Where can you go on a canal boat?

So you’ve bought your boat, insured it and now intend to set off into the distant unknown at 3 mph; but where exactly will and can you go?

Assuming you’ve bought a conventional steel canal boat then your destinations are overall limited by the practicalities of that type of boat, namely canals, rivers and – if you’re very brave and the conditions are right – some very occasional tidal waters. Canal boats just aren’t designed to go out to sea[1].

River cruisers or larger steel craft such as Dutch barges may have a type rating for inshore coastal waters or even further afield so check your boat’s spec to see what its limits are. With something like that, you’re quite likely to also come up against limits of how far inland you can come due to width, depth and height so it’s best to know those too.

Regardless of boat, there are about 2,000 miles or so of canal and river in England and Wales that are managed by the Canal & River Trust – click here for their map. But there are also rivers and waterways managed by other authorities which have their own licensing requirements.

These include the Environment Agency which looks after the Thames, much of the Anglian waterways (eg the Nene, and the Great Ouse in Bedfordshire), and the Medway in Kent. The Avon Navigation Trust maintains the Warwickshire Avon. And there are authorities such as the Cam Conservators who manage the River Cam through Cambridge; the Broads Authority who look after the Norfolk Broads; and Peel Ports who own and run the Bridgewater Canal and the Manchester Ship Canal (and they run them with an iron rod – take heed!)

Very occasionally a ‘new’ (restored) section of canal comes into use and there are certainly plenty undergoing restoration across the country which will eventually be added to the network. Generally speaking, these will come under the CRT’s auspices over time.

You must have a licence from the appropriate authority in order to use your boat on the water and this includes small unpowered craft like kayaks and canoes.

The CRT and EA jointly offer a “Gold licence’ which covers both of their regions though if you’ve no intention of going onto EA waters then the standard CRT licence is cheaper.

For route planning there are two main options in the forms of published guidebooks by Nicholson’s and Pearson’s. Each publisher has a series of canal and river guides, each guide covering a section of the waterways (so you need to compile a small library of them for the entire country – for example, there are 7 Nicholson’s guides). The guides not only show the path of the canals and rivers but also mark useful information such as water and sanitation points, wharves, marinas, pubs, places of interest and so on. Whether you prefer Nicholson’s or Pearson’s is purely a matter of personal taste, they largely contain the same information overall.

The monthly canal magazines, “Canal Boat” and “Waterways World” often publish detailed route guides to specific canals, as does the “Towpath Talk” newspaper.

Online there is an excellent route planning website at canalplan.org.uk which will give incredibly detailed instructions for how to get from A to B, including times, distances, places to stop, points of interest and so on, though it can be incredibly finickity about you typing in the precise name of your start and end points.

There are also apps for phone and tablet if you prefer to navigate with an electronic device (I always preferred an old-fashioned book myself)

One other point the guides will mention are any restrictions such as length or width of locks on the route; height restrictions (many canals have low bridges and some have swing bridges that need you to call ahead for example).

Bear in mind that the canal locks are typically narrow-beam in the Midlands (so you can’t take anything wider than a narrowboat along those canals) and widebeam elsewhere, though the length of the locks also varies. It is generally said that a 57-foot narrowboat can go ‘anywhere’ (technically there is one lock that’s only 40 feet long but it’s on a very little-used bit of water) but 60-foot narrowboats can get to 99% of locations, though you may have to go singly into some shorter wide locks so that you can squeeze in across the diagonal.

[1] We shall ignore for the moment that a very few brave souls have crossed the English Channel in a narrowboat – they’re really, really not suitable for this and anyone undertaking this trip needs a lot of experience, luck and good weather.