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British Coastal, Canal, and River Cruises

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Canal Voyagers narrowboats

ABOVE: The hotel narrowboats Snipe and Taurus enter a lock in tandem. INSET: Snipe and Taurus are moored side by side in a 14-foot lock chamber.

Narrowboat cruises

Narrowboats in lockNarrowboats are just what their name implies: They're boats that were designed to fit locks of seven feet in width (though some formerly narrow locks have been widened to 14 feet, making it possible for two boats to fit into the locks side by side). For a detailed description with a cutaway boat diagram, see the narrowboats page at Drifters.co.uk.

During the years after the Industrial Revolution, narrowboats carried cargo through the inland waterways of Britain, but nowadays they're used as hotel boats (which often cruise in pairs, like the narrowboats shown above) or as self-skippered rental and private vessels. Some narrowboats are restored cargo boats, while others are new boats that echo the dimensions, profile, and livery of their 19th Century predecessors.

Cruise itineraries vary from boat to boat and even from week to week, since Britain has some 2,000 miles of restored canals that are ready to be explored by narrowboat captains and their guests.

Most hotel narrowboats are run by owner-operators--often married couples, who run their boats as waterborne B&Bs. For example, the narrowboat pair Snipe and Taurus, shown above, are skippered by Neil and Corinne Thomsett, whose mom-and-pop cruise line--Canal Voyagers--offers four- to seven-night itineraries from April to October. Fares include full board and VAT, and accommodations range from single cabins to twins and doubles with ensuite facilities.

Another pair of narrowboats, David Owen's Duke & Duchess, offer 5- and 7-night cruises in England and Wales from spring into the fall. Mr. Owen's Web site, Hotelboat-holidays.co.uk, has a page titled "Our Canal Heritage" that describes the history of Britain's canal network.

The Rev. Martin Reed launched Reed Boats in 2004 after 25 years as a country rector (and more than 30 years after skippering a 70-foot narrowboat as a youth group's curate-turned-captain). His paired boats, Oak and Ash, are especially suited to individual travelers, since half a dozen of the eight berths are in single cabins.

Finally, Takara is a solo narrowboat with just three cabins (all offering ensuite facilities), which makes it a good choice if you'd like to book a private cruise for your immediate family or a small group of friends.

For more narrowboat cruise possibilities, see the listings at Hotelboating.co.uk, which is a directory of owner-operated hotel boats (mostly narrowboats, but with a handful of wide-beam vessels).

Tips:

  • Most narrowboats are available for private charters, which can be appealing for small groups of friends or well-heeled families. If you're interested in a charter, it's best to inquire a year or more in advance.

  • To get an idea of what life on Britain's canals was like in the waning years of narrowboat commerce, read Thursday's Child by the late English children's book author Noel Streatfeild, which was first published in 1970 and is still available as a Collins paperback.

Next page: Barge cruises



Photos copyright © Neil Thomsett.

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