STANDING at the side of a canal lock, waiting for it to fill, I notice the date set into the brickwork: 1915. In the middle of the First World War, while the country was in meltdown, canals were being restored and repaired.
Far from being merely a late-18th-century transport system, made obsolete by the railway almost as soon as it was built, the canal network of Great Britain was a vital part of the communications system right up to the second half of the 20th century.
Used during both wars to move troops and equipment, they were also planned as a line of defence in case of invasion. The vast network of canals linked ports to large cities, passing through towns and villages, open countryside, and densely populated urban areas.
Today, after energetic restoration in the mid-20th century, these waterways, running like arteries through the body of our island, are available for the holidaymaker to explore and enjoy.
TO GO on a narrowboat holiday is like stepping into a different world. For a start, there is the speed of the craft: three miles an hour. This is walking speed, and, as the ecologist and Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham Usher, points out, “the speed of God’s love”. Thus, all the advantages of travelling slowly in the fresh air can be gained without walking.
istock Devizes, on the Kennet & Avon Canal
Then there is the landscape. All that Britain can offer is available to the canal voyager, from inner-city Manchester to the mountains of Brecon, through the rolling hills of the Cotswolds and the industrial urgency of Birmingham.
Even familiar places are seen in a different light: canals were originally used to transport the products of Britain’s new industries to sea ports, so your route through a city will not be the main street but the industrial area — not past smart, expensive municipal buildings but rows of back to backs, built to house factory workers and miners.
A few miles on, however, and you are in open country again, able to watch the waterfowl and wildlife, reflect on the geology of the area, and delight in the sense of being away from it all, which is the most precious gift of time spent on a narrowboat.
CANAL holidays are intergenerational. Older people can sit and enjoy the slowly changing scenery, while younger ones can race along the towpath and get in the way at the locks. Gathering together in the evenings, coping with the challenge of cooking in a very small kitchen, followed by games of cards and squabbling over bedtimes can produce lifelong memories.
They are usually good ones. As with any holiday in the UK, too much rain can test endurance; but sunshine sparkling on water soon erases ill-temper, as drier weather sets everyone free from the confines of the cabin once more.
For hard-pressed men and women who seek time away from the demands of contemporary life, the slow pace and relaxed attitude of canal living is ideal. Added to this is the fact that a phone signal is a rare thing; so contact with the outside world is limited to occasional five-minute bursts as a day’s worth of emails are downloaded at once.
It is the perfect self-contained retreat: the steady unfolding of the passing landscape encourages reflection and prayer, offering space and time in a slowed-down universe.
FOR those of a social disposition, there are plenty of opportunities for new encounters. Every canal has locks to compensate for height differences in the landscape.
istockMoored boats on the Kennet & Avon Canal
Each lock takes 20 minutes to travel through, enabling lockside exchanges with other boaters, walkers, or onlookers which can be fascinating: solo travellers eager for conversation; the woman working the locks with her two-year-old strapped to her back; newly retired couples eager to make the most of their freedom; discussions on various topics such as social justice or the state of religion, some so intense that all sense of time is lost and boats are left stranded at the bottom of the empty lock.
And then there was the man with whom a lighthearted conversation on the challenges of living on his tiny, ancient boat turned into a detailed description of how to have a strip wash at the kitchen sink, standing in a baking tray to catch the drips. . .
Canals can be found all over mainland Britain, and so can narrowboat and cruiser hire companies. Prices seem high, but, once on board, there are no additional costs apart from food, as all the entertainment comes from the canal itself. Midweek and off-season prices are much lower, and last-minute bookings can offer good value. Specially adapted, accessible narrowboats are also available, opening the boating experience to all. Get the biggest boat you can afford; you will appreciate the extra space. Waterways chaplains offer support to those who use and live on the UK waterways and canals.
Five routes to try:
- The Oxford Canal. Enjoy a weekend trip into the Cotswolds, or take a circular tour through Oxford, briefly on to the Thames, then back again. If you are hiring a boat, check with your hirer that a Thames licence is included, or purchase one at the first Thames lock that you reach. canaljunction.com
- Llangollen Canal takes in the extraordinary Pontcysyllte Aqueduct: a terrifyingly high waterway built over the Vale of Llangollen in 1805 by Thomas Telford. canalguide.co.uk
- The Cheshire Ring is a 100-mile circuit which can be accomplished by energetic boaters. It includes the Anderton boat lift, and 92 locks, but requires long days. canalrivertrust.org.uk
- The Birmingham and Worcester Canal has the Tardebigge flight of locks — the longest in Britain — 30 in all. At the top of the flight, a plaque commemorates the foundation of the Inland Waterways Association in 1946 by Rolt and Aickman. canalrivertrust.org.uk
- The Kennet & Avon Canal offers a more relaxed approach, with waterside pubs inviting long, boozy lunches. kennet-avon-canal.co.uk