Britain by Water: Getting the Skinny on Narrowboats

Yahoo! Contributor
Couple relaxing aboard a narrowboat traveling along the Shropshire Union Canal. VisitBritain/ Adrian Houston
Couple relaxing aboard a narrowboat traveling along the Shropshire Union Canal. VisitBritain/ Adrian Houston

Narrowboats — long, skinny barges traditionally used as homes and transportation — have plied Britain's 2,200 miles of navigable waterways for centuries. This summer, visitors can cruise to London's Olympic Park on these charming crafts, skipping the traffic and hitching rides rich in history.

The aquatic taxis aren't the only ones making a splash: Landlubbers can explore canals and rivers in floating restaurants, vacation rentals and even a bookstore, art gallery and puppet theater.

The country dug this network of waterways during the Industrial Revolution to ship coal, goods and construction materials. Engineers built locks, partitioned chambers that could be filled or drained to boost boats up or down slopes. To save shillings, they set the locks' minimum width at 7 feet. Shipwrights responded by building narrowboats, which fit into the locks but could stretch up to 70 feet in length.

Haulers — the Teamsters of their day — took to the inland waterways on these barges, which were initially pulled by horses. Some workers even raised large families in cabins about the size of modern elevators. They brightened their homes with lace, gleaming brass and ornately painted woodwork, adopting roses and castles as common motifs.

Narrowboats travel along one of Britain's many waterways. VisitBritain/ Adrian Houston
Narrowboats travel along one of Britain's many waterways. VisitBritain/ Adrian Houston

Highways ran most commercial narrowboaters out of business half a century ago — but by then, diesel-burning, steel-hulled houseboats and pleasure craft had sailed into the scene. Today rental fleets allow travelers to cast off on DIY canal cruises, a popular option for group holidays. These floating house parties can have a decidedly bohemian flavor with folk music at riverbank bonfires and impromptu picnics in meadows beside crumbling medieval abbeys.

The 4-mph speed limit protects the waterways from erosion and — bonus —makes navigation easy, even for amateurs. Crewmembers get to operate smaller locks and pull down the giant handles of wooden swing bridges. While things can get exciting (tunnels! A boat elevator! A UNESCO World-Heritage aqueduct strengthened with ox-blood in the mortar!), most cruisers tack lazily from one waterside pub to the next.

And that's just as it should be. As the Water Rat in that canal classic "The Wind and the Willows" said, "Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats."

A room with a view

Not ready to plunge into a DIY maiden voyage? The fully skippered Hotel Narrowboat Takara explores Britain's backwaters and hosts guests on 5- to 10-night tours. This year, it adds a route that includes the UK's highest, longest and deepest canal tunnel: the Standedge (pronounced "Stannige") in northern England (July 23—30 and July 31—Aug. 7).

Five stars afloat

In Bath, the restaurant boat John Rennie casts away with 20 to 56 passengers in her oak-paneled dining room. Cruises last 2.5 to 6 hours and can serve anything from cream tea with scones to roast hog and applesauce in a bap (roll).

City buses

London's Water Chariots canal boat service will connect Limehouse Marina, the Olympic Park and the Tottenham Hale Underground stop during the games and for the next 15 years (£45—95).

A whole new chapter

Last year, the Book Barge, a pretty, custom-fitted narrowboat, traveled 1,000 miles through 700 locks to promote indie bookstores. Its owner, Sarah Henshaw, sells volumes but also will trade for necessities ranging from shoes to a meal, moisturizer or a room for the night. Catch up with this literary launch now moored at its usual spot in Barton Marina, Staffordshire (Thursdays—Sundays, 10 a.m.—5 p.m.).

All the world's a stage

The Mikron Theatre Company has been touring Britain's waterways for 40 years, and its roving summer-stock actors bunk in the Narrowboat Tyseley. They have performed in the bow of a docked barge but prefer pubs, festivals, community centers and living rooms. Later this July, they'll be taking curtain calls in Oxfordshire, giving visitors a great chance to interact with canal life beyond the usual sightseeing in London's Camden, Little Venice or the Waterbus in between.

By Amanda Castleman