Narrowboats aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. Many people fail to understand the attraction of cruising inland waterways at a snail’s pace in a vessel often no more than 6ft 6in wide. Why, then, is the narrowboat holiday enjoying such popularity? I decided it was time to find out. As four of us boarded the 63ft Guildford Regent on the Wey Navigation in Surrey, two flush loos, two showers and a full-size cooker and fridge put paid to any fears of slumming it.
The beds were blessed with real mattresses, pillows and feather quilts. Our attention soon turned to how we would pilot our floating home, with an hour’s instruction on canal etiquette, safety, basic manoeuvres and how to tackle a lock. Steeringa narrowboat isn’t easy. You can only turn in designated winding holes (wind as in ‘north wind’), which are marked with a maximum boat length.
Trying to turn a 63ft boat in a 62ft winding hole would be singularly unsuccessful. Also, despite excellent renovation programmes on many waterways, slow-flowing water on bends can lead to a build-up of silt, which means shallow water in which it’s all too easy to become grounded.
However, we quickly forgot the pressures of modern life. The 4mph speed limit leaves you no option but to slow down and enjoy the passing countryside. Canals and water meadows provide idyllic views and perfect habitats for flora and fauna, from rare marsh orchids to kingfishers and water voles. Feats of engineering offer impressive man-made sights.
The magnificent Caen Hill flight of 29 successive locks on the Kennet and Avon Canal near Devizes was built in 1810, and will give you a good workout, as it takes almost a day to negotiate the locks. Equally impressive is the Anderton boat lift, a hydraulic lift opened in 1875 to carry narrow boats and barges up the 54ft from the Trent and Mersey Canal to the River Weaver.
The Llangollen Canal is home to the 126ft high and 1,000ft long Pontcysyllte Acqueduct. Built between 1795 and 1805, it has spectacular views over the River Dee, but is definitely not for the faint-hearted. Back on the Wey Navigation, however, there was simply tranquillity and glorious scenery, including a rather incongruous herd of Highland cattle. Fellow boaters and dog walkers on towpaths chatted to us like old acquaintances. Lads, weekenders and family groups happily glided along side by side.
The narrowboat holiday is definitely in the ascendant. There are even companies who will collect you from the nearest railway station and organise groceries to be delivered to your boat for your arrival. You can hire boats with four-poster beds, wood-burning stoves and spa baths. A good tip is to get two more berths than you need as you will appreciate the extra space, and go for the highest loo-to-passenger ratio you can find. With prices for a short break starting at less than £400, now could be the time to think twice before jetting off to the latest Eastern European City of Undiscovered
Luxury narrow boats The Moonraker Narrowboat Company, Bath; Kennet and Avon Canal. Three widebeam boats (10ft 6in wide) with wood-burning
stoves, double beds and Jacuzzis. Short breaks from £800 (07973 876891; www.moonboats.co.uk)
Alvechurch Boats, Hilperton; Kennet & Avon Canal. Widebeam Wessex – Pellinore has en-suite shower rooms, four-poster beds, and two bedrooms.
From £484 for one week (0845 126 4098; www.alvechurch.com) Maestermyn and Welsh Lady Cruisers, Shropshire; Llangollen Canal. Chosen by
Calista Flockhart and Harrison Ford. The 48ft two-berth Romantic Princess and Romantic Lady have whirlpool baths with chromotherapy lighting. From £596 for one week (01691 662424; www.maestermyn.co.uk)
Close to London by rail Reading Marine, Padworth, Berkshire; Kennet & Avon Canal. Paddington to Aldermaston 56 mins. Two to 12 berths. Short
breaks from £401 (0118 971 3666; www.readingmarine.co.uk)
Farncombe Boat House, Godalming, Surrey; Wey Navigation. Waterloo to Farncombe 45 mins by rail. Two to eight berths. Short breaks from £475
(01483 421306; www.farncombeboats.co.uk)
Galleon Marine, Odiham, Hampshire; Basingstoke Canal. Waterloo to Hook about 55 mins. Two to eight berths. Short breaks from £390 (01256