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Canal Boating Holidays

April 26, 2011
Baddiley no. 1 lock, Cheshire

Image via Wikipedia

My wife and I recently spent a week on a Canal Barge, booked through UKBoatHire.com. Its not the sort of holiday we’d have normally considered, but our daughter has had a fascination with boats for a long time (don’t all kids?) and has pestered us to go on one so we decided to give it a go.

I am very glad we did.

When we first considered booking I suggested asking my brother and his girlfriend along too to make it four adults on the boat to the one child. The logic being it would make life easier for us. This turned out to be another wise decision.

The Route

We decided to choose a route that had as few locks as possible and specifically, no long staircase locks. Locks can be hard work and a staircase lock can be immensely hard work and if there are many boats about it can be a very lengthy period of time passing through them.

With that in mind we chose the Whitchurch to Chester and back route along the Llangollen and Shropshire Union canals.

The Boat

We booked a long boat with 3 berths, to save us having to reconfigure the cabin area foe a bed each evening and back again in the morning. This meant that we ended up with a 68ft barge, pretty much the longest you get. In hindsight we could have booked a shorter boat and saved ourselves a bit of money but I think we made the right decision at the time. The longer boat gives an extra toilet as well as the bed area.

The longer boat is also heavier so everything takes its time. Its slower than the short boats; not just in speed but also in acceleration, braking and response to steering inputs.

The locks

Locks are not especially difficult to get through, they just require a bit of muscle to turn the slats to fill or empty a lock and to open or close the lock gates.

This is where four adults came in very handy, especially when there is a young girl helping out who also needs to be watched as falling into a lock would be dangerous enough for an adult, never mind a child.

Fours adults meant two could work on the locks while one drove the barge and the fourth could float and do whatever else was required. As boating novices, this is why I am glad we didn’t try a week long holiday with just the three of us. Now that we’re a bit more experienced and know more about what to expect, we may well try a long weekend break on our own.

The Llangollen locks are single locks, which are easy to operate but only let one boat through at a time (unless you get two short boats). Passing is not possible on narrow locks so patience is required when there is a boat already in a lock, especially on staircase locks.

The Shropshire Union locks are double width, which means larger and heavier doors and the boat moves about in the lock, more so when filling. The advantage of double width locks comes at the staircase as it allows boats to pass mid lock. We had a very amusing adventure when we met a barge full of lads coming the other way at a short 2-lock staircase. They entered the top lock and we entered the bottom and held the door open for a 3rd barge to join us in the bottom lock. The poor lads didn’t seem to have a clue on how this was going to work.

I think it all became clear when the levels matched and the 3rd barge moved to join them in their lock, then our barge was moved over to allow them to come into our lock before I eventually drove forward to join barge three again and the doors were closed. It was all very simple but the lads seems too perplexed to work it out and let the other two barges sort it all out. I hope they managed okay for the rest of their trip.

The Canals

Both canals are pretty and worth travelling on. The Llangollen is narrower than the Shropshire Union along the route we did, which means a little more care is needed, especially when passing oncoming boats.

The biggest disappointment was the middle and far side ofChester. The canal there is mucky and had lots of rubbish floating about in it. Not a pleasant sight at all and we were glad to be back out in the countryside again seeing nature and sights we normally would not see.

Wildlife

Our green and pleasant land doesn’t have a lot of wildlife to boast about but we did get to see a fair selection of birds and butterflies. Best bird sightings were several falcons and kestrels and apparently some buzzards too. One evening, wandering on a golf course we’d moored next to, we spotted a bat flittering about and then it went for a large insect right above our heads. I was very please to witness the sight.

Land based animals basically consisted of sheep, cattle, the odd rabbit, a couple of hares, regular squirrels (all grey, no reds) and what I think were Shetland Rams eating leaves off low branches by getting up on their hind legs.

Other Canal Users

Several people did warn us that there are some barge owners who take a dim and arrogant view towards those who hire and not to be too shocked when we meet them. We didn’t as it happens, and all users we talked and chatted with were polite and helpful and willing to offer hints and share experiences.

The latter end of the week got very busy, due to the long bank holiday weekend, and that meant much more traffic on the water. This in turns meant longer waits at locks and more regular passing manoeuvres. It wasn’t a big pain, but the increase was very noticeable and we would not have wanted to have the whole week that busy.

Suggestions for Novices

If you are pondering on doing a canal barge holiday, I say just go for it. It was an immensely enjoyable week and the manual effort only aids the relaxing. There can’t be any better way of enjoying the English countryside drifting past you.

Communication fore and aft on the long barge we had was problematic. You can’t shout as the engine noise makes hearing the person up front difficult. Plus there are times when the person on the barge wants to communicate with those on land when at locks, which can be harder still. We saw people using cheap two way radios and in hindsight they would have been a reasonable investment as there were several moments when it would have been extremely useful to have that better communication ability.

Summary

In case its not clear by now, canal barges are a fantastic form of holiday in theUK. They are also very popular and prices reflect that popularity. There are cheaper ways to enjoy a family holiday but there is no guarantee they are as unique or relaxing.

We’ll definitely be doing another one at some point, we’re not sure when or where yet, but it will happen.

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