UK Midlands Narrowboats
The narrow boats of England date back to the industrial revolution where these boats were used to transport an assortment of machinery, materials and products throughout the extensive waterway system constructed specifically for this purpose. The original boats were horse-drawn along the tow-path that ran parallel to the waterway. The horses were owned and looked after by a local that lived in the area and the boat owners would pay a fare to be drawn along the waterway.
The development of the steam engine enabled the boats to be retrofitted to steam power and the need for horses was greatly reduced. When the diesel engine was sufficiently developed, this took over from steam power as the most effective means of powering these vessels and it remains that way till today.
The overall maintenance and operation of the inland canals is overseen by the Inland Waterways Association which was founded in 1946 to specifically deal with the challenge of development and maintenance of the canals. There are volunteers at some of the busier locks that assist people through however this is limited to the central and larger junctions where smooth operations, time constrains or water usage are primary concern.
There are a number of boatyards located across the UK however we selected the boatyard in Alvechurch as this was located closest to a major airport namely Birmingham International. Given that Birmingham International might not be the most direct flight from your home airport, should you encounter and delays or problems with your flight or luggage, you can read my post about claiming from your airline for compensation at Travel Claims made Easy
The Uber Taxi to Alvechurch cost approx. 40 Pounds Stirling one way and the boats are generally available from around lunchtime so given the flight plan restrictions, we booked a BnB in called The Rectory Cottage.
This BnB is run by the friendliest hostess and owner of the BnB. She has lived in the same house for a number of decades and has constructed the garden as a sort of Oasis from the world. All proceeds from the BnB are donated to the local charity. She was most helpful with tips of where to buy groceries, restaurants to eat at and all smaller tips to make our stay that much more comfortable. The rooms have maintained their authentic English country feel without being run down or worn out.
I would highly recommend this as a place to stay as it was both well priced and in the vicinity of the mariner where the boat is located.
I have written a review with a number of photos under this link should you be interested in reading further about our experience at the Rectory Cottage and to see how the area looks before booking a stay there.
The marina functions as both a building/repair yard and a mooring area for boats between trips. The shop at the boat yard is equipped with spares of all sorts needed if things on board are in need of replacement. The staff are very helpful, knowledgeable and friendly when customers have questions or are in need of advice. There is a safety video that is shown to all new skippers about the function and rules of the water to ensure a safe journey.
Dimensions and Power Plant:
A narrowboat must be smaller than 2.13m (7ft) across the widest point otherwise the canals will not be able to accommodate the vessel. Their design makes them a unique experience to skipper where the maximum length allowed is 21.95m (72 ft) and once again the main consideration is the construction of the locks and the maximum dimensions within the lock.
The boat that we chartered was powered by a 2.2L Isuzu Diesel motor that was a low revving yet powerful engine. When these boats are constructed, the motors used must be low revving, high torque motors as these are not speed boats and the lower the tone of the engine the better one can enjoy the ambiance of the experience. The lower revving motors also ensure that diesel usage is kept low so you will not have to fill up on a regular basis.
One thing that is very important to remember is that if the propeller is not turning, you cannot steer the boat. This sounds like a simple enough concept however the problem with this is that given the length and weight of the boat, even idling speed is often too fast when manoeuvring in and out of very narrow locks. We often bumped and scratched our way in and out of the locks so playing with the forward and reverse of a powerful motor is important to keep the boat straight and under control.
Types of Boats:
All traditional narrowboats are steered by a tiller that comes in three forms namely Traditional Stern, Semi-Traditional Stern and Cruiser stern. The traditional stern does not provide a lot of space behind the cabin doors which does not make it the optimum selection for those interested in longer journeys with a number of people. The boat that we chartered was of a cruiser stern construction that allowed for 4 people to comfortably sit in the rear of the boat with additional guard rails around the rear of the tiller.
The modern narrow boats are constructed with a robust steel hull which from first sight one can see why. The entrances of the locks along the waterways are constructed to have as small a gap as possible between the boat and the lock to reduce the water requirements during operation. This means that unless you are perfectly straight, the boat will knock and scrape the sides of the lock requiring a robust construction to prevent permanent damage.
The top side is also constructed of steel however this is not as robust as the hull as one would imagine. The configuration of windows and exterior features are unique to their owners and the boat yard where they were constructed. Most owners customize the decals on the rear of the vessel to add a personal touch to it but if this is a rental vessel then the decals will be unique to the boatyard and uniform in nature.
Water, Provisions & Eating Out
With 4 people on board, there was enough water to shower, cook, clean and so on for a maximum of 2 days. The endurance of these boats is based on your personal usage and may require fewer stops if there are fewer people on board or use less water. The tank is located at the bow of the vessel where two screw caps are to access the tank. A hose pipe is provided with the boat and there are many water points located along the route where the tank can be replenished. It is possible to fill the tank at various boat yards however this might incur a cost for the water.
There are small super markets along the route and there are many restaurants to choose from with a variety of pub lunches, beers and ales. We found this quite expensive to do on a daily basis and cooked the majority of the meals on board. A galley is constructed into the boat with a gas stove top, oven, microwave and so on. A point to remember is that anything not running off gas will quickly deplete the onboard deep cycle batteries so it is wise to use these while the engine is in operation.
There are some basic items provided in a welcome pack to the boat such as Eco friendly dish soap, matches and some dish cloths and so on. It is important to do some shopping before arriving at the boat yard as there will be no food or drinks on board.
On our route, we stopped at a number of pubs for which I took photos and wrote reviews on Google for. Should you be interested in reading about or seeing how these look, I have added the links under the following titles:
- Read: The Red Lion – Alvechurch
- Read: The Queens Head – Bromsgrove
- Read: The Bridge Inn – Droitwich
- Read: The Angle Inn – Stourport
Sleeping & Ablutions
A double bed is provided for each couple with the additional sleeper couches being located in the front of the boat. For 4 people, we selected the maximum length boat which catered for a maximum of 6 people. The bedding was supplied with the boat together with linen and pillows.
The ablutions are compact as one would expect. There is a toilet that flushes and the sewage is stored in black water tanks on board that are emptied when returning the boat to the yard. The shower water is heated by the engine while it is running to provide enough hot water for showering. Should you run out of hot water, start the engine and let it idle for a few minutes to reheat the water. There is a bilge pump that is activated when the shower is in operation and this discharges the water to the canal outside.
There is a small cupboard for storing your vanity bags and so on with a small basin being located next to the toilet unit and all the effluent is also directly discharged into the canal. I thought this a little strange as the environment is then polluted with this sort of discharge however I was assured that with the low volume of people and the capacity of the environment to purify the water, this causes no permanent damage to the Eco system.
The locks are constructed from the same materials that they were originally constructed of. That means that the doors of the locks are made of heavy iron with oak wood beams and the mechanisms themselves are made of hard wearing cast iron. When you rent these boats, you are issued with winch handles as the locks are all powered by you. The winch is connected to the mechanism using a square key and this activates the gates to allow water to either flood or drain from the lock.
The doors are shaped in a V-Shape on the downstream side and a single paddle door on the upstream side. When the lock is full, the pressure of the water will press the V together and ensure a water tight seal. In this case water tight still leaks like a sieve but when one considers how old this technology is, the fit of the doors was pretty accurate.
It is important to keep these mechanisms well under control as the weight can make them dangerous to operate should you lose control of the winch handle. In addition to this, cast iron is strong but brittle and if the lock is left to run to the bottom, the shock of stopping at the bottom could shatter the gate and render the lock inoperable.
The overall principle of operation should be to conserve water. This means that when two boats arrive at or are in proximity of the lock, the boat who does not need to prepare the lock (Fill or Drain) has right of way. When draining the locks, if the basin is too full, all locks have a bypass system where excess water can flow out and will prevent flooding of the area.
If there is even the smallest water level difference between inside and outside of the lock, these doors will not open. Only once the pressure has equalized will this be possible so patience is important as you cannot force them open.
There is an exclusion zone that one needs to be very aware of. At the base of the upstream door, there will be a sill and the boat needs to be in front of this. If the boat is not, the water will sink below this mark and the back of the boat will lift causing the nose to be pushed under the water causing possible flooding. The same can be said of the opposite direction where one needs to make sure the V-Doors are closed before flooding the chamber. The front and rear of the boats have large fenders and if this is caught in the doors while they are closing during flooding, the rear of the boat will be caught and cause damage to both the lock and the boat.
If you do find yourself in any of these situations, do not panic. Close the gates to prevent further flooding or draining of the lock. Perform the reverse operations by either refilling (if you were draining) or drain (If you were filling) to bring the boat back to a stable scenario and retry. The whole point of these boats is that everything happens really slowly which is great should you run into problems so take your time and think before doing anything, you will often find it saves having to do it twice.
The narrowboats will not be for everyone. It is a much slower paced holiday where the pace is set by you. You can tie up where you like, travel as much, as little or not at all during the day, it is completely up to you. There is no need to do a round trip as we did the same route there and back to end up at the start point of the marina.
It is important to think of who you take with you as living in confined spaces can get a little tense if you take inconsiderate people with you. The facilities are really well maintained and the scenery is like nothing you will experience on the main routes. The holiday is also not the cheapest method of relaxation and worked out around 500 Pounds Stirling per person plus food and drinks which we purchased ourselves. The prices will fluctuate according to the season with summer being more expensive as demand increases and weather improves.
If you wish to be part of living history and immersed into a world foreign to our modern age, then this holiday is for you. I hope you enjoyed reading about some of the points from my experience on the narrow boats and look out for posts on more adventures.
Here is a short time-lapse video I have posted on YouTube to illustrate how it looks to sail on the canals in the area around Alvechurch in the UK.