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Narrowboats in London: A Different Kind of Holiday

By guest writer Sara Rossini

London: Pubs. Locals. Wine. Cards. Sheep?

Most travelers experience London by staying in hostels, fighting the crowds at the Tower of London and drinking outrageously expensive beers – I spent a week outside London living on a narrowboat.

What is a narrowboat, exactly you ask? A modern narrowboat is a narrow (typically 7 feet wide) version of a houseboat made to fit the narrow canals of England and Wales. You can rent a narrowboat, just as you would a houseboat, and personally pilot your way through the many canals in the London area. You can choose to stay closer to the heart of the capital, or you can choose one of the many other distinct starting points in England. Similar to a houseboat, you can moor at one spot for the entire trip, or you can cruise down the English waterways exploring the picturesque countryside and discovering a new location daily. Narrowboat holidays on the canals make for an interesting and unique experience.

England has an extensive canal network, which connects to London’s River Thames providing an easy (although, not obvious) way to spend time soaking up the sights of London while enjoying a unique experience in the peaceful countryside. The most challenging part of each day is picking an activity: from day trips into London Proper, Warwick Castle or perhaps a quiet walk through the canal villages. Depending on the length of trip, travel ambitions, and starting location, the options are limitless of daily activities made available with England’s extensive public transportation.

Personally, my favorite part of each day was the stillness and the quietness of the evenings. My traveling trio would drink a bottle of wine atop our boat, watch the sheep graze and the stars twinkle listening to the music playing from the stereo below. Of course, many late afternoons (turned evenings!) we spent at canalside pubs playing darts with locals and other intrepid travelers. In order to stave off the calories I was consuming from the fabulous homemade gourmet dinners made in our full-functioning tiny kitchen (did I mention that one member of our troupe was an aspiring chef?) I would briskly walk alongside our traveling narrowboat every morning, keeping pace with the four mile an hour boat.

The countryside rises and falls, with peaks and valley, and by nature the canal is flat, so a series of locks are placed as needed to continue through the canal. Maneuvering through the canal locks can be daunting at first, but soon becomes a unique part of the experience. It typically takes anywhere from ten to thirty minutes; however, there could be several boats in a line waiting to go through the lock. Since “impatience” and “hurry” are not part of the vocabulary within the canal culture, the locks are a chance to observe the ambiance, help out another narrowboat (practice makes perfect!) and visit with other friendly boaters.

There are several narrowboat companies which provide these unique experiences. Don’t be intimidated, these companies not only provide linens, a full kitchen and toilet paper, but also can provide recommended routes, along with mooring places, step-by-step instructions on the locks and pub locations!

Our group of three rented a 47-foot narrowboat for seven nights. Typically, the boats sleep anywhere from three to eight adults (with the dining area turning into sleeping quarters) and range anywhere from forty to sixty feet long. Just like hotels, motels and hostels; narrowboats range in various quality from “rustic” to “luxurious” and can be a very economical alternative for large groups, particularly when factoring in savings from home cooking. While most people enjoy a one-week hire, some companies offer mid-week and weekend cruises as well as two-week long rentals. A week-long cruise was perfect in our case, as it gave us time to unwind from our backpacking, city-hopping adventures, while gaining a certain familiarity of our boat.

I could have spent a week in London learning the history of a medieval and modern city. I could have spent less money on a hostel. Instead, I spent a week living on the narrowboat which gave me completely different perspective to life in London as well as learning about the vital industrial canal system.

Where to get more information and book a narrowboat

Napton Narrowboats are available from Napton or Autherley with one-week or two-week rentals. Their fleet sleeps anywhere from two to ten people. (They also have a canal boating company in France).

Kate Boats are available from a mid-week and long weekend to week long rentals. These narrowboats are more luxurious and all boats are equipped with a color television, DVD player and CD player. All narrowboats are named after the owners family members.

About the Author: Sara currently lives Los Angeles, and is trying to balance a travel addiction with puppy responsibilities. She feels that the stories of travel are much more important than the itinerary, and is always looking for a quirky and off-the-beaten path travel experience.