Of course, history and hotels go hand-in-hand along Britain’s waterways, which have been used for trade and transportation for several centuries. Our first port of call, for example, the Talbot Inn at Eynsham, just outside Oxford, began life as a wharf house in 1376, and a later stop, The King’s Arms, sitting right on the river at Sandford, was converted from a 12th century malt house in the early 1800s. Thus, for as little effort as it takes to moor up your vessel, you can combine an appreciation of British heritage with an appreciation of British brews.
But it’s not just all about the pubs. One of the biggest selling points of travelling the inland waterways is that they offer views of the country that can’t be enjoyed or accessed by road or rail. Flowing through rolling countryside, lush meadowlands and historic villages, you’ll see a side of Britain that you’ll long to see more of. There’s the sense of freedom, the fresh air, the welcome absence of car horns and road rage (unless you flout the rules of the waterways, see Rules and Etiquette, opposite), and probably, above all else, the relaxing pace as you watch the world float by. They don’t say boating is the fastest way to slow down for nothing.
Slow, yes, but uneventful, no. If you’re not seeing and snapping the countless abbeys, manor houses, castles, ruins, bridges and other sights scattered along the waterways, you’re kept entertained by the fine art of keeping a canal boat on course and off the bank (and away from other boats). Negotiating the learning curve of steering around tight bends at an appropriate speed (we racked up two minor collisions and two groundings before mastering it) is also part of the fun.
And it’s a case of all hands on deck whenever you encounter a lock – which, by the way, are much easier to operate than they look. After you’ve conquered your first one, you’ll be manning the gates and paddles like a pro – and you’ll have the stiff muscles and blisters to prove it.
When all is said and done, though, a few aches are a small price to pay for the rewards you get in return. But if you have trouble convincing your crew of that, just remind them that a pub is never too far away.
Rules and etiquette
• Canal boats travel at a walking pace – about 3-4mph ƕ-6km/h) – for safety, courtesy and environmental reasons, so don’t be in a hurry to get anywhere.
• The general rule is to keep to the right (port to port) when passing another boat coming from the opposite direction, and slow right down ƒmph max) as you do, unless it is impossible or unsafe to do so.
• Keep arms and legs within the boat at all times (ie do not dangle them over the edge, or use them to prevent a collision). No one should be standing on the roof or on the edge of the boat when in a lock, and watch out for bridges if you are sitting on the roof.
• Canal boats are not allowed to cruise after dark, so a midsummer holiday will give you more hours of cruising time. Engines and generators must not be run after 8pm or before 8am (British Waterways Byelaws).
• Lastly, don’t forget to wave to other boaters. It’s been a tradition since the days of the working boats to acknowledge fellow waterway users with a wave and smile.