From the doldrums of lockdown to the busiest summer on record, Matt Lucas-Stern looks back on the 2020 narrowboat holiday season at Wootton Wawen.
“The coronavirus pandemic has bought dramatic changes to our lives, particularly for those of us involved in the world of travel and hospitality.
When the main 2020 boating season got underway at the beginning of March, even though we knew that Covid-19 was devastating communities elsewhere in China and parts of Europe, we still didn’t have any idea how much it was going to affect our lives.
Here at Wootton Wawen, we were focussing on getting all our boats in tip top shape ready for the main boating season, and making plans to hold an open day to show off our newly painted day boats. When Boris announced a national lockdown on that unforgettable evening on 23 March, everything changed and our boats were suddenly grounded until further notice.
At first we focused on enjoying watching the waterway burst into life as a particularly sunny and warm Spring progressed. As for many people, the peace and quiet of lockdown gave us the chance for reflection, family time and to connect to nature.
But as the weeks went by, we worried more and more about what the future would hold for our industry and when our holidays would be able to resume.
Then on the 20th of June, we received the fantastic news that domestic holidays could resume on the 4th of July. We needed to get our team back from furlough and put in all the necessary measures to ensure our holidays were safe.
We put in new social distancing measures at our boat yards, introduced extra cleaning regimes and we made a video showing people all the facilities on board our boats and how to operate them, to give holiday-makers extra information in advance of their boat handover.
It was a busy and exciting time, both for everyone working at the boat yards, and for our bookings team who were inundated with calls and emails from people wanting to book their canal boat holiday. Many of them were newcomers who had often thought about taking a canal boat holiday, but never quite got around to it before. They realised how perfect our staycation holidays are – offering the chance to escape into the countryside aboard a self-contained, self-catering floating holiday home!
The next two months were full on. For the first time ever, literally all our boats were booked out for the six week summer holiday peak. The first few weeks of July were a bit strange as everyone got used to the news ways of working and just being around people again. But we soon got everything working like clockwork and before long, it became the new normal.
With canal boat holidays, people usually turn up to the boat yard a bit stressed and anxious to get their holiday underway. But by the time they return, the slow time of the canals makes people much calmer and more relaxed.
It was great to see the smiling faces of families returning from their holidays, with kids telling us about some of their experiences. We had a 13-year-old lad who was really keen on narrowboating and ended up working all 113 locks by himself on his family holiday to Stratford on Avon and Warwick. He proudly told the staff about his achievements when they got back at Wootton, and has decided he is definitely coming again next year! He’s even bought his own windlass.
Another really enthusiastic group of newcomers to the world of narrowboating made friends with our boat yard team, and even took a hand painted dipper from my boatman’s cabin to hang over their fireplace to remind them of their boating adventures!
Going into the autumn, particularly in September and over the October Half Term, we were still extremely busy with most of our boats booked out by people taking advantage of the mild weather, and the chance to see the changing colours of the autumn leaves on the trees that line our waterways.
Now it’s November, and sadly another lockdown has just been announced. Here at Wootton Wawen we stay open all year round for winter cruising, so we hope our boats can get back out again in December.
In the meantime, here at Anglo Welsh we are all extremely grateful to the vast majority of our customers who have been prepared to postpone their holidays with us, rather than cancel. We are glad that our holidays were able to resume and have been more popular than ever, helping to support other businesses like canalside pubs and village shops.
As we continue to live with the coronavirus and the changes it has made to our lives, the future remains uncertain. But spending time by the water always somehow makes things feel better, watching nature peacefully continue to change with the seasons.”
The New Year is a great time to take up new hobbies and activities, to learn a new skill. It is an opportunity for a fresh start.
New Year’s resolutions should not be about self-denial and restrictions but about positive fulfilment, expansion, self-discovery and learning. A new hobby is a wonderful way to boost your wellbeing and re-energise life when things are feeling a little stale.
After the overindulgence of Christmas and New Year’s Eve most of us are seeking some more wholesome interests and activities to nourish our mind, body and soul.
So why not take up narrowboating as your new hobby for 2020!
Any narrowboat holiday veteran will admit to being a little nervous the first time they found themselves in control of their own canal barge but our expert instructors will ensure you have all the knowledge you need to quickly become an adept skipper.
Before you set off from our narrowboat hire base, you will be taught how to start the engine, fill up with water, steer, moor up and work the canal locks. They will also talk you through canal etiquette and rules such as where and when to drive, speeds, how to leave locks behind you, best places to moor up and more.
All our narrowboats have manuals on board for guests to check anything or you can even give our engineering team a ring 24 hours a day for further advice. Since most canal boats cannot move at more than three miles per hour, being at the helm is a relaxing rather than stressful experience.
Once you have experienced the joy of a canal boat holiday for the first time, we’re willing to wager a decent sum, you will be back for more. Here are just some of the reasons why:
A canal boat holiday is a perfect way to explore some of the most beautiful areas of Britain, with more than 2000 miles of navigable waterways snaking their way through unspoilt countryside and historic cities, towns and villages. How far you explore largely dependent on how long you have for your canal boat holiday as narrowboats move at a stately pace, but even a couple of days is enough to cover some ground. As you are always on the move, mooring in a different spot each day with new places and things to admire and explore, there’s no excuse for getting bored.
It is a very calming and mindful experience being on the water, focused on the present moment, whether steering the narrowboat or taking in the gorgeous surroundings. With so many people now suffering from stress, a canal boat holiday is the perfect way to unwind away from the rush and bustle of your day to day existence. The canals crisscross miles of idyllic countryside and are teeming with wildlife so a narrowboat holiday allows you to get outside, be one with nature and breathe the clean air while listening to birdsong. Choose one of the more rural canal routes for a truly tranquil narrowboat holiday experience. Persistent stress is very bad for our health so a canal break in 2020 may be just the thing you need to boost your mental and physical wellbeing.
History geeks dream
The canals are a key part of our nation’s industrial heritage, with the vast majority built more than 200 years ago. They were originally constructed as the most efficient method of transporting large bulky goods prior to the advent of the railways. That is why there is such a high concentration of canals in the old industrial heartlands around the West Midlands and North West. This makes a canal boat holiday a history lover’s dream come true as you are quite literally floating through history. You can admire many historic feats of engineering, from the soaring grandeur of the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, completed in 1805 and the Anderton Boat Lift, completed 1875 to the Dudley Tunnel, completed 1791. Beyond the canals themselves, are the historic villages, towns and cities through which they pass as well as stately homes, castles and museums all of which are easily accessible from the waterways. If you have an interest in the UK’s heritage then a narrowboat holiday is the one for you.
So, don’t bother with self-denial, instead embrace this fantastic new hobby for 2020 and discover the magical world of narrowboating.
Narrowboating in style – John Craven holidays on the Llangollen Canal
Earlier this year, we were delighted to welcome Countryfile presenter John Craven, and his two eldest grandsons for a short break narrowboat holiday, setting off from our canal boat hire base at Trevor on the Llangollen Canal in North Wales.
Although John has been fascinated by canals all his life and been a vice-president of a canals trust, he’d never before taken a canal boat holiday.
This summer he set off with Charlie, aged 18, who apparently proved to be a “natural-born skipper” and 15-year-old Will – “the ideal lookout and rope handler”.
John’s article about his journey is published by Countryfile Magazine, 15 October 2017 www.countryfile.com
Choosing their holiday
John explains: “From the 2,000-mile network of navigable canals in England and Wales, we chose a 20-mile stretch of the Llangollen and it turned out to be a perfect microcosm of Britain’s waterways heritage. It encompassed both countries and put us to the test with two aqueducts, 57 bridges, two locks and three tunnels – quite an initiation for first-time narrowboaters piloting a 67ft craft.”
They collected their narrowboat, Askrigg, from Trevor Wharf close to the UNESCO World Heritage Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, which John explains has: “18 stone pillars and 19 cast-iron arches” that “carry the canal at a height of 38m (126ft) over the River Dee.”
Taking a quick course
Oliver from Anglo Welsh gave John and the boys their tuition, showing them how to handle the Askrigg, pushing the tiller right to go left and vice versa, putting the engine in reverse to stop as there are no brakes, driving on the right and pointing out “the horn (essential for warning boats coming towards us round sharp bends), the headlights (which must be switched on before entering tunnels)”.
John explains, “no licence is needed to pilot a narrowboat and after Oliver had travelled with us for a short distance to make sure we had understood his instructions, he left us to continue along on our own.”
Navigating through the Vale of Llangollen
John and his crew began their journey by heading four miles west to the Eisteddfod town of Llangollen, explaining that here the canal “runs along the steep slopes of the Vale of Llangollen and becomes so narrow in places that only one-way traffic is possible. Just to be on the safe side, Will had to run a few hundred yards ahead to make sure nothing was heading towards us and then phone me with an all-clear.”
Checking out the boat’s interior
After mooring in the marina at Llangollen, John describes the interior of their boat as “narrowboating in style” with “everything we could possibly need – two showers, a double bed and two singles, a smart kitchen with a fridge and freezer, small gas cooker, a dining table with bench seats that could convert into an extra bed, two easy chairs and a TV.”
Travelling over the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct
John then describes their journey the next day across the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct: “Entering the aqueduct is one of those never-to-be-forgotten moments. It is, essentially, a 307metre-long metal trough that is just about wide enough for one boat. On one side is the towpath and on the other a sheer drop down to the valley floor – not a view for anyone with vertigo.”
John then talks about the history of the aqueduct, explaining: “It took 10 years to build and was completed in 1805, at the cost of £38m in today’s money and one navvy’s life. One of the geniuses behind it is one of my heroes: the great road and canal builder Thomas Telford and I felt honoured to be crossing a structure that he had helped to build.”
John and his crew then navigated two tunnels and he explains: “there’s a very simple, sensible rule for tunnels: if you see headlights in the dark, don’t enter.”
After the second tunnel at Chirk, they crossed the Chirk Aqueduct and soon after moored up for the night at the Poacher’s Pocket pub at Gledrid. At the pub that night they reflected that all of the 11 miles they’d covered from Llangollen “are part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and rightly so. We had pottered down tree-lined watery avenues, past wide-open countryside and across spectacular constructions.”
Operating the twin locks at New Marton
On describing day three of their journey, John says that “patience is a necessary ingredient of canal travel” said they filled their water tank from the water point whilst waiting to negotiate the twin locks at New Marton, “Charlie then guided Askrigg confidently into the locks” while John and Will operated the gates and paddles.”
To Ellesmere and back
John says: “The canal was busy in both directions all the way to Ellesmere, which kept us on our toes. But on the way back, after a night tied up next to the beautiful Blake Mere on the far side of Ellesmere tunnel, there was very little traffic and we had the waterway almost to ourselves. Apparently canals can be like that: unpredictable.”
Songs at the Aqueduct Inn
On their fourth and final night, John and his crew moored a few hundred yards from their journey’s end at the Aqueduct Inn as they had to return their boat by 9am the following morning.
He says the Aqueduct Inn is “an old pub with great food and fine views from its wooden balcony. It also provided a wonderful and unexpected finale to our adventure.
“The staff were clearing our plates away when into the bar came a large group of men in ties and blazers. Not long after entering they started to sing. It wasn’t the usual pub singalong stuff but beautiful songs with glorious harmonies and, after a short while, I began to recognise some of their faces from a Countryfile programme I had made with them years ago.
“They were members of the internationally renowned Fron Male Voice Choir and they were wetting their whistles after their regular Thursday-night practice and had decided to perform an impromptu encore in their local for a few of the regulars and Charlie, Will and me.”
Back across the Aqueduct
The next morning they took Askrigg back across the aqueduct to our narrowboat hire base at Trevor and John reflects: “It had been an exhilarating, slow-motion few days. We had glided though breath-taking countryside while being overtaken by walkers and their dogs, joggers, cyclists and kayakers canals aren’t just for narrowboats.
“Many peaceful hours of travelling had been dotted with moments of tension, certainly on my part, as I tried to master the skills needed for a method of transportation that hasn’t changed in centuries.
“We agreed it had been far more than just a short holiday. The Llangollen Canal had given us an experience we’d never forget. Why on earth had I waited so long?”
To book a holiday or break on any of Anglo Welsh’s fleet, call our friendly Booking Team on 0117 304 1122.
We offer a range of different types of holidays such as City Breaks, Relaxation Cruises and Popular Destinations
So why choose Anglo Welsh?
More than 55 years providing unique canal boat holidays.
Modern & spacious narrowboat holiday fleet – from 2 to 12 berths.
Wide choice of narrowboat hire locations and canal.
Canal boat holiday routes for novices & experienced boaters.
Flexible holiday booking, no hidden costs.
Family friendly holidays, pets also welcome.