Canal boat holidays in the UK are great for a pub and adventure getaway with friends

Even Indiana Jones would have ditched his trademark fedora for a job well done. Just a few miles into our first canal boat holiday, the unforgettablely named New Marton Bottom lock – the first of the voyage – was fast approaching.

Getting our 66 foot narrow boat through the two huge wooden gates in one piece seemed very unlikely. But miraculously we were only 20 minutes later unscathed. Not bad for six city slickers in their 40s with an hour’s boat ride instruction and pretty much no “water” hours between us.

A few years ago the Indy himself – well, Harrison Ford – spent a few days cruising the same stretch of the Llangollen Canal in Shropshire.

A castle would no doubt have been little trouble for the daring archaeologist, but for us just the thought of it was like being chased off the big boulder in Raiders of the Lost Ark. And as we were to find out, as with any good Indiana Jones movie, even greater challenges were just around the corner…

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With Covid wreaking havoc for foreign holidays my friends and I decided to stick to a stay and book a canal boat adventure at the end of summer.

In all the years we’ve known each other—nearly three decades—no one had ever proposed, and it was a very different kind of getaway than the sun, sea, and sangria we were used to.

To say there were some nerves is an understatement, but we needn’t have worried.

We arrived at Blackwater Meadow Marina in Ellesmere on a sunny Friday afternoon where our boat Archers Lark was moored.

Ninety minutes later, and after being educated on the do’s and don’ts by the helpful staff—“some people treat it like a contact sport” was my favorite phrase—we were on our way.

A boating holiday on the canal makes for a boy’s getaway with a difference


Ben Rankin channel collects)

Ben on the canal boat


Ben Rankin channel collects)

With only 48 hours of gameplay, we wanted to get moving and see as much of the canal as possible – not easy when the speed limit is 2mph.

It’s life in the slow lane or life in the very slow lane and nothing will make you faster but the current, which can add a mighty 1-2 miles per hour to your progress.

That means there’s more than you think to keep you on your toes.

Steering a narrowboat is not as easy as it looks as it will turn for some time after you move the tiller. Looking ahead and planning is key to making sure you don’t run aground or hit other ships.

And then there are the low-hanging tree branches and numerous stone bridges to watch out for, especially if it’s a booze cruise, as many canal boat trips seem to be.

A view of the Llangollen Canal near Chirk


(Getty Images)

We soon got used to watching the world go by, which in this part of the world means counting the grazing sheep and cows that line the banks.

Those first few hours of adjusting to a slower pace of life and enjoying the excellent company of longtime friends were the pick-me-up we all needed.

That evening we berthed alongside the Narrowboat Inn in Oswestry for a fish and chip dinner before returning to the Lark for a game of cards and bed. We were all asleep within minutes of our heads hitting the pillows.

I had hoped to be woken up by birdsong, but unfortunately it was snoring and croaking.

While all the facilities – kitchen, showers, toilets – are top notch, the spacing between the beds means it can be not only very cozy but also noisy. And the many ducks on the opposite bank certainly made sure we knew they were there!

I decided the only option was to get up and go outside – and what a difference. A glorious sunrise was made perfect by a lone hot air balloon hovering overhead. That was the kind of moment I was hoping for.

The freedom to moor our boat pretty much anywhere along the canal meant we had a beautiful piece of scenery to ourselves until others started passing by.

After expertly negotiating the New Marton Bottom Lock, we rewarded ourselves with a hearty English before heading out for an action-packed day that Indiana would have been proud of.

Being a Saturday, there was significantly more traffic on the canal, both with other boats and kayakers.

A barge along the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct


(Getty Images)

The peace of the previous afternoon was gone, but in its place was a genuine sense of friendliness among everyone we passed. The hours passed without our realizing it and at noon we stopped at Poachers in Chirk for a dip in the pub garden.

Drinking and driving are not frowned upon on narrowboats, so it’s a good thing they’re fairly indestructible.

I admit that we ‘kissed’ the banks of the canal a few times that afternoon, but no damage was done.

However, crossing the Chirk Aqueduct into Wales and then through the rather eerie and chilly Chirk Tunnel was a little more of a challenge. And we had another mighty obstacle to overcome: the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, the longest in Britain and at 126 feet the tallest in the world.

Takeover of the Pontcysyllte aqueduct


(Getty Images)

On the way back I gripped the tiller so tightly I must have squeezed the life out of it, but we made it across and back to begin our return journey. As the sun went down on a beautiful day, we continued through the fading light to allow ourselves the shortest possible trip on Sunday.

“Turn off your damn lights,” came the heartfelt yell of a skipper whom we clearly blinded as he came in the opposite direction.

Our narrowboat etiquette has been impeccable up to this point, but as a beginner there would always be a small mistake or two.

Lesson learned for next time.

On the way back to the marina there was no more drama and no crescendo of a Hollywood ending.

But if our wonderful journey ever made it to the big screen, it would have to be called Riders Of The Lost Lark!

Book the vacation

Drifters Waterway Holidays hire 550 canal boats from 45 bases across England, Scotland and Wales. Prices for 2022 start from £550 for a short break (three to four nights) on a four-person boat, or £760 for a week. Includes linens, towels, comprehensive insurance, first pet, parking and tuition. Fuel costs extra.

Archers Lark at Blackwater Meadow Marina in Ellesmere, Shropshire sleeps up to six people with prices in 2022 from £1,199 for a short break and £1,599 for a week. Learn more at

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