At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, from the mid-1700s to the mid-1800s, it occurred to some folks in England that horse-drawn carts were not a particularly efficient way to move raw materials across country or finished goods to market. Their solution? Canals and horse-drawn barges. Thousands of miles of canals were dug by investors and industrialists linking existing waterways with industrializing cities.
But the craze, while profitable, was short-lived. The advent of railways (an even bigger craze) rendered the canals increasingly obsolete and many fell into disrepair. Then, after the Second World War, a light bulb came on at the British Waterways Authority and it flashed: Recreation! Economic revitalization! Canals throughout central England were renovated, boatyards flourished, canalside pubs were reborn, and a new generation of steel-hulled “narrowboats” were launched (narrow because the canals and their locks were never widened).
Think of today’s narrowboats, available for weeklong rentals, as sixty foot-plus stretched out floating luxury RVs, complete with fitted-out living area, fully-equipped kitchen, bedrooms, central heating, bathroom with shower, fuel, water, household items, and more (like wi-fi and TV). With a small diesel engine in the stern and a rear tiller by which to steer, they serve as transportation, accommodation, recreation, restaurant, and home as you meander through some of the most pastoral countryside in Europe.
It’s best to hire these boats with close friends (you will be close!), in part because opening, closing, and filling the locks that carry your canal over hill and dale are manual, but fun. There are charming villages to visit along the way, lots of waterside wildlife, sheep and cows, and some stunning engineering marvels as well: tunnels through mountains, aqueducts over gorges, cuts across hillsides, and more. I’ve navigated several lovely circular routes, but my favorite is the Llangollen Canal which takes you deep into the mountains of North Wales along a route studded with “van Gogh” lift bridges, long dark tunnels, and the amazing Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, soaring a few hundred feet above a narrow gorge—breathtaking in more ways than one.
But here’s the thing: you won’t go fast and you won’t go far. To protect against bank erosion, you cruise at only four miles per hour, and you can only go one-way, as places to turn (“winding holes”) are few and far between. In a week, though, you can cover a fair swath of central England. Stress, hurry, and worry are pointless. You just let the countryside slip by and the only decision you have to make is when to break out the gin and tonics in the afternoon, what imaginative repast to whip up in the kitchen for dinner, and where to tie up for the night. And at dawn, with birdsong and the morning mist rising from the water, you’re off again, adventure just around the next bend.
Crazy hours at work? Trapped at home in the pandemic nightmare? This is the ideal mental health break. Britain is opening again and there are narrowboat hire companies on dozens of canals on the Internet.
Slow down. Breathe.
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