Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
Top 100 Sites
What's the attraction?
Travelling by a slow boat through the countryside, or even the city, gives an entirely new perspective to travelling. Often you have views that can be only seen from the water, landscape miles from the roads or townscape from behind the scenes. Add to this the many attractive and historic towns, villages and cities that can be visited by boat and you may start to see just one part of the reason why so many people, from all parts of the world, have been drawn to our waterways.
Where do we start?
There are several ways to try the delights of the waterways - walking the towpaths, boarding a trip boat or spending a few days (or weeks) on one of the many hotel boats. Unless you are lucky enough to have a friend or relation with a boat most people's introduction to canal boating is through hiring a boat. Generally a complete novice, after a short demonstration run, can handle even a large boat. There are many firms offering boat hire throughout the UK. For a list of firms on the web see Hire Boats, Hotel Boats or Trip Boats and Restaurant Boats.
What type of boat should we choose?
This will depend on which waterways you intend to travel. Nearly all the holiday hire boats on the Broads are wide beam cruisers, on the Thames you can hire the same type of boat but narrowboats are also available. On the canals the narrowboat is almost universal. In terms of facilities offered there is little to choose between the various types as both can offer fully equipped galleys with gas cooker and refrigerator, bathroom with shower, central heating, etc. The advantage of a wide beam boat is that there is more room for accommodation for any given length of boat. The advantage of the narrowboat is that it can access the many miles of narrow canal.
Operating a boat is much easier than driving a car, there are fewer controls and everything happens at a much slower speed. This does not mean that boating is a skill free activity just that you can get started with none and build them up as you go. There are very few rules that you need to know, the main one being keep right when passing other boats. Other rules or warnings, where they exist, are normally indicated by notices.
Locks are a very simple concept for getting a boat from one level to another and usually cause little difficulty even to the novice, however they do need to be treated with respect and can cause some confusion to the first time user. Some locks are operated for the boater by lock keepers but most canal and river locks are boater operated.
A lock consists of a chamber with water tight doors at each end. Once a boat is in the lock chamber and the doors closed the water in the lock can be adjusted to the appropriate level by means of paddles the let water in or out of the lock. Paddles may be ground paddles that let water in or out through a culvert or gate paddles that let water through an aperture in the lock gate. The arrangement of gate and ground paddles varies. Some locks may have only gate or ground paddles, others have both. Sometimes there are both gate and ground paddles at the same end of the lock. Usually paddles are operated by use of a windlass with which the paddle mechanism is wound up or down.
Descending through a Lock
If you are going downhill the lock must be full before you can open the gates and enter.
Going up through a lock
If you are going uphill the lock must be empty before you can open the gates and enter.
Animation of working through a lock
Other Types of Lock
The above description of lock operation assumes a normal manually operated canal lock. You may encounter locks with guillotine gates, electrically operated locks or locks with strange paddle gear. There are often notice to tell you how to operate these locks, but remember the principles of lock operation are always the same. You may also want to read my article on Staircase Locks.
Sound Signals are used on the Thames and some other rivers but are not widely used on canals. The Environment Agencies booklet "A User's Guide to the River Thames" lists the signals are as follows:-
|1 blast||- going to starboard (right)|
|2 blasts||- going to port (left)|
|3 blasts||- my engines are going astern|
|4 blasts (pause) 1 Blast||- turning right round to starboard|
|4 blasts (pause) 2 Blasts||- turning right round to port|
|1 long blast and 2 short blasts||- unable to manoeuvre|
Introducing Canal HistoryA short account of UK navigations from Roman Britain to the years of Canal Mania.
Introducing the Waterways System A description of UK canals and navigable rivers as they are today.
Introducing Route Planning Which waterway, Canal Rings, making a timetable