Freelance journalist with a passion for theatre, the arts, food and books.
Published October 6th 2020
Social distance with a narrowboat staycation trip
In a COVID-era of lockdowns and self-isolating, the unpredictability involved with foreign travel has led to a soaring popularity of narrowboat holidays and trips in the UK.
I ventured aboard day boat Emma on the Worcester and Birmingham Canal to see if this kind of adventure would be a smooth-sailing vacation or leave me wanting to jump overboard.
Sail away on a boating adventure with Anglo Welsh
I've grown up seeing the narrowboats slowly drifting past on the region's intricate network of historic canals and my uncle even lived on one for a time - but this was the first time I'd get to play skipper.
Boarding at Tardebigge, near Bromsgrove, I was introduced to a slightly smaller than usual narrowboat called "Emma" that Anglo Welsh narrowboat holiday company uses for day trips. Thankfully we were given beginner's tuition from the friendly team that made the two of us onboard feel much less panicked about the responsibility of steering this cruiser alongside other boats. Although we would be travelling at 4mph and often overtaken by fast walkers, so no need to be that worried.
Setting off towards Birmingham from Anglo Welsh's boat hire base, it quickly became apparent how narrowboating opens up a totally new world. While we were close to roads and suburbs we knew well, we were seeing another side of Birmingham and the region from a different perspective.
Looking over Emma, the day narrowboat, at Anglo Welsh
It was like peeling back a layer and sailing through an underworld of blossoming and undisturbed nature where wild birds and plants flourish and everyone, walking the towpath or cruising nearby, greets you like an old friend.
Even the tunnels had hidden discoveries - atmospheric and seeming to echo the ghosts of times gone-by amongst age-old bricks stained with white calcifications and marks from where Victorian boatmen would have legged their way through.
With only a dot of sunlight lying ahead and our lights on full beam, we held our breaths that another boat wouldn't enter from the other side. It hardly seemed wide enough for Emma, but when we did face oncoming traffic, it was a wonder to see how easily the boats could pass - albeit snugly and with plenty of concentration at the tiller (not by me I might add).
Unfortunately, I wasn't a natural at the helm and sent Emma on a wayward journey spanning the width of the canal as I couldn't manage to fathom the sensitivity of the tiller. Useful tip - turn left to head right and vice versa.
Stripped of my title and reduced to crewmate, my limitations had the benefit of leaving me free to explore the boat and lounge on the front deck in somewhat of a suntrap with a mug of tea, steaming hot from the old fashioned kettle on the stove.
Yes, there's a full-working kitchen and also a toilet on board along with comfy sofa seats that make this a rather comfy home-from-home adventure. The 4mph speed also makes for a gentler pace of life that allows you to take stock, relax and notice your surroundings.
Trees and fields lined our route towards Kings Norton Junction with the odd fishing pond and reservoir. We not only ventured among ducks, coots and swans but gasped as we passed a heron. The whole trip made me realise how much greener Birmingham was than I ever imagined.
While it's relaxing on a narrowboat, there's also plenty of adventure and challenges to keep you busy. Navigating your way, docking up and handling locks are all part of that and there's a charm to following in the footsteps of the generations who sailed this region into the Industrial Revolution history books.
Sailing into beautiful scenes from Tardebigge to Birmingham
There's also the option to pull up for a drink or lunch at one of the many canal-side pubs or picnic while docked on the water's edge. You can include up to 10 people on-board on your day trip, which would make for a great birthday treat or hen do. For a family or bubble, it's also a great way to get about while social distancing.
What I would say is that if you are considering a longer holiday on a narrowboat, try out the day trip first to see how you enjoy the experience and get to grips with steering the boat. That way you will know what to expect rather than any surprises for when you do embark on a staycation.
See a greener side of the country from a narrowboat
'Emma' and other day boats are available to hire from Anglo Welsh and costs £99 on a weekday and £140 on weekends and bank holidays for up to 10 people on board. More info is here.
If you fancy another Midland routes, day boats 'Dolly' and 'Charlie' operate out of Anglo Welsh's Warwickshire narrowboat rental base at Wootton Wawen near Henley-in-Arden, where boaters can either head south along the Stratford Canal to the historic village of Wilmcote, or north to Lowsonford. The two-hour journey to Wilmcote crosses the impressive Edstone Aqueduct and passes through just one lock.
Alternatively, the journey to the village of Lowsonford takes three hours, travelling eight miles and passing through eight locks along the way. The route passes through fields and wooded sections, the remains of the Forest of Arden.
Full tuition is included for those new to canal boating. Boats are equipped with cutlery, crockery and a kettle, and most also have a toilet, cooker and fridge. For more information visit the Anglo Welsh website here or call the booking team on 0117 304 1122.
For a short break, narrowboat hire prices for a boat for four people start at £560 for a short break (three-night weekend or four-night mid-week) or £775 for a week.