Stourport Loop canal boat route at locks,Great Britain, England, Canal boats on the Stourport Loop canal boat route at locks,

© Stillman Rogers

Kids will find plenty to keep them busy, especially if you rent bikes (Black Prince can provide these) so they can race the boat along the tow-path. Just riding on a boat is fun, and they will meet other kids at the pubs and on other boats. No kid can resist making loud spooky noises in the tunnels and listening to the echoes. Even preparing lunches in the tiny galley is fun, and they’ll love the bunk beds built into the sides of the boat.

All along the way there will be places to visit and you can tie the boat almost anywhere (you’ll be provided with mooring pins, but there’s often a ring handy). Little rural museums, bits of Roman road, manor houses, windmills, pottery factories, picturesque little villages, cathedrals and important historic landmarks dot the canal sides or are reached by short paths. Each route has a booklet that details these, so you can find them easily.

Tips to families:

  • Pack light, since dress at local pubs is informal and you can do laundry on the boat.
  • Bring an extra pair of shoes in case someone misses their footing hoping on and off the boat.
  • Plan time for plenty of stops.
  • Rent bicycles (available at the boat yard) so you can visit nearby villages and towns.
  • Save time by letting the boatyard provision the galley.
  • Reserve boats early to be sure to get the size you want.
  • Black Prince is one of the largest narrowboat companies, with nine different bases.