How to keep children happy and safe on a narrowboat trip
To our children’s great excitement, we recently took them on a narrowboat holiday – the prospect of our own barge for a few days really captured their imagination.
Home for the break was a 67-foot boat along the Llangollen Canal between Shropshire and Wales (full story here).
We loved the sense of freedom and slow pace of life and learned a lot in a short space of time.
But how do you keep children happy and safe on a canal boat holiday?
First off – are children safe on a canal boat?
We felt that at aged nine and six, our children would be safe – they both swim and follow instructions, plus they were happy to wear life jackets.
To be honest, I would not have wanted to take this holiday when they were toddlers.
It would be hard work and you would need to keep an eye on them at all times. Plus you would need more than two adults when going through locks for example – one to helm, one to operate the lock and another to look after the children.
How to prepare children for a canal boat holiday
You will want your children to be excited about the holiday and all they can do to help.
But also make sure to give them some general safety advice.
Talk them calmly through the dangers and how to stay safe. You could also show them a video.
General safety advice for children on narrowboats
Children should wear a like jacket
*Wear lifejackets and non-slip shoes
*Don’t run by the water
*Don’t lean too far over the side
*Step on and off the boat when it is safe to do so, don’t try to jump across a gap.
*Be very careful at locks and listen to instructions. Locks have steep sides and water comes in and out quickly.
*Children should always be supervised by an adult.
What to pack for children on a canal boat holiday
*Comfortable clothes including shorts and fleeces.
*Anorak and waterproofs.
*Life jackets/buoyancy aids – check with your boat hire company if they are provided, ours were with Anglo Welsh.
*Scooters or bikes if allowed as large sections of the canal towpath are flat and have a hard surface. You can send one adult off with the children while the other steers the boat. But check with your hire company how many are allowed and where you can keep them.
*Most importantly, pack activities for the children to do while travelling (see next section).
What activities to take for children on a canal holiday?
It’s a fantastic novelty for children to be in a floating home, relaxing, playing, watching the world go past, helping with some of the jobs.
But there are also hours spent travelling where kids can get bored.
Take reading books, activity books, board games, toys, paper and pens with you plus tablets or whatever else your children enjoy to pass the time.
If there is WiFi and a television, they may not work.
Pack a camera children can use to take photos, but not an expensive one in case it falls in the canal!
Take some binoculars. You can get children wildlife spotting and feeding the ducks.
And there will be plenty to teach them about the history of the canals.
Or take hats and pretend to be pirates.
Don’t go too far
It’s tempting to power on to new destinations with a tick-list of achievements.
But be flexible, the best times on our trip were when we ended up in a random spot in the evening and headed off in the fresh air to explore nearby footpaths, fields and woods.
Exploring the countryside at St Martin’s in Shropshire
So don’t be too rigid and build in plenty of stops if the weather is dry, so that children can stretch their legs and whoever is at the helm can relax.
If children are inside, make sure the lights are on when you go through a tunnel else it will go very dark very quickly and they won’t be able to see.
If they are outside, ensure an adult is with them and they stay seated as tunnels can be very narrow and low.
Our two loved the tunnels and we played an echo game to keep them entertained but they can be very long and dark so some children could be scared.
Warn them that you will be turning the headlight on and sounding the horn before entering.
And obviously ensure nobody is on the roof or side of the boat.
Going through Chirk Tunnel in Wales
What jobs can children do to help on a boating holiday
There are different boating jobs children can help with depending on their age.
They can help plan the route, keep the boat tidy, cast off and tie the ropes.
Older children can help with the steering under supervision.
They can also help with working the locks as long as they know how to do so safely.
However, don’t get them doing every lock with you because they get just as much fun from sitting on the boat as it rises or falls in the lock.
Younger ones can look out for tunnels, bridges and oncoming boats.
We got our children to keep tabs on the number of each bridge because that tells you whereabouts you are on the canal.
Our daughter helps lift a bridge at Froncysyllte in Wales
What route to take with children
Pick places which will entertain children – work around stopping points which have family attractions where possible.
For instance we made sure to stop at Ellesmere because of its lake walk, playground and sculpture trail.
Pick spots which are near to playgrounds, woodland walks or leisure centres.
Blakemere at Ellesmere
Most importantly have lots of fun. You can feel like a real team on this sort of a holiday and it will certainly be one they remember.
Our first boating holiday takes in the famous Pontcysyllte Aqueduct on the Llangollen Canal
I have been in charge of an 18-tonne canal boat the length of a lorry for roughly a minute.
Concentrating hard, I navigate on to the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, the width of our craft Askrigg, trying to ignore the 40-metre sheer drop on one side into the River Dee.
The expert, who has just given us an hour’s worth of thorough instructions, steps off the barge and we are alone crossing the longest aqueduct in Britain and the highest in the world.
As introductions to canal life goes, there’s nothing like being thrown in at the deep end as our two children enjoy the ride and my husband helps direct from the front – almost 70 feet away.
We are on a Drifters waterways holiday and our Anglo Welsh boat has just left Trevor basin near Llangollen in north east Wales.
About to depart from Trevor basin
Our four-day route is along the Llangollen Canal with overnight stops at the border village of Chirk and the Shropshire town of Ellesmere.
I quickly discover that canal boating is simultaneously very relaxing and stressful. Once we cross the aqueduct with its amazing views, there are other boats to dodge, tight turns to master and long tunnels to chug through.
There’s even a swing bridge to lift and our six-year-old gets out, armed with the windlass (the tool to lift canal locks and bridges) and starts helping turn the gauge to raise it high above the canal and allow us to pass through.
At first, bridges and locks may be daunting but they quickly become part of the fun, giving the children some activity and making them feel part of the team.
Luckily, every boater seems friendly and happy to help if you get in a fix.
Helming takes some practice, the boat is steered from the rear with a tiller. You may find yourself gently bumping the sides, glancing off low bridges or getting stuck in shallow water.
Coming out from a tunnel
It is all part of the adventure and steering quickly becomes second nature, even if you can never entirely relax at the helm.
We take it in turns so one of us can be with the children, prepare food or even relax, lazing at the front, enjoying the scenery.
There’s something pretty awesome about travelling along in a floating home but I recommend mooring up as often as possible to explore the towpath and surroundings.
We love stopping where we want, discovering walks through the countryside with just cows for company. This slow pace of travel needs to be embraced.
We also make planned stops at Chirk near to the famous castle, Ellesmere with its mere, playground, sculpture trail and quaint town centre, the small village of St Martin’s and also the base at Trevor, from where you can cross the famous aqueduct, a world heritage site, on foot.
As your confidence dealing with the boat increases, so does your speed carrying out its regular checks, filling with water and tying the ropes.
And the quality of our craft Askrigg really helps make the holiday (read our detailed review of the boat). It is one of Anglo Welsh’s Bond class boats and sleeps up to six (read our full review of it here).
Inside our boat Askrigg
There is lots of space inside, two bedrooms, two bathrooms with showers, a well-equipped kitchen, lounge/dining area, television, radio, central heating and WiFi. It is also extremely clean and Covid compliant.
By the end of our mini-break it has become a home from home so as we head back over the aqueduct four days later, the view was just as stunning but any novice nerves about taking a canal boat holiday have disappeared.
Holiday from a narrowboat to explore the countryside with children
Britain’s network of inland waterways wind through thousands of miles of countryside.
And they can be explored on a family trip with a difference – staying on a narrowboat – your own floating holiday home.
Here are some of the most popular routes to inspire you from Anglo Welsh, one of the largest canal boat holiday companies in the UK,
1. Navigate through Shakespeare country and Warwickshire farmland
Start from Anglo Welsh’s narrowboat hire base at Wootton Wawen, on the Stratford Canal near Henley-in-Arden. It takes around six hours, travelling through 17 locks, to reach Stratford upon Avon.
Travel over the Edstone Aqueduct and on through the Warwickshire countryside and stop off at Mary Arden’s Tudor Farm in the canalside village of Wilmcote, where Shakespeare’s mother grew up.
Once in Stratford, there are overnight moorings in Bancroft Basin, perfect for enjoying all that Shakespeare’s birthplace has to offer, including riverside parks, theatres, shops, restaurants and museums.
2. Staffordshire to the Peak District
Cruise into the Peak District on a week’s break from Anglo Welsh’s barge hire base on the Trent & Mersey Canal at Great Haywood in Staffordshire.
From here, you can reach the beautiful Caldon Canal and travel into the Peak District.
The journey takes boaters up to Stoke on Trent, passing Wedgewood World along the way, and, once on the Caldon, through hills and wooded areas alongside the River Churnet.
Here there’s the chance to spot kingfishers, herons, jays and woodpeckers, as well as otters which have recently returned to the area.
The return journey along the Caldon to Froghall, takes around 43 hours, travelling a total of 72 miles and passing through 70 locks.
Travel round the Stourport Ring through stretches of Worcestershire countryside – on a week’s break from Anglo Welsh’s canal boat rental base at Tardebigge on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal near Bromsgrove.
This popular circuit takes boaters on an 84-mile, 114-lock journey, in around 56 cruising hours.
Much of the route is rural, cruising sections of the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal, Worcester & Birmingham Canal Navigation, River Severn, Birmingham Canal Main Line and Stourbridge canals.
Rural highlights include Kinver Edge with its extensive woodlands and National Trust Holy Austin Rock Houses, idyllic stretches of Worcestershire countryside along the River Severn and a dramatic flight of 30 locks at Tardebigge, climbing two-and-a-quarter miles with views of the open countryside all around.
This circuit also takes boaters through central Birmingham, Kidderminster and the ancient City of Worcester with its magnificent cathedral.
Cruise to the gateway of the Yorkshire Dales and explore the ancient woods at Skipton Castle, from Anglo Welsh’s canal boat hire base at Silsden on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal in West Yorkshire.
It takes just over three hours to reach Skipton with its medieval fortress and acres of woodland trails to explore. For nearly a thousand years, Skipton Castle Woods provided fuel, food and building materials for castle inhabitants. Today there are at least 18 species of trees flourishing there and hundreds of flowering plants, including wild orchids and bluebells in the Spring.
The journey along the Leeds & Liverpool Canal to Silsden passes through the typical Yorkshire stone-built villages of Kildwick and Farnhill and on into a dense wooded area famous for its bluebells and deer.
5. Bath to Pewsey
Drift through the prehistoric Vale of Pewsey – it takes around 19 hours to reach Pewsey Wharf from Anglo Welsh’s canal boat rental base at Brassknocker Basin on the Kennet & Avon Canal just outside Bath, perfect for a week afloat.
Along the way, boaters pass through miles of Wiltshire countryside, with a series of waterside villages and country pubs to visit along the way.
Highlights on this route include the mighty Caen Hill Flight of 29 locks at Devizes, cruising along the edge of the ancient Savernake Forest and the beautiful Vale of Pewsey, part of the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and home to prehistoric Avebury.
The journey to Pewsey and back takes around 38 hours, passing through 74 locks (37 each way).
Travel to Llangollen on the edge of the Berwyn Mountains. It takes around 12 hours to reach this pretty town from Anglo Welsh’s canal boat rental base at Whixall Marina, on the Prees Branch of the Llangollen Canal in Shropshire.
Along the way, travel through the Shropshire Lake District and across the incredible Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, one of the ‘Seven Wonders of the Waterways’ and now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Once in Llangollen, boaters can moor up to enjoy exploring the town including its regular markets packed with local produce, shops, restaurants, steam railway and famous Horseshoe Falls.
The journey to Llangollen and back passes through just four locks (two each way).
7. Four Counties Ring
Start a week’s break at Anglo Welsh’s canal boat rental base at Bunbury on the Shropshire Union Canal in Cheshire and travel round the popular Four Counties Ring, one of the most rural canal cruising circuits.
Travelling for around 58 hours and passing through 96 locks, this route takes canal boat holidaymakers through the counties of Staffordshire, the West Midlands, Cheshire and Shropshire and travels sections of the Trent & Mersey, Staffordshire & Worcestershire and Shropshire Union canals.
Rural highlights include panoramic views from the flight of 31 locks (also known as ‘Heartbreak Hill’) between Middlewich and Kidsgrove on the Trent & Mersey Canal, stunning views of the rolling Cheshire Plains on the Shropshire Union Canal, acres of farmland on the Middlewich Branch, wildlife spotting at Tixall Wide on the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal and the National Trust’s Shugborough Hall with its extensive waterside gardens.
8. Shropshire Lake District
Cruise to the Shropshire Lake District from Anglo Welsh’s narrowboat hire base on the Llangollen Canal at Trevor in North Wales on a short three or four-night break (three or four nights). You may catch a glimpse of heron chicks and other water birds and wildlife.
Llangollen Canal in Shropshire
The journey to the medieval market town of Ellesmere takes around seven hours, passing through just two locks and over two magnificent aqueducts, including the famous Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.
This Wonder of the Waterways, carries the Llangollen Canal 38 metres high above the Dee valley, with magnificent views of the valley and Welsh Mountains beyond.
Formed thousands of years ago by the melting of the glaciers during the retreating ice age, the meres of the Shropshire Lake District, including The Mere at Ellesmere, are particularly beautiful in Spring.
And every Spring, Moscow Island on The Mere is home to the Heron Watch Scheme, with live images allowing visitors to watch the birds build nests and raise chicks.
9. Abingdon and Oxford
Take a Thames boating holiday to Abingdon from Anglo Welsh’s narrowboat hire base on the River Thames near Oxford.
It takes around five hours, passing through six locks and travelling 15 miles to reach the historic riverside market town of Abingdon – perfect for a short break.
Along the way, as well as cruising through the outskirts of the ancient city of Oxford, you will pass through stretches of Oxfordshire countryside, with meadows, stretches of woodlands and the chance to hear cuckoos calling.
Once moored up at Abingdon, boaters can enjoy exploring riverside walks, parks and eateries, including the popular waterside Nag’s Head.
10. Stockton to Stoke Bruerne
Travel through the Northamptonshire countryside to Stoke Bruerne on a four-night break from Anglo Welsh’s canal boat hire base at Stockton, on the Grand Union Canal in Warwickshire.
Narrowboat families can cruise to the village of Stoke Bruerne and back.
The journey takes around 12 hours, travelling 28 mostly rural miles and passes through 16 locks, as well as the 2813-metre long Blisworth Tunnel.
Once in Stoke Bruerne, you can visit canalside pubs, browse the waterway history collections at the Canal Museum and follow the village’s woodland walk and sculpture trail.