Unlocking canal bliss — holidaying aboard a narrowboat

Unlocking canal bliss — holidaying aboard a narrowboat

Burnley Mile (picture credit Canal & River Trust)

A narrowboat holiday in 2024 offers some unique experiences – particularly for absolute beginners. JAMES RUDDY presents a ‘bucket list’ of waterway wonders

There was that feeling of hairs rising on the back of my neck as I slowly steered the big steel narrowboat along the aqueduct, 40 metres above the Dee Valley, without any safety barrier on the left side and just a sheer drop to the fields below.

This was three years ago and an unforgettable experience on the Pontcycysllte Aqueduct, one of the incredible feats of Victorian and later engineering that you can encounter in a hired narrowboat on Britain’s extensive canal network.

And, contrary to popular suspicions, such trips are available to complete novices, who can master one of these huge and luxurious vessels with a little preparation and a hour or so of expert instruction at the outset.

Not only that, you can choose an utterly relaxing voyage through nature with few locks and open country – or a much more active route, packed with heavy duty locks that will be enjoyed by more athletic trippers.

Along the way you can also look forward to negotiating high-flying aqueducts, incredible tunnels and even Jules Verne-style lifts and wheels to take your metal monster up or down to another level.

So, to give you an idea of the best you can encounter, here is a list of the Top Eight with costs and contact details for Drifters boating holidays below:

The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct - carrying the Llangollen Canal 38 metres (126ft) high above the River Dee, the awesome World Heritage Pontcysyllte Aqueduct is the highest and longest aqueduct in Britain. Built between 1795 and 1805, it has 18 magnificent stone piers, supporting a 307-metre (1007ft) long trough for the canal to run through. With not even a hand rail on the south side of the aqueduct to obscure the views of the breath-taking Dee Valley below, boaters literally feel like they are floating above the earth! Drifters has a canal boat hire base on the Llangollen Canal at Trevor in North Wales, just a five-minute cruise from the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.

The Anderton Boat Lift - also known as ‘The Cathedral of the Canals’ this extraordinary structure raises boats 15 metres (50ft) from the River Weaver to the Trent & Mersey Canal. Designed by Edwin Clark and opened in 1875, it consists of two caissons, each large enough to take a barge or pair of narrowboats. In 1983 problems with the mechanism caused the lift to close but after a Heritage Lottery Funded restoration, it reopened in 2002. Drifters has a narrowboat hire base on the Trent & Mersey Canal at Anderton, right next to the Lift.

Caen Hill 

The Caen Hill Flight - with 16 of its 29 locks falling in a straight line, the Caen Hill flight of locks on the Kennet & Avon Canal at Devizes in Wiltshire is visually the most impressive in the country. The locks were the final link in the Kennet & Avon Canal’s construction, opening in 1810. By 1950 they had become derelict but after a major restoration effort, they were reopened HM The Queen in 1990. Drifters' Devizes base is at the base of the flight.

The Bingley Five-Rise Locks - completed in 1774, this spectacular staircase of locks on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal 17 miles from Leeds, raises (or lowers) boats 18 metres (60ft) in five cavernous chambers. The locks open directly from one to another, with the top gate of one forming the bottom gate of the next. Our nearest canal boat hire base is on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal at Silsden, a distance of six miles away. With five locks to pass through along the way, the journey to Bingley from Silsden takes around four-and-a-half hours.

Standedge Tunnel (Canal and River Trust)

The Standedge Tunnel - tunnelling for over three miles beneath the Pennines, this incredible feat of 18 and 19th century engineering is the longest, highest and deepest tunnel on the canal system. Cutting through solid rock, it took the navvies 16 years to build, opening in 1811. In the 20th century, the Huddersfield Canal fell into disrepair, becoming un-navigable by 1948, but after a long restoration programme, both the canal and tunnel were reopened in 2001. Today you need to book your passage though the tunnel with the Canal & River Trust, and there is also a trip boat operating from the Marsden end. Our nearest base is at Sowerby Bridge, on the junction of the Calder & Hebble Navigation and Rochdale Canal, 20 miles and 65 locks away. The journey to Standedge takes around 21 hours (three days).

Barton Swing Aqueduct - originally built in 1761 by James Brindley to take the Bridgewater Canal across the River Irwell, the Barton Aqueduct was considered a marvel at the time of its opening. But when the Manchester Ship Canal company decided to use the course of the Irwell at Barton as part of its navigation channel, Brindley’s Aqueduct was replaced by the Barton Swing Aqueduct in 1893. The 1,450 tonne, 100-metre long aqueduct swings open, full of water, to allow the passage of ships along the Manchester Ship Canal. Our nearest base is at Acton Bridge, on the Trent & Mersey Canal near Northwich in Cheshire. From there, it takes around nine hours, travelling 26 miles and through just one lock, to reach the Barton Swing Aqueduct.

The Burnley Embankment – also known as ‘The Straight Mile’, the mile-long Burnley Embankment carries the Leeds & Liverpool Canal over 18 metres (60ft) high across part of the town, offering boaters breath-taking panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. Though costly and difficult to build, the Burnley Embankment, which spans the Calder Valley, avoided the need for a series of locks which would have slowed cargo-carrying boats down. Designed by Robert Whitworth, the embankment was built between 1796 and 1801 and involved the mammoth task of transporting (by horse and cart) around half a million tons of earth from the nearby canal cutting at Whittlefield and tunnel at Gannow. Drifters’ narrowboat hire base at Barnoldswick is just 11 miles and seven locks away from Burnley.

Falkirk Wheel

The Falkirk Wheel - built as part of the Millennium Link project to restore the canals linking the east and west coasts of Scotland, The Falkirk Wheel is the world’s first and only rotating boat lift. Standing at a height of 35 metres, it moves boats between the Union Canal and Forth & Clyde Canal, replacing a flight of 11 locks which had been dismantled in 1933. It can carry up to 600 tonnes (eight or more boats) and uses just 1.5KWh of energy to turn – the same amount it takes to boil eight kettles. Drifters offers canal boat rental at Falkirk, right next to the Wheel.


For more information about Drifters boating holidays call 0344 984 0322 or visit www.drifters.co.uk. 

Drifters is made up of nine hire boat companies: ABC Boat Hire, Anglo Welsh, Black Prince, Countrywide Cruisers, Kate Boats, Foxhangers, Napton Narrowboats, Shire Cruisers and Union Canal Carriers.  Between them they offer over 550 boats for hire, operating from 45 bases across England, Scotland and Wales.  2024 hire prices start at £620 for a short break on a boat for up to four people, £860 for a week.  Narrowboats range from 32ft to 70ft and can accommodate up to 12 people.

For information about visiting the canal network go to www.canalrivertrust.org.uk