Narrowboating through the years: canal boats of the past, present and future
All our holiday canal boats here at Anglo Welsh are narrowboats – based on the traditional barges designed specifically to navigate the narrow canals of England and Wales. Of course, our rental narrowboats have been built with the comfort and convenience of our guests as the primary focus so while the exteriors are that of a traditional narrowboat, all our barges are fitted out with contemporary luxuries and appliances.
Narrowboats are an evocative sight, harking back to Britain’s industrial past. Just as most of the canals have changed little since their construction in the 18th century, the basic design of narrowboats has also remained largely the same for more than 200 years.
Here we thought we would offer a brief history of the narrowboat as well as looking at what the future may hold for canal boats.
But first, to clarify, purists tend to refer to the old working boats as ‘narrow boats’ and the leisure craft that are now such a common sight on the canals as ‘narrowboats’. For simplification, we will refer to narrowboats throughout.
Origins of the narrowboat
The term narrowboat referred to the working boats built since the 18th century when the canals became the primary method for transporting large or bulky goods to and from factors to key ports or markets as industrialisation took hold.
It now also describes more modern narrowboats which are more often used as pleasure boats or homes but whose structure follows the same design.
The narrowboats were designed to ensure they could fit through the locks and under bridges with a minimum width of seven feet (2.1 metres).
Until the second half of the 18th century inland waterway craft design and size varied widely according to where in the country they were travelling. The concept of a standardised boat about 7-ft wide and 70-ft long is attributed to famous canal engineer James Brindley.
He agreed a deal with the Trent & Mersey Canal Company to build the locks on their canal to take boats of those dimensions. This was much too narrow to allow most boats then using the rivers the canal linked to. It set a precedent becoming the standard lock size for the rest of the Midlands canals meaning all boats wishing to use the canal network then had to meet these criteria.
The evolution of the narrowboat
During the canals’ heydays from the late 18th to early 20th centuries, hundreds of companies were operating narrowboats to transport goods all over England and Wales. All the original wooden narrowboats were horse drawn, hence all canals having a towpath running their entire length.
Originally boatmen would leave their families at home onshore while they went and worked the waterways for several weeks at a time. As the 19th century progressed and canal companies were squeezed by competition from the railways, real wages fell and that became financially impossible. This meant boatmen’s families often travelled with them on the boats working as unpaid crew living in very cramped conditions.
More fortunate were the independent self-employed boatmen who owned their own vessel and were known as ‘Number Ones’.
Steam engine powered narrowboats began to appear in the latter part of the 19th century, mostly used for the longer distance journeys between London and the east and west Midlands. Steamers often worked non-stop day and night to meet their strict schedules.
The problem with steam power was the engine and coal took up a lot of space reducing the cargo capacity and they required a much bigger crew – seven men for a steam and tow barge.
One of the leading narrowboat companies Fellows Morton & Clayton Ltd (FMC) began experimenting with gas engines in the early 1900s and in 1912 fitted a Bolinder engine onto a narrowboat called ‘Linda’.
When this proved a success all future narrowboats were fitted with Bolinder engines, some of which are still used today.
The inland waterways were nationalised in 1948 and carrying companies including FMC and the Grand Union Canal Carrying Company Ltd transferred their fleets over to the newly formed British Transport Commission which later became the British Waterways Board and is now the Canal and River Trust.
During World War Two and the years that followed it, the canals were allowed to fall into disrepair with many becoming impassable. In the 1960s the British Waterways Board ceased most of its narrowboat carrying work and many vessels were left abandoned.
But it was around this time that work to restore the canals began to gain momentum. Since the 1960s hundreds of miles of canals as well as many historic engineering features have been repaired and are now enjoyed by people up and down the country as a wonderful recreational resource. The inland waterways are now used by more boats than at any other time in their history with most used as leisure vessels for canal boat holidays and day trips. But there are also many boats that provide floating homes, offices and there are still working boats carrying goods from place to place.
Many of the earliest pleasure boats were converted former working narrowboats but over time most boat building yards diversified into purpose building pleasure craft with sturdy steel hulls. This is the model of our wonderful fleet of narrowboat hire boats at Anglo Welsh.
The future of canal boats
The canals now host a colourful variety of vessels, from former lifeboats to fiberglass motorboats of all shapes and sizes. Enthusiasm for our historic waterways as a beautiful resource for boats, runners, cyclists, kayakers, nature lovers and more, shows no signs of abating. There are ongoing projects to restore and open up new stretches of the canals with volunteer groups up and down the country who give up their free time to maintain and clear these historic routes.
The popularity of narrowboats and other canal vessels as floating homes has soared in the last decade as rising rents have encouraged people to look for more creative living options. This shows no signs of abating – nor does the popularity of narrowboat holidays. Our holiday narrowboats vary greatly in size to suit different groups with some sleeping just two people while others have berths for up to 12 as well as different levels of luxury and style according to guests needs.
The key change we are likely to see in coming years is the move towards much more environmentally viable narrowboats, in terms of the materials used to build and maintain them, the appliances used onboard and the fuel used to power them. We are likely to see the diesel engines that currently dominate replaced by more green powered forms of propulsion. Electric engines, solar panels and wind turbines will become the norm. That way we can all continue to enjoy the canals for many more years to come while at the same time, protecting the environment.
Stately homes and historic places to visit on your canal boat holiday
Stately homes and other historic properties to visit on your canal boat holiday
One of the joys of a canal boat holiday is the feeling that you have escaped the rush of modern life and stepped back in time to a calmer age. The canals themselves and landscapes and cities they pass are all steeped in history and heritage so offer ample opportunity to immerse yourself in the past.
If you enjoy exploring historic properties and gardens, your narrowboat holiday will not disappoint.
There is such a varied range of stunning manor houses, stately homes and other famous sights lining our inland waterways, you will be spoilt for choice.
Here are just a few of our favourite historic properties and stately homes, most of them located within walking distance of the canals, making them an idea day out during your narrowboat holiday.
Nearest waterways: Oxford Canal and the River Thames
Nearest narrowboat hire base: Oxford
Arguably the most famous stately home in the UK after the royal residences, Blenheim Palace is worth a small detour from your canal boat holiday. The World Heritage property displays a level of grandeur that wows all 900,000 visitors that pass through its ornate rooms each year. Built between 1705 and 1722 in ‘English Baroque’ style, Blenheim remains the principle residence of the Dukes of Marlborough and was the birthplace and ancestral home of Winston Churchill. As well as housing incredible artworks, antiques and interiors, the palace sits at the centre of stunning Capability Brown gardens and 2000 acres of beautiful parkland crisscrossed by idyllic walks.
Nearest waterways: Kennet & Avon Canal and the River Avon
Nearest narrowboat hire base: Bath
While the stunning Grade I Palladian style property has now been converted into a school, its exterior and landscaped grounds can be still be admired by visitors. Built for Bath entrepreneur and philanthropist Ralph Allen in the 1730s and 40s, Prior Park sits at the top of a hill with sweeping views down over Bath’s beautiful city centre. Its Capability Brown gardens, bordered by woodland, feature one of only four Palladian bridges in the world. Now owned and run by the National Trust, take a short break from canal life to catch a bus up the hill to the entrance then enjoy a walk back down through the grounds to the city centre.
This beautiful manor house was built over 300 years with the original property constructed in the 15th century then added to in the 16th and 17th centuries meaning it offers a unique combination of architectural and interior styles. There are late Gothic and Jacobean windows alongside decorative plasterwork, tapestries and antique furnishing. The former home of Edgar Lister, a diplomat at the Ottoman court in the early years of the 20th century, also boasts an impressive topiary garden. Walking distance from the canal, Westwood is worth a quick stop off during your canal boat holiday.
One of the most beautiful country houses in England, Adlington Hall has been home to the Legh family since 1315. The current property, built on the site of a Saxon hunting lodge, dates from 1480 when the Great Hall was erected using two great oak trees which still stand at one end of the room today. The building was expanded in the 1740s into a grander Georgian house. It still houses a 17th century organ which was played by Handel alongside rich collection of antiques and artwork. The 60 acre gardens feature a yew maze, rose garden, Regency rockery and a Rococo styled landscape garden containing the T’Ing House, a Pagoda bridge and the Temple to Diana.
Nearest narrowboat hire base: Bunbury and Great Haywood
This iconic Tudor manor house looks like it has jumped straight out of a children’s fairy story. The higgledy piggledy timber framed building has been perched, defying gravity, next to its moat for more than 500 years. Now run by the National Trust, the earliest parts of the house were built for the prosperous Cheshire landowner William Moreton in about 1504 to 08, and the remainder was constructed in stages by successive generations of the family until about 1610. Nestled at the back of the building is a beautifully maintained knot garden and herbs and vegetables that would have been used in Tudor cooking. Visitors to the hall can learn about Tudor cuisine and other aspects of their everyday life and culture.
Home to the Anson family since 1610, this beautiful colonnaded Georgian mansion, is surrounded by miles of undulating parkland and ancient woodland adorned with monuments. Visitors can admire the rich interiors and furnishings of the state rooms and living quarters of former owner of Patrick Anson, 5th Earl of Lichfield, then head ‘below stairs’ for a peek into the servants’ rooms. Explore the formal gardens and rambling parkland before popping along to Park Farm to meet the Tamworth pigs and other creatures great and small. You can cruise right past Shugborough’s grounds depending on your canal boat holiday route.
This Victorian timber framed manor is home to an impressive Pre-Raphaelite art collection with works by Bryne-Jones, Rossetti and Everett Millais. Its former owner Theodore Mander decorated its interiors with the designs of William Morris and his Arts and Crafts contemporaries so the house now stands as a perfectly preserved relic of this era of design and one family’s passion for art. Now run by the National Trust, visitors can also enjoy a ramble around the 17 acres of gardens and woodland that surrounds the house before heading to the tearoom or second hand bookshop.
This stunning Georgian stately home, built from local honey coloured Hornton stone, is a delight for the eyes inside and out. Home to the Holbech family since 1684 but now run by the National Trust, Farnborough Hall is decorated with intricate 18th century plasterwork depicting landscapes and wildlife and antiques from all over the world alongside family photos and other personal treasures. The house is surrounded by formal and terraced gardens and parkland intersected by lakes, offering lovely tranquil walks.
This 17th century manor house once sat at the heart of a thriving farming estate and today tells the tale of the rise and fall of those who lived and worked there. Built in 1642 by James Murgatroyd, who made his fortune in the Halifax cloth industry, the impressive property sits on a plateau overlooking the River Aire and the canal, surrounded by stunning grounds including a walled garden and medieval tithe barn. East Riddlesden Hall is a popular filming location having been used in Wuthering Heights and Sharpe. A perfect place to moor up during a narrowboat holiday from Silsden.
This large stately home, dating from the early 18th century and built in red brick Queen Anne style, offers a unique insight into the life of this period. Built as a country retreat for wealthy chancery lawyer Thomas Vernon, the house houses impressive interiors including original wall paintings by Sir James Thornhill. Its formal gardens, designed by George London, have been lovingly restored alongside the orangery, orchards and walled gardens all of which sit surrounded by many acres of parkland with wonderful walks.
The ancestral estate of the Trevor family since 942, the Brynkinalt estate sits amid the beautiful green hills on the Wales-Shropshire border. At the heart of the estate sites the Grade II* hall built in 1612 using red brick cut onsite then extensively revamped with Gothic elements in the early 19th century but still featuring the original Jacobean oak panelled Hall. The property is surrounded by stunning formal gardens including a walled garden, park and woodland with a number of gate lodges and follies. The family welcome visitors but this must be arranged by booking in advance. Tours are conducted by members of the family.
This grand 16th century stately home sits surrounded by a stunning deer park on the banks of the River Avon. The estate has been home to the Lucy family for 900 years with the current property, which played host to Queen Elizabeth I, built in 1558 by Sir Thomas Lucy. The house has been slowly filled with treasures from all over the world by each generation of the family, whose varied lifestyles and tastes have all left their mark. The stables even boast an impressive carriage collection. The house looks out upon Capability Brown landscaped gardens and hundreds of acres of parkland offering scenic walks and great picnic spots.
Home to the Earls of Powis, this medieval castle which dates back to around 1200 overlooks extensive formal gardens and terraces laid out under the influence of Italian and French styles. Originally built as a fortress, the castle was revamped and embellished by successive generations of the Herbert family over the course of more than 400 years meaning it now houses an impressive collection of paintings, sculpture, tapestries and period furniture. It is renowned for housing the valuables that Robert Clive and his son Edward brought home from India. Now run by the National Trust, the house and garden is surrounded by rolling green acres that make up a stunning deer park.
All aboard! New narrowboats being introduced for 2019 canal holidays
Winter is behind us and that means the new canal boat holiday season is finally here! We’ve been hard at work over winter to ensure the best possible choice of narrowboats for your 2019 canal adventures. So, we are excited to announce the launch of a series of new canal barges this season which will ensure we continue to offer an unbeatable range of narrowboat holidays for all our guests.
Here’s an introduction to the beautiful new narrowboats that will be gracing our historic waterways in coming months:
Heritage Class expands with Poppy at Wootton Wawen
After the huge success of our first ‘Heritage Class’ canal barge Lily which was launched last year, we are thrilled to be expanding the fleet with Poppy. The Heritage Class boats are designed and built in the style of the narrowboats of the past, with traditional livery, round portholes, wooden interiors with brass fittings and a fuel fire. However, don’t be fooled by the boats’ old-fashioned appearance, they are still fitted out with all the modern features needed to ensure your comfort and convenience from central heating to full size shower rooms, TV, DVD and WiFi. The Heritage Class boats offer the best of both worlds.
With two bedrooms offering four berths, a fully equipped galley – or kitchen in landlubber speak – dining area and lounge, Poppy is perfect for families and groups of friends wanting to drift back in time to a bygone era along the canals of England and Wales.
Constellation Class welcomes three news boats, Gemini, Scorpius and Sagittarius
This Constellation class has proven so popular since its creation in 2016, it has expanded very year and 2019 is now exception. This year will see the introduction of three new canal barges that each sleep up to 10 guests across four bedrooms so are idea for larger group holidays.
The Constellation Class narrowboats boast light modern interiors, comfy leather seats in the lounge and fully equipped galley kitchens with a cooker and hobs, fridge-freezer and microwave. With so much space for sleeping and storage, the large Constellation Class boats are popular for longer canal boat trips of a week or more.
Weir Class grows with Grafton at Whixall Marina
The smaller Weir Class boats which sleep just two to four people have been a big hit with couples wanting a relaxing, romantic break. Grafton will be launched at Whixall Marina on the lovely Shropshire Union Canal on Friday, 5th April. With its one double bedroom, bathroom and kitchen-living space, measuring just 48-ft in length, Grafton, like the other Weir class narrowboats are much easier to handle and maneouvre than some of their larger counterparts making them great starter boats. They are also a good choice in peak season when the canals get very busy and space is at a premium.
All the Anglo Welsh narrowboats are designed to provide a perfect floating holiday home for families, couples and friends who want to explore the canals of England and Wales without compromising on comfort and convenience. The holiday hire narrowboats have gas ovens, bridges, TV, DVD players, central heating and kitchens equipped with everything needed to cook and enjoy a meal for everyone onboard. Bedding, towels, tea towels and bottled gas is provided. Some boats have additional features such as microwaves, sofas, dressing tables so always check the layout and specifications of the vessel before booking to ensure it has everything you need.
Aim high: The most impressive aqueducts on the canals of England and Wales
There are few things as magical as drifting on a canal boat high above another waterway or even a road or railway, waving to the world below. Aqueducts offer some of the most incredible moments of any canal boat holiday, from enjoying sweeping views across verdant countryside to admiring the incredible feats of historic engineering many of them represent. As your narrowboat crosses an aqueduct and you calmly watch the world passing below, you will feel transported in body and mind.
Here, to help you plan your next narrowboat holiday route with Anglo Welsh, we list the most impressive canal aqueducts to look out for in England and Wales:
Arguably the most awe-inspiring of any aqueduct in England and Wales, the Pontcysyllte carries the Llangollen canal a jaw-dropping 126-ft above the River Dee. It offers traversing canal boats and towpath walkers sweeping views along the stunning river valley in each direction. Located at Trevor in North Wales, the Grade I* listed aqueduct achieved World Heritage status in 2009.
Nearest Anglo Welsh base: Trevor
Situated on a stunning stretch of the Kennet and Avon Canal between Bath and Bradford-upon-Avon, this beautiful stone structure was completed in 1810 by John Rennie. It carries narrowboats across the River Avon as well as Brunel’s Great Western Railway and is now designated as a Scheduled Ancient Monument.
Nearest Anglo Welsh base: Monkton Combe
Barton Swing Aqueduct
The first and only swing aqueduct in the world carries the Bridgewater Canal across the much larger Manchester Ship Canal. Now a Grade II* listed building, this feat of Victorian civil engineering opened in 1893 consisting of a channel that can be sealed off at each end to form a 235-feet long and 18 feet wide tank. Holding 800 tons of water, it swings on a pivot on an island in the middle of the Ship Canal.
Nearest Anglo Welsh base: Bunbury
The highest canal aqueduct in England, this incredible triple arched structure carries the Peak Forest Canal 90-feet above the River Goyt near Marple. Designed by Benjamin Outram and opened in 1800, the Grade I listed construction and ancient monument which sits at the bottom of one of the steepest lock flights in Britain, comprising 16 locks.
Nearest Anglo Welsh base: Bunbury
Dowley Gap Aqueduct
Also known as the Seven Arches Aqueduct, this beautiful Grade II edifice takes the Leeds and Liverpool Canal across the River Aire, between Saltaire and Bingley. Designed by the famous engineer James Brindley, the 245-year-old aqueduct runs for 131 yards over seven stone arches, as its second name suggests.
Built in 1825 by engineer Thomas Telford, this 52-ft long elegant cast-iron structure carries the Engine Arm Canal across the Birmingham Canal Navigation (BCN) New Main Line near Smethwick. The aqueduct was designed to transfer water from Edgbaston Reservoir to ensure the West Midland canal network was topped up.
Nearest Anglo Welsh base: Tardebigge
This 70-ft high aqueduct, built between 1796 and 1801 by Thomas Telford and William Jessop carries the Llangollen Canal across the luscious Ceiriog Valley straddling England and Wales. Despite its scale and beauty with 10 masonry arches, the Chirk Aqueduct is often overshadowed by its near neighbor the Pontcysyllte but is included within the World Heritage Site which stretches from Chirk to the Horseshoe Falls in Llangollen itself.
Nearest Anglo Welsh base: Trevor
This cast iron aqueduct built in 1811 carries the Grand Union Canal 40-ft above the idyllic River Great Ouse at Cosgrove. Originally known as the Iron Trunk, the aqueduct was built in iron to replace a previous stone aqueduct that had failed.
The longest cast iron aqueduct in England, the Edstone is one of three aqueducts on a four mile stretch of the Stratford-upon-Avon canal in Warwickshire. Stretching for 475-ft, the Edstone crosses a road, a busy railway line and the track of another former railway near Bearley. Opened in 1816, the aqueduct is notable for the fact its towpath is at the level of the canal bottom so walkers crossing it can watch the narrowboats motor past at waist height.
Nearest Anglo Welsh base: Wootton Wawen
If you would like further advice on the best routes for a canal boat holiday to take in some of these aqueducts and other marvels of our canal network, please don’t hesitate to contact our team on 0117 304 1122 or via our website: www.anglowelsh.co.uk/Contact-Us.
We offer a range of different types of holidays such as City Breaks, Relaxation Cruises and Popular Destinations
So why choose Anglo Welsh?
Over 55 years providing unique canal boat holidays in England and Wales.
Modern and spacious narrowboat and wide beam barge hire – from 2 to 12 berths.
Wide choice of narrowboat hire locations and canal boat holiday destinations.
Canal boat holiday routes for novices & experienced boaters.
Flexible holiday booking, no hidden costs.
Family friendly and pet friendly holidays.
Great days out on the water.
Luxury canal boat hire and Thames boating holidays.
Anglo Welsh. So much more than narrowboats
...but don't just take our word for it
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