Canal boating has existed in one form or another for around 300 years in the UK. Whilst the canal used to be dominated by company boaters transporting goods, now the canals are filled with those who seek a slower pace of life. Just because it’s slower life doesn’t mean it isn’t as full.
First some terminology – there isn’t much but some you’ll need so you know the differences between your canals and your rivers. A mooring is where you would park a boat to camp the night, a few days or live. A lock is how you go up and down hills in the boat; think about them like you would a lift. Locks can come in flights when you are going up or down bigger hills. These are locks which are all grouped together and the longest in England is the Tardybigge flight with 30 locks.
A Pub Lunch or Foraged Goods
Food on the canal can come in many forms, with towpaths filled to the brim with pubs often called some variation of ‘The Navigation’ or ‘Kings Arms’, offering a classic pub lunch or tea overlooking the water ways. Many of these pubs will have moorings where boaters can stay whilst they patron the pub. My favourite canal pub can be found just outside of Solihull. The Fleur De Lys offers a great chip butty and a beautiful Canalside garden.
Time on the canal is not measured in hours or minutes but in cups of tea and biscuits
Canal boats also come with kitchens and whilst these might not be as big as your kitchens at home, you can still make all the meals you usually would. However, it isn’t plain sailing – there are a few important things to consider. The water you use has to be refilled at waterpoints along the canal and the ovens on boats don’t always get as hot so it takes a little longer to cook. However, you can still make great one pot meals and enjoy all the food you would at home.
My favourite culinary experience along the canal is foraging, with thick hedge rows supplying berries and fruit trees often being plentiful along the way. Blackberries are the most notable with brambles putting out hundreds of berries ready to be picked and turned into jam, crumble or a cobbler.
Time on the canal is not measured in hours or minutes but in cups of tea and biscuits, with a simple stove top kettle supplying all the warm beverages you will need to get through those lock flights. Crews will often consist of a helmsman, two lock operators and then a tea maker to keep everyone else provided for – roles of which vary depending on the size of the crew.
The canals in England and Wales are a vast network that reaches as far south as Bristol and London, and as north as Lancaster, tracking Britain’s old trade and industrial towns as they go. Whilst big cities are numerous along the canal, with Birmingham being famous for having ‘more canals than Venice’, it is often the smaller towns and villages the canals pass through that show its true beauty.
My favourite canal side town has to be Llangollen in Wales, which gives its name to the Llangollen canal, the only canal with a current. The canal tracks through the Northern Welsh hills, with the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct reaching across the vale of Llangollen; it is a true masterpiece of architecture. It’s sheer drop on one side is a true test of one’s bravery.
The final destination of Llangollen offers everything you would want in a picturesque Welsh town, with pubs and cafes to visit and shops selling fresh Welsh cakes. The Horseshoe Falls, only a short walk from the town, offers you a place to have a swim. This man-made weir acts as the source of the canal and was built by Thomas Telford, the namesake of the city of Telford.
This is of course not the only destination, with Stratford Upon Avon offering the chance to campout by the Theatre or London where you can see the sights of the capital like you’ve never seen them before. Journeys might take a few days or weeks longer than normal, with a 6mph speed limit but it is an experience like no other as you see the true length and breadth of the country.
A Boat’s Stylings
Where there isn’t exactly a look book for how to dress on the canal there is still a style. In the past boats had names like number plates today and the company operating them written on the side. This writing had to be seen from a distance so primary colours that stood out were used, and a shadow of another colour was used to enhance this effect.
Women of the canal took up crocheting
As time went on boaters added paintings of flowers or landmarks to help find their boats, eventually creating their own artistic movement, which varied as you move along the water ways. You can still see many boats and accessories such as jugs or punting sticks painted in this style today.
As canals were overtaken by trains and other faster forms of transport, boaters moved their families onto the boats to save money. To help make ends meet the women of the canal took up crocheting, creating everything from aprons and underwear to curtains and doilies. Many boats still use crochet style curtains and tablecloths, in keeping with this tradition.
There is a lot of science to canals, from using sacrificial anodes to protect the side of the boat from corrosion, to blacking to stop rusting on the side of the boat. However, it is the lock that often attracts the most interest. As you struggle to lift a stiff lock paddle you may encounter onlookers watching you.
So, here’s a quick explanation. To open a lock gate the water must be level. These gates are heavy, often a ton or more so use a lever (which helps you exert more force) to lighten the load. To fill the lock, you must open the paddle to release the water into the lower water level of the lock. When the water is level, the water will no longer flow. You can think of it like osmosis – once the concentration on both sides is equal, there will be no more flow as it’s in equilibrium.
All the paddles and gates at the top must be shut before opening the bottom paddles or you risk draining the whole pound, the gap between two locks. This was a very quick explainer and there are much better videos and explanations online but often the only real way of understanding a lock is trying it yourself.
Overall, the boating lifestyle is a truly relaxing one, as one saying goes: ‘there’s no point in trying to get anywhere quickly on the canals.’ It offers you new holiday opportunities or even an opportunity to gain a new control over your life. Boats, unlike houses, can be taken with you as you move from city to city and give you ownership of a space many in our generation can only long for.
Feature image courtesy of Alice Nott. No changes were made to this image.
In-article image courtesy of Alice Nott. No changes were made to this image.
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