We Hired a Narrowboat – A Unique Experience!

Royal Navy Narrowboat, Warneford VC, along the Kennet and Avon Canal, Wiltshire.
Royal Navy Narrowboat, Warneford VC, along the Kennet and Avon Canal, Wiltshire.

I (Joel) love the canal network. It’s one of my favourite things about Birmingham, and I find it mind-blowing how such a network was built. The canal network fell into ruin some years ago, but thankfully, it was restored and now serves more of a purpose for recreation than it does commercial, as was its intent when it was built. The UK canal network was a world first and played an essential part in the industrial revolution. As you may know, I love industrial stuff and growing up in Yorkshire, I often wondered about the canal network.

Stacey and I have ummed and ahhed about buying a narrowboat and decided a good option would be to try one before we buy one in the future. So, we hired one to test it out! Read on to discover how our weekend on a canal boat went!

A Weekend on the Kennet & Avon Canal

Royal Navy Narrowboat – Warneford VC

The Royal Navy has its own narrowboat, known as Warneford VC, which sits along the Kennet and Avon Canal near Trowbridge. The Royal Navy narrowboat is a 70-foot Owl Class canal boat that ABC Boat Management manages at Hilperton Marina. Although the boat slept up to 10 people, we only had four adults and one child on board, which was a comfortable number. I imagine it would be chaos on board with 10 adults!

The narrowboat is fitted with two toilets, two showers, a fridge, a cooker, a microwave, a toaster and some radios to help keep you entertained. There’s also 240v power throughout so you can charge your phones and whatnot. It’s just like living in a house, albeit smaller! There’s even a diesel heater that provides hot water to the central heating and domestic water systems. The boat was pretty self-sufficient and straightforward to run, and it’s easy to see the appeal of life on the canals. It provides an opportunity to get away from tech, enjoy the countryside, and connect with nature and those around you, including other network users.

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Royal Navy Narrowboat, Warneford VC, along the Kennet and Avon Canal, Wiltshire.

You’ve also got this massive boat to look after and try not to sink, which I quite liked, and despite being in the navy – I don’t typically like boats! I get seasick, and even though the canal network isn’t tidal and is generally calm – you feel a gentle rocking sensation. As the rest of the crew can confirm, this mild rocking sensation leaves the boat with you, which is a little odd.

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Anyway, after watching a DVD and getting a short brief, off we went. It’s hard to believe that after such a small amount of information, you are left to your own devices on this 70-foot craft. But that’s it. You have to get on with it.

Navigating the Kennet & Avon Canal

Warneford VC is ideally located for weekend narrowboat hire. It sits in the Cotswolds and the stretch of canal accessible over a few days is incredible – you can reach Bath in a weekend to spend an afternoon and evening there before turning around and heading back. Alternatively, you can head east to the Devizes Rise. We opted to head to Bath. The experience of navigating the canals was amazing – generally fun and relaxing. It wasn’t all plain sailing, though. We had a few issues along the way, which caused short but high-stress levels.

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When we arrived in Bradford-on-Avon on Friday night, we couldn’t find anywhere to moor because the canal was so busy with boats. Turning points are few and far between, so it’s not as simple as turning around or reversing to go back to a clear spot (canal boats don’t reverse well!). It was starting to get dark, so we decided to moor up on the water point, which is a bit of a no-no, to get off first thing in the morning and get through the lock. Fast forward to the morning.

We topped the water up and went to move off, but the engine wouldn’t start. The battery was flat. It was a simple fix with a quick call to the marina, who got us to connect the rest of the battery bank, but at this point, a wide beam canal boat had arrived for water, so he ended up blocking up the lock mooring point until we could get off the water point, which is also a no-no. There are rules on the canal network, and the last thing you want to do is upset people, which brings me to the next point.

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We got told off for going too fast. As we were politely told – you are to return to engine tick-over 50 metres before any boat, moored or moving, and pass at that speed. Let me tell you; it’s painstakingly slow! But I suppose that’s the beauty of the canal network – you learn to slow down and enjoy the cruise. You aren’t going anywhere fast, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Once we’d figured out the dos and don’ts, we settled into a brilliant and relaxing weekend and one that was even better than expected. Oh, there was another minor issue – I went to catch my drone and chopped the very end of my finger off. Typing this is somewhat painful when you want to use the end of that finger, but it’s a little sensitive! Ha!

Weekend Narrowboat Hire Tips

1 | Use opencanalmap app to help navigate the canal network. It shows you everything you need to know. It provides all sorts of helpful information, like where the water and fuel points are, where you can moor and even where the cafes, pubs and shops are.

2 | Keep your speed down – you will upset people. As slow as you think you are going at anything above tick over, you need to be moving at tick over when passing other boats, moored or moving.

3 | Pack suitable clothing and footwear. Not all parts of the canal are clean to moor on, and you may find yourself stepping ashore to damp and muddy banks, and if your narrowboat doesn’t have a canopy, you will get wet if it rains because you are outside to steer the boat.

4 | If you are approaching a town or city and want to moor for the night, get in a spot if you see it. Don’t make the same mistake we did, and not jump into a free spot, even if it means you have to walk further to get into the town for a pint!

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