FX Excursions

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Multigen Canal Boating in England

by Barbara Rogers

May 26, 2022

© Aagje De Jong | Dreamstime.com


What can three generations of a family expect when they rent a houseboat 72 feet long and 7 feet wide for a week of family travel exploring the British canals? They are sure to have a lot of fun, enjoy new experiences and create a family vacation they will talk about for years.


Traveling at a maximum of 4 mph leaves plenty of time for the more energetic generations to hop off the boat and bicycle along the tow path. You can even rent bicycles to stow on the boat’s flat roof. The ones biking can wait at the next lock to help work the gates, an activity that can involve everyone, but can also be managed by two.


The locks allow the canals to traverse the uneven landscape, lifting and lowering boats as water pours through the gates. These are operated by hand, using lock keys — large handles that attach to the gears and are cranked to open and close. Kids love working them, and there are jobs for everyone, especially if the route includes a “staircase” of locks — a series that climb some of the steeper hills.


When hills are too high, the canal goes through a tunnel, sometimes so long you can’t see light at the other end. The spooky dark tunnels will be the kids’ favorite part.


Not every family member may want to hop on and off the boat at every lock as the kids do. They can sit on one of the decks and enjoy the show; the beauty of a canal boat trip is everyone can be as active or inactive as they like.


Some canals cross over rivers on aqueducts — bridges with the canal running across the top — and some canals are short. The astonishing Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, Europe’s longest canal at 1,007 feet, carries the Llangollen Canal in an iron trough 126 feet above the Dee Valley.


There are plenty of other diversions. After a day on the water, most families stop at one of the canal-side pubs. These casual eating places are popular with locals, who enjoy meeting canal boaters. Kids are also welcome, and often gravitate to the outdoor tables to meet other kids.


When canals pass through towns, there is always a landing area to tie up to explore on foot and replenish groceries. Most people plan to eat breakfast and lunch onboard as they travel, or tied up in a lock basin. Most boat rental operators offer to stock the boat’s kitchen with your choice of groceries.


Along with the efficient galley kitchen, (we even baked pies with the blackberries we picked along the canal banks) narrowboats normally have one or two “cabins” with double beds, as well as several bunks; various sized boats can accommodate as many as 12 passengers.


The first decision before reserving a boat is to choose a canal. Some require an out-and-back trip to get the boat back to its base, but several canals intersect to form loop itineraries, called rings, you can complete in a week.



The Four Counties Ring is a popular circular route along the Staffordshire and Worcestershire and Shropshire Union canals, featuring one staircase of 31 locks and the long Harecastle Tunnel on the Trent & Mersey Canal. The family-run Chas Hardern Boats offer a choice of well-equipped boats for this route, and Crest Narrowboats is a good choice for the Llangollen Canal.



Canal Junction is a good source of information, with descriptions of popular routes and loops, maps and boat hire contacts in various regions of England.


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