The modern day canal is being put to all manner of uses, a far cry from its industrial birth. Whilst a fair number of people use their boat as their home – see the statistics here – by far and away the biggest use is for holidays and leisure use, whether that’s groups of people hiring a boat for a long weekend or even their annual holidays, or boat owners who live in a house, have a job and live normal lives but use their boat as a weekend escape from the madness.
You can also hire boats by the day – alas often the favourite choice for the summer stag and hen do, much to every other boater’s chagrin as the wine and beer-fuelled boaters come blasting along the canals, veering from side to side, engine screaming at full revs, stereo turned up to 11 and mayhem ensuing including, often, not insubstantial contact with other boats.
For those of a nervous disposition who don’t fancy handling several tonnes of steel themselves but simply want to enjoy a few days on the canal there are several hotel boats which have crew aboard to take care of all the boaty stuff while you sit back and enjoy a cup of tea and the view. Often you can choose to join in under their supervision if you wish but there’s no expectation or requirement that you’ll do so.
A similar experience in a shorter time frame can be had on numerous trip boats across the country, which you hire as a group by the hour or half day. Typically these will have a number of pre-set short cruises you can choose from and again all the boating is done by paid, trained, accredited professionals – or at least it should be – while you watch the world go by at three miles an hour.
It’s worth mentioning that many of these trip boats have disabled access, with extra wide, flat rear decks, powered lifts for wheelchairs and ramps to get on and off. Plus some have wheel steering instead of tiller to give more options for a variety of people to have a go at boating.
Sadly, I think it remains largely impractical for anyone with leg or arm disabilities to helm a narrowboat without assistance, due to the need to step on and off for mooring and at locks, for operating locks, and for hauling the boat on ropes.
The canals are not just for narrowboaters though. Many people like to kayak or canoe along the water, making a peculiarly large wake as they go by (seriously, you always know when a kayak went past because the narrowboat rocks quite disproportionately)
Fishing is another major pastime practiced on the canals and rivers with many an angler spotted as you go along. Each stretch of canal tends to have the fishing rights assigned to a local group and from there the permission to fish can be obtained. There are various restrictions regarding the catches which are outside the scope of this book but the CRT have a useful website with lots of information.
On rivers, the fishing rights usually belong to the adjacent landowner rather than the authority controlling the waterway.
Alongside each canal is the towpath, so named from its historical use as a path along which horses would tow the boats in the days before engines. Nowadays the towpath can be either a muddy, treacherous slipway into the water or, increasingly, a paved pathway used by boaters, hikers, dog owners, cyclists, anglers – you name it.
Unfortunately this development, which the CRT is keen to promote in order to encourage more users of the canals and thus potentially more donations to the Trust, has come at a cost of some increased tension between the various users, particularly between cyclists and non-cyclists.
With many towpaths now also designated as part of the National Cycle Route, there is a belief amongst some – not all – that the towpath is intended primarily for bikes, where in reality it is actually for all users and, crucially, pedestrians have priority.
There have been cases of furious altercations between walkers and cyclists with no doubt blame on both sides but collisions not only between the bikes and humans but also people’s pets are not uncommon.
Let us steer away from that fraught topic before I get lynched by the lycra brigade. Take a towpath toddle and after not very long at all you’ll almost certainly come across a canalside pub. Despite a general and much documented decline in pubs across the UK, they’re still a frequent sight beside the canal and a haven for boaters, hikers et al.
Inevitably named “The Navigation Inn” or “The Anchor” or something similar, there’s nothing quite as splendid as stopping for a decent meal and a drink on a sunny day while you watch the boats chugging past.