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  • Writer's pictureTracy Tristram

Narrowboating with kids: family guide to canal boat holidays

With overseas vacays still feeling a bit dubious for the foreseeable thanks to all the passport debaccles, we've been turning our mind to holidays in the sunny UK instead, and to a one kind of UK holiday at that. One such jolly getaway we've had a blast on in the past is a cheeky getaway on the British waterways, so, if you fancy life on a canal boat for a few nights but are hesitant because you have tots in tow, then you need this handy dandy guide to narrowboating with kids...

Spend some time looking into routes

If you're a novice narrowboater, then the chances are you aren't going to want to do 80 million locks in a row on your first afternoon, so choose a route that suits your family and experience level. The Canal & River Trust (which we're proud members of) has some fantastic route suggestions to kickstart your plans, but in a nutshell, we rather like these particular waterways when it comes to family narrowboating fun:

Anderton Marina, Cheshire

Countryside galore, Roman history, Chester Castle and Chester Zoo are all reasons this particular route is fab for fams.

Alvechurch Marina, Birmingham

Explore parts of the River Severn, and stop off at National Sea Life Centre Birmingham, Thinktank Science Museum and Cadbury World if you plump for the waterways starting in Alvechurch.

Gayton Marina, Northampton

Narrowboating with kids
Canal life near Stoke Bruerne. Photography: Tracy Tristram

We made a big vacay splash exploring the canals from Gayton Marina, and Stoke Bruerne is a must-stop-at for the quaintest canal-side village ever. You can also head in the other direction if you have time and meander over to Warwick Castle.

Historic Bath is packed with adventure for families, so Hilperton Marina is the perfect point to set off from for exploring the area. If you have a few extra nights to spare, float on down to Bristol and back too!

Worcester Marina, Worcester

Narrowboating with kids
Map courtesy of Canal and River Trust

Not for the fainthearted, but if you have some strapping teens on board to help then why not go for the ultimate canal boat challenge and try your hand at this route that will see you pass through the longest flight of locks in Britain? We're talking about the Tardebigge Flight: 30 locks in a row that cover an elevation of 220 feet!

Union Wharf, Market Harborough

Take a four night trip and head north towards the Leicester Section of the Grand Union for gorgeous countryside, canal-side pubs, and, when you moor up in Leicester, the National Space Centre.

Linslade Marina, Leighton Buzzard

narrowboating with kids
Sheep for neighbours and an amazing sunset for entertainment. Perfect. Photography: London for Kidz

Our most recent narrowboating with kids cheeky vacay was spent on the Grand Union Canal heading out of Linslade Marina: just over an hour's journey or less from London. We chose to head back up to Stoke Bruerne having adored it so much the first time, but from a different direction this time, and especially loved our totally rural mooring one night where it was just us, the kids, a tow path game of Uno and an amazing sunset.

Work out your logistics

While narrowboating with kids is 100% a fantabulous kinda vacay, those locks can be tricky to navigate unless you have two, preferably three, adults/tweens/teens on board too. You need someone to steer the boat in the lock, and someone to operate the physical lock (there is usually one on each side of the canal so two people to help with that is always preferable). On the flip side, the people on the canal itself are all without exception lovely and helpful, so there will generally be someone around to help if you are a two-man band. Our advice? Get a bigger berth boat and rope in some grandparents/aunts/uncles/extra adults or teens.

Talking of boat size, yes, size matters! The bigger the boat the harder it can be to manoeuvre, so take on a boat you're comfortable captaining. ALL canal boats are the same width, it's just the length that will differ and that will depend on how many people you have on board.

Don't forget your furry friends

Narrowboating with kids
Ahoy there, Captain Luna! Photography: Tracy Tristram

Most boats welcome at least two dogs on board, and the chances are they will love it! With all those tow paths to explore, and the canal-side pubs generally being pet-friendly, Fido will have a pawsome time. Most boats even provide safety jackets for dogs if you're worried about their swimming abilities!

Run through water safety tips before your holiday

If your kids are old enough, then do have a chat with them about water safety before your holiday. There are some fantastic water safety tips for children on the Canal & River Trust website, so take a look before you set sail. Life jackets will be provided for everyone on board too if needed.

Buy a route map

You'll most likely be able to pick up a route map from your marina, and this is an essential purchase in our humble opinion. Not only will it show you where the mooring spaces are at, but it will also show you where the locks are, where the turning circles are, and, most importantly, where the fam-friendly pubs are at.

Put aside time to learn the ropes

When you arrive to pick up the boat you will be expected to watch a safety DVD or two, and to run through all the info you need before you set sail. Whether you're a total novice or a sea-weathered expert, give yourself at least 1-2 hours before boarding for the essential run-throughs. Bring snacks and entertainment for the kids while this is going on!

Narrowboating with kids
Pretty as a picture. Photography: Canal & River Trust

Be mindful of canal etiquette

This will all be part of your onboarding experience, but it's worth noting beforehand a few essentials:

  • Always keep to the right when cruising.

  • When you can't see around a bend, use your horn to warn of your approach.

  • Keep your speed down: 4mph is the recommended limit (around walking pace).

  • Don't get too close to other boats!

Work out where you want to moor up

Going back to that essential route map, work out where you'll likely want to moor up each night so that you're arriving at said spot before it gets dark. Fumbling around in the pitch black trying to tie your boat up is not fun: believe us - we've been there and got the t-shirt. Your boat will have a full mooring kit of hammer and pins, and the boat itself will have a centre rope as well as a back and front rope to secure to the moors with. If your knot tying skills leave a little to be desired, get someone at the marina to show you how to do it before you set sail!

Narrowboating with kids
Happy kids = happy holiday. Photography: Tracy Tristram

Bring ALL of your food

One thing we did find challenging when it came to our first time aboard a narrowboat was not bringing enough supplies. Depending on the route you choose, if you're going quite rural, there is unlikely to be an Aldi to pop into when you run out of your child's favourite kind of chicken nuggets... Bring extra food! And extra shoes! And extra everything. There will be a decent sized fridge and freezer on board to fill with your goodies.

Fill up your water

Good news: the water on board is perfectly safe to drink. BUT, the water tanks only last so long and have to stretch to showers, loo flushing and washing up too. There will be water filling stations marked on your route map, and if you're on the canal for more than a couple of days then the likelihood is you will need to refill. It's an easy job but make sure you do it before you REALLY need to do it. No body wants to run out of water for that all-important morning cuppa.

narrowboating with kids
Don't forget to pack the all-essential Captain's Hat! Photography: London for Kidz

Bring stuff to do!

Our kids (age 9, 13 and 19 the last time we did a narrowboating vacay) absolutely loved the experience, but there were moments that they didn't want to look at anymore fields as we floated on by. Bring board games, nature spotting guides, books, craft supplies and, if your particular waterway allows it, portable fishing rods to keep them busy with. Also put them to work on the locks if they're old enough! They'll love it (even if you will spend every second panicking that they are going to fall in and never be seen again!).

So that's it: you're all set! Time to book a narrowboating holiday with kids right about... now.

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