FLOATING along England’s waterways in a colourful narrowboat named something like Dame Mousey of Middleswick might sound impossibly twee but it’s truly one of the most relaxing holidays around. And with overseas trips still a mess of red tape and traffic lights, a classic British boating holiday could be the ideal socially distanced getaway this summer.
The thing with barge holidays is that the fun is in the journey, not the destination — well, unless you count the many fabulous pubs you’ll encounter along the way. Life has no choice but to slow down when you have a top speed of four miles an hour.
I’ve always had a fancy for canal life. It no doubt stems from growing up watching The Wind In The Willows, Rosie & Jim (the Brummie rag dolls who lived on a canal boat) and The River, a short-lived sitcom starring David Essex as a roguish lock-keeper with a perm and a spotty neckerchief.
In fact, one of my first holidays sans famille was a post-A-level boating trip through Norfolk with a bunch of friends, aka Five Get Hammered On The Broads. Our week-long watery pub crawl was brilliant fun and, bar the time we forgot to tie the boat up one night and it drifted away while we were in the pub, went largely without a hitch.
Britain’s canal network stretches for more than 2,000 miles. One route I’m keen to try is the Kennet & Avon canal through Wiltshire and Somerset. It’s not for the faint-hearted. After picking up a boat in Devizes you have to then navigate Caen Hill, a flight of 29 locks staggered like a staircase, before winding through to Bath and Bristol, where you can moor up in the city centre for a big night out.
For me, the main attraction of a canal boat holiday is bouncing between the waterfront watering holes on a beautiful sunny day. For my husband’s 30th birthday, a group of us got the train from London to Rugby, where we picked up Foxy Lady, our perky green and red narrowboat for the weekend, and basically drank our way along the Oxford Canal.
Each morning, I’d blearily lift the hatch to quacking applause from ducks, then we’d have an al fresco breakfast on deck before meandering through the quiet waterways to the next boozer in time for lunch. Canal life has its own rules. Waving at everyone is compulsory, there’s no speeding — the backwash upsets the water dwellers — and don’t tease the wildlife — it’s hard to outrun an angry swan.
While the men fought over who would steer the boat or work the locks, the girls and I topped up our tans and made sure the coolers on the sundeck were fully stocked with beer and rosé. Narrowboats are not known for their spacious interiors so make sure you crew with people you like. A lot.
Barge holidays have attracted a celebrity following in recent years. Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart spent a week cruising the canals of Llangollen a few years back. Keira Knightley has often been seen pootling along London’s Regent’s Canal on a narrowboat, and there are few corners of the canal network that Prunella Scales and Timothy West have not covered for Channel 4’s Great Canal Journeys series.
In short — and to quote dear Ratty — there’s nothing quite like messing about on boats.
Tips on planning your holiday
■ Don’t be too ambitious with the distance, it’s about the journey not the destination.
■ Collins/Nicholson Waterways Guides are an essential piece of kit. Alongside canals, locks and mooring spots, they more importantly list the pubs along the way. amazon.com
■ For all the tips, tricks and ways to book a UK barge holiday visit canaljunction.com