10 years ago our family took our first trip to England and Wales. During the year I’m going to write a few articles about that trip and why a narrowboat holiday in the UK is our favorite vacation.
In 2002, my parents took our extended family on a trip to Wales for a narrowboat holiday. Most americans have no idea what a Narrowboat is and we certainly didn’t prior to this trip. England, Scotland and Wales have many canals running through the countryside that were used prior to the advent of the railroad to haul slate, coal, and other resources from the mountains to ports and distribution points. In the first half of the 20th century, the narrowboats began to decline due to expansion of the railroads. In the 1960s the canals began to be used for pleasure craft. Over time the canals were repaired and refurbished and there are now miles of navigable canals. Narrowboats are available for rent from many companies for anywhere from 3 days to multiple weeks. A narrowboat is like an RV, but on a boat. They have kitchens, beds, and bathrooms just like an RV.
For this trip we went to the Brecon Beacons nation park in south Wales and to the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal. The countryside along this canal is beautiful. For an American from the South, everything seems so green. Although we have since been on two subsequent narrowboat trips, the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal is our favorite.
For me, being in the technology industry, a narrowboat trip on the canals allows me to detox a bit from technology. On the boat there’s no Internet, no phone, and not much TV. Although we could take a computer or buy a SIM chip for the UK, we chose not to and were glad. We kept up with family and friends back home through email on public Internet terminals. Most villages have a free public Internet terminal at either the public library or post office. I think the lack of technology is good on occasion and to some degree I miss it. I talked to a man in a second-hand bookshop in Hay-on-Wye (the second-hand book capitol of the world) and once a few words were out of my mouth and he realized I was American, he asked what work I did. When I replied with “computers”, he glanced around the shelves full of old books and said “This is sort of the antidote isn’t it?” I’ve thought about that often over the years and I think of the narrowboats and the small country villages as the antidote to what I do on a daily basis.
At the time of this trip our older kids were 6 (yes, they’re twins) and the little one was almost a decade ahead. We were a bit nervous about taking two 6-year olds to a foreign country and to an activity that was mostly just enjoying the countryside. The kids had a great time. The narrowboat was exicting and fun for them. If you don’t own an RV, think about taking your kids to see an RV and play in one. That’s what the narrowboat was like for them. They did great on the trip even though there was a lot of walking as well. It wasn’t difficult to find a pub or village common along the canal that had a playground and we took advantage whenever that opportunity presented.
I’ve had a few people ask when discussing our trips, “who drives the boat?” or “how do you know where to go?” Yes, you pilot the narrowboat and have it to yourself the whole time–for us one week. The hire companies do a great job of orienting you to the boat and teaching you how to pilot it. Because you’re on a canal, there are only two directions you can go–forwards or backwards. The narrowboat is too long to turn around in the canal except at certain points that allow for that. Canal guides are available that are maps of the canal detailing villages, restaurants, and other points along the way. For many narrowboat trips you go in one direction for half the week, then turn around and go back for the other half. There are a few places in England where you can travel a “loop” through the canal system and not double back on your route. However, these usually require longer trips (two to three weeks) and we haven’t tried one of those.
To us Americans from the south, everything seems expensive in England. The narrowboat offers an economical benefit to some degree. The narrowboat is your lodging, your transportation, your entertainment/activity, and offers you the ability to cook your own food from the grocery.
The quiet countryside, the green landscape of Wales, the lack of technology, and the country villages all make the narrowboat holiday our favorite vacation. We look forward to returning one day to the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal in the beautiful Brecon Beacons national park.