Canal Boating Vacations in England: A Unique Family Holiday
When our family travels in a foreign country, rather than just hitting all the tourist spots, I like to vacation how the locals do. So when I was researching our trip to England this summer, I was so excited to discover narrowboating, a uniquely English way that families holiday, as they say in the UK. We spent five days narrow boating in Oxfordshire and it was one of the highlights of our trip.
A national canal network was developed in England during the Industrial Revolution to facilitate moving goods on barges, pulled by horses along the adjacent towpath. The canals are narrow and spotted with manually operated wooden locks and lift bridges, some as narrow as 7 ft wide. Today the canals have been revitalized for recreational use and narrow boats retrofitted as houseboats allow floating vacations.
I loved that our narrowboat vacation was both active and relaxing. Learning about and operating the locks was interesting and educational, as well as physically engaging; living on the houseboat was really fun and cozy.; the countryside was beautiful and pubs, towns and cities could be visited along the way. But what I loved the most was that we saw England in a completely different way than we could have traveling as typical tourists. It was almost as though we saw it from the inside-out rather than as outsiders.
The canals are social places and meeting locals was made easier by being automatically included in the club of narrowboaters. Boaters are thrown together when they hit locks at the same time and cooperating to work the locks and chatting for a few minutes is a fun way to get to know people from the area.
There are many ways to experience narrowboating. You can rent a narrowboat for a day in many towns, even London, go for a weekend, a week or even longer. The system of canals is so extensive that many families we met go narrowboating annually without having to repeat the same trip twice. While you can easily just enjoy being on the water and living on the boat, you can also plan a trip around destinations off the canals.
The journey is the reward when it comes to narrowboating. It's not an efficient means of transportation at all. The speed limit on the canals is 4mph and you have to go slower than that often. As novice narrowboaters, we spent four days on our boat and traveled the equivalent of a 30 minute train ride in that time.
We were provided a boat from Oxfordshire Narrowboats, which rents canal boats from multiple locations close to London. Not knowing what to expect, I was pleasantly surprised that the boat seemed almost brand new. Also, as a first-time narrow boater it's fairly intimidating to take over a 67' long barge, so I was grateful that their training was thorough, comprehensive and lasted about 45 minutes, including traveling with us to the first lock.
Narrow boats come in various sizes, ours was 67' long and could sleep up to 8. It had a full kitchen, two bathrooms, and even a TV. The beds were comfortable and I was pleasantly surprised that the boat seemed almost new. Getting to Oxfordshire Narrowboats is easy by car or train and they have a store where you can stock up on food for your trip with most of the basics, including fresh baked bread. Make sure to buy a canal guide to plan any interesting stops and know where pubs and shops are along your route.
Check out this video tour of our narrowboat to learn more about narrowboating. I apologize in advance for my mispronunciation of Oxfordshire, old habits die hard.