In the current situation international holidays are far and few between. While some lucky travellers have been able to touchdown on foreign soil, some are sticking with good old staycations. Now, although city breaks, spa retreats and camping are memorable and often relaxing trips, sometimes they can become the definition of ‘same old, same old’. And, let’s be honest, at the moment we all need something a little more exciting in our lives.
So, if you’re looking for a staycation with a difference, then we’ve got the perfect solution…
Last weekend we were lucky enough to take part in the ultimate narrowboat staycation with ABC Boat Hire. We spent three days and two nights driving a canal boat up and the down the Grand Union Canal in Northampton, drifting past the beautiful British countryside, meeting the local wildlife and, of course, stopping off at every possible British pub along the way.
Now, when we first told people we were going to be living on the narrowboat for three days we heard a lot of ‘…but do you have any idea how to drive a narrowboat?’. The truth, no, no we had no idea how to drive a narrowboat. However, ABC Boat Hire taught us everything we needed to know before setting off and, if we’re honest, it’s more a ‘learn on the job’ skill. Plus, it was an incredible experience learning something new, even though there were some bumps – literally – along the way.
Early Saturday morning we picked up our narrowboat, called American Thrush, from Gayton Marina in Northampton where ABC Boat Hire moors some of its boats. Here we met Les who briefed us on everything we needed to know about the canal boat, from how to start it, how to drive it and how to park it, as well as all the safety measures and most importantly how not to sink it in the locks.
We had a tour of the narrowboat, which was fully equipped with everything we needed for the three days, including two double beds, two bathrooms with toilets, showers and sinks, a kitchen with a fridge, microwave, stove and oven, and finally a seating area with a table and sofa.
The handover lasted around an hour and a half, finishing off with a practice drive before Les jumped off and left the boat in our somewhat capable hands. From there on out we were allowed to drive the boat up and down any canals we wanted, park up anywhere we wanted – as long as it wasn’t private moorings – and pretty much explore to our hearts content.
The boat truly does give you the freedom to go wherever you want to go. However, one catch is that the boat only goes four miles per hour, so you do need to be slightly realistic with your goals.
Before heading off Les also leant us a copy of the Canal Companion, a book filled with maps which tells you how long a journey will take and what boating facilities are on the way. As we only had three days on the narrowboat we were more interested in the local pubs than where we could refill the water or even laundry services. However, as many people holiday on these boats for a week or more, the guide has key information.
From Gayton Marina we headed down to Bugbrooke for the evening. The journey took around two hours and luckily the waterways were wide canals with little traffic coming in the other direction. This meant we had plenty of time to practice. The key thing we needed to concentrate on were the bridges, making sure we lined up the boat in the right position before reaching the bridge. One thing we quickly learnt was that the boat takes about 20-seconds to react when you want to turn, so always plan your moves well in advance.
In Bugbrooke Les recommended a pub called The Wharf, therefore we decided to stop off here for an early dinner. Even better that The Wharf has a bank to moor right outside, meaning it was less than a minutes walk from the boat to the front door. Oh, and that we could then moor the boat there for the night so we could roll ourselves back to the boat after dinner.
Stopping off at The Wharf was were is came to our first little hiccup, we could not for the life of us remember how to turn the boat off. We’d pushed the stop button and taken out the key, yet the engine was still running. Given that we were newbies we grabbed the on-board manual but still nothing seemed to work. Luckily for us ABC Boat Hire have someone on hand in the office to answer stupid questions, as well as engineers on site to talk through procedures. So, after a quick phone call we’d managed to turn off the boat and were ready for dinner.
At The Wharf we shared the baked camembert to start, followed by delicious fish and chips with tartare sauce. Of course, we finished with a dreamy stick toffee pudding topped with a caramelised banana. During dinner we also managed to tuck away a few glasses of wine, but as mentioned, we didn’t have far to go.
After dinner we headed back to the boat to continue the evening. We set ourselves up cosily in the seating area, cracked open another bottle of wine and relaxed playing Monopoly Deal – well however relaxing a game of Monopoly with the family can be. We have to say sitting on a narrowboat in the British countryside with red wine and boardgames is the perfect autumn evening with the family.
The next morning we were up bright and early, excited for our full day on the boat. We started the engine, showered and made our bacon and egg sandwiches before heading off on our adventure. Luckily for us the skies were clear and the sun was shining. However, unlucky for us there had been an accident at the locks we were planning on visiting that day which meant they were out of action. Due to this we were a little bit restricted with where we could go, but we still made the most of the boat.
We spent the morning driving down to Weedon Bec, on this journey there were a few tights corners and small bridges, which put our new boating skills to the test. While there were a few bumps along the way, we think we actually did a pretty good job of keeping the boat in line. Plus, when not driving, it is an absolute dream to sit on the back of the boat and watch the world go by.
However, before we reached Weedon Bec we faced our biggest challenge of all when driving the narrowboat – turning it around. As you can imagine the canals in England go up and down with small bends and bridges. The canals do not go around in a circle, therefore if you need to go back the other way you need to turn the boat around, something which isn’t easy in a 66ft, two-tonne canal boat.
Along the way the canals have turning points especially for this reason. Max. 70ft narrowboats can turn here so as you can imagine it was tight. Yet, after a full family effort, two people at the front and two people at the back we managed to turn it around.
By now we were craving another pub lunch, so we moored the boat and went in search of some food and, well we’d like to say to wine but it is never good to drink and drive – especially a narrowboat. We ended up at The Crossroads pub, eating classically British and delicious pie and mash. A great lunch to warm us up for our afternoon on the boat.
Having previously turned the boat around we started our journey back towards Bugbrooke for the evening, another pub dinner at The Wharf – other pubs are available – and another round of Monopoly Deal.
On our last morning it was time to drive the boat back to Gayton Marina to return the boat. Luckily again, the skies were bright and the canals were clear, meaning would could put our new boating skills into action. The wind was also in our favour pushing the boat swiftly down the canals back towards ABC Boat Hire.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Do you actually drive the boat or does someone drive it for you?
No one from ABC Boat Hire comes with you as you drive the boat yourself. You have driving lessons and a boat handover before you set off. You also do not need someone to drive the boat for you as it is super fun and pretty easy to pick up.
Do you need any experience to hire the boat?
Not at all. We had no prior experience before hiring the boat, we hadn’t even stepped foot on a narrowboat before. Plus, you do have driving lessons and a boat handover beforehand.
Was it hard to drive the boat?
Driving the boat is definitely a new skill to learn, yet it is easy to pick up once you get your head around the rules. When turning the boat you have to steer it in the opposite direction, and when you’re crossing another boat you need to pass on the righthand side of the canal.
Did you find it scary? What was it like at night?
Driving the boat wasn’t scary at all. At first you’re obviously slightly unsure of what you’re doing, but you quickly pick up how to drive the boat with confidence. Plus, the boat is super cosy at night. No one walks down the canals in the evenings and the boats have curtains so you can shut yourself away from the world.
Could you go/ jump off/ sleep wherever you want?
ABC Boat Hire do recommend routes based on the duration of your trip, where you want to go and what you want to see and do. However, it is only guidance. You can drive the boat wherever you want to go. Plus, you can moor the boat anywhere that isn’t private moorings. Or like in our case, you can moor outside pubs or restaurants as long as you’re dining there.
Did it get really cold inside the boat at night?
It did get a little chilly in the evenings but only as we decided to turn the heating off over night. The boat keeps the heat in well, therefore we didn’t want to overheat while sleeping. However, if you wanted to keep the heating on then that is possible.
Would you go on a narrowboat staycation again?
Yes! We would love to go on another narrowboat staycation to explore another part of the UK. We have already spoken to ABC Boat Hire about another trip, potentially in the spring. We would also 100% recommend a narrowboat staycation to anyone looking for something different.