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Review: Narrowboating

Specialist Holiday - Watersports

Brecon Beacons, Wales, United Kingdom

Keeping your spirits afloat! - On board a narrowboat

  • By SilverTraveller daydreamer

    2 reviews

  • 2013
  • Partner

68 people found this review helpful

It’s a bit too easy to get stuck in that comfort zone once you’ve hit sixty but take yourself out of it and you can have much more fun and feel fitter into the bargain if you try a narrowboating holiday.

From the canal bank, those colourful narrowboats look so romantic, don’t they. And they are!

We’ve just come back from our fourth holiday on the canals. We’ve hired boats from ABC Boathire who have a number of hirebases through England, Scotland and Wales. We’ve previously sailed the Grand Union and Oxford from Rugby; the Forth and Cyde from Falkirk (and had a spin on the amazing Falkirk Wheel which lifts your boat hight into the air before deposing you on a new stretch of canal) and the Llangollen Canal from Whitchurch. Just be careful on the scary Pontcysylite Aqueduct on that one.

But just this Monday we sadly returned from a wonderful week on the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal which heads up into the Black mountains.

I’ll try and write from the point of view of older travellers and surprisingly, despite the physical nature of narowboating, the majority of boaters seem to be way over 50 and 60.

Here are some of the PROS:

You can’t escape the fresh air – you can be outside every waking hour. Exercise – you can be constantly on the move if you are cabin girl, galley slave, and submariner and lock-worker like me! Or you can stay in one spot steering the boat.

Peace and Quiet – you can moor in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by trees, unbothered by anybody. It’s so easy to find mooring spots on The Brecon towpath. Go to sleep to the sound of the owls.

Pubs! You can moor right next to a pub if you want. We recommend The Star at Talybont for incredible food and beers. We moored at the top of the steps leading to the bar.

The boats have central heating. Yes, really! Our Scottish jaunt was mostly at -5 degrees but we stayed cosy.

Taking it slowly – speed limit is 4 mph. The Brecon Canal is actually very shallow and has twisty turns and hairpin bends which probably bring your average speed down to 1 mph! You’ll be overtaken by walkers so it’s not for the impatient. Instead you’ll see the countryside unfolding slowly before you. On the Brecon the mountains slowly approach.

Stars – the Brecon Beacons have little light pollution and is the world’s 5th Dark Sky Reserve. So keep your fingers crossed that the clouds will lift from your bit of the mountain side.

Wildlife – always plenty to see on a canal. The herons on the Brecon completely ignore you despite the engine noise.

Kitchen equipment – the boats we use have everything you could possibly need in the kitchen cupboards.

Help – the wharf staff are always great. They will show you how the boat works and you’ll be given 24 hr phone numbers in case you get stuck.

Making friends – locals along the route of the Brecon were incredibly friendly and helpful and we felt welcome everywhere we went. Specially helpful is Tracie, landlady of the Coach and Horses at Llangyddir, who’ll go out of her way to fix you up with whatever you need further down the canal.

Some CONS: Many cons are not cons at all – merely character forming!

Locks – I do tend to get confused over the correct sequence of operations even after four holidays but now write them down and hang them round my neck in a clear plastic map holder. If there are other boats going through, you will always get help and advice from the more experienced.

Locks can be heavy work so if there are only two of you on the boat, the stronger may need to do the locking so make sure both of you can steer the boat. I am the weaker one. I am also the most hopeless driver ….. so use your imagination. Yes, I have to do the locks. The locks on the Brecon are in beautiful woodland so there are compensations.

Grease – watch out for freshly greased lock paddle gears …. Take lots of kitchen roll.

Rain – well, the boats always carry complete sets of waterproofs. If it’s raining, (as it does quite frequently in Wales) you just have to get on with it and surprisingly, you then won’t notice the rain. I speak from the experience of doing the 5 Brecon locks in torrential rain last week so I know what I am talking about. You will find it easy to dry out using the boat’s heating system.

Strength – when you are mooring, someone has to go ashore and pull the boat in. There is a central rope for this. If you just pull you’ll feel defeated. It’s more a case of leaning back and pitting your body weight against (20 tons of) the boat. This sounds impossible, but the boat will eventually begin to move and will carry on from its own momentum.

Similarly, if you run aground, the cabin girl will need to get a barge pole to push you off the sticking point. Again, I find it easier to sit in the bows with my back to the bank whilst holding the barge pole. I then lean back, again using my body weight and once again, the boat will eventually move out. Don’t try using your arms. Far too much like hard work!

Agility – to be honest, you do need to be have a bit of agility. I don’t have much so I wait for the boat to come right up to the back before I go ashore – to pull ropes or whatever!

Steering the boat – it takes some getting used to for some – like me. For others it comes more naturally. You have to turn the tiller in the opposite direction to the one you want. My concentration runs out after about five minutes. Others can concentrate for hours.

Finally some TIPS:

Make sure you take a torch, hats, a lidded drinks cup for the “driver”, gardening gloves for when you are working on the locks. Make one or two home cooked meals that are easily frozen such as Shepherd’s Pie for the days when you do choose to moor miles from nowhere! The boat will have a freezer box in the fridge.

Best tip of all is go and try it for yourself.
Second best tip – don’t try it at all if you and your “mate” tend to argue a lot!

68 people found this review helpful

This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.

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Other Members' Thoughts - 7 Comment(s)

  • pink
    over 4 years ago
    will always love a walk along the canal, and a bit of daydreaming, but would think hard before risking another catastrophe. did you do a review for last october?
  • daydreamer
    over 4 years ago
    Hello Pink

    Yes we certainly have been again. In October (2015) we went on part of the Cheshire Ring from Anderton. We dont argue but I have often thought that a couple who argue a lot wouldnt cope! You get into all sort of "fixes" and getting yourself out of sticky situations is part of the fun and the challenge. We have only ever gone as a couple. Its true that there is more work to do if there are only two of you - but then there is no chance of falling out with other crew members. I hope you are not put off by your experience and that you can find a non-arguementative someone to sail with!
  • pink
    over 4 years ago
    i'm wondering whether any of you have been off in a narrowboat since? i once went for a week with a friend-family, which turned into a demonstration of the second-best tip - friends to begin with, but not for the duration. would so like to try again with a more relaxed group. maybe one day ... ?
  • Su
    over 6 years ago
    Your holiday on the narrow boat sounded fantastic. I have never tried it, but am very tempted after admiring the lifestyle of the people enjoying their narrow boats on the canal at Bath. We had several conversations with people, and everyone was so friendly. We have a timeshare, and could do an exchange for a narrow boat. Think this could be a holiday choice for us!
  • ESW
    over 6 years ago
    Thank you, but it won't be for a while yet.

    I've watched the Falkirk wheel from the bottom and have walked across Pontcysylite Aqueduct - both amazing feats of engineering.
  • daydreamer
    over 6 years ago
    I'm glad you persevered through all my terrible typos and odd words with missing letters (keyboard keeps getting stuck) for long enough to be encouraged to try the this type of holiday for yourself, ESW. If you have any specific questions or want to know more, please feel free to ask.
  • ESW
    over 6 years ago
    A great read.This is something we've often thought about, but never taken the plunge ...yet.