The stress-free charms of boating around Britain’s canal system

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Everyone seems to have found their own ways of dealing with COVID quarantine, whether it’s learning a language, practicing an instrument, baking a lot of sourdough bread, or doing Wordle puzzles. One of the things I got obsessed with for a little while — to the point where I was watching at least one or two videos a day, or letting them play on a second monitor while I was working — is what some call “narrow boating.”

That’s when you own (or rent) a canal boat and spend your days or weekends driving around Britain’s massive canal system at slow speed, just watching the countryside go by. They are called “narrow” boats because that’s exactly what they are — in order to pass through all of the locks between canals, a boat can’t be any wider than seven feet, and it can’t be any longer than about sixty feet. So what you get is a long, thin mobile home.

While I’m sure it gets windy and cold and whatnot, overall it seems like a pretty wonderful way to spend a day (or a week or a month), just puttering around canals, tying up whenever you want and wandering into town or going for a bicycle ride. And much like RV’ing, it seems as though if you want to, it can be done fairly cheap — although there are lots of people who have clearly spent a ton of money on their boats. In one video, the owners of a heavily-customized boat talk about some of the design choices they made.

The video above is from an account called Cruising the Cut, which is one of the most comprehensive channels I came across during my somewhat limited assessment of the category. The guy who runs the account has what I think is the best collection of cruising videos but also instructional videos for anyone who might be thinking about buying or renting their own narrow boat — including a video in which he breaks down all of his monthly and annual costs for owning and maintaining his boat, which includes things like docking fees and the coal or petrol or whatever you use to run the engines.

Another of my favorite channels is called Great Canal Journeys, and it’s a TV show featuring the voyages of actor Timothy West and his wife, Prunella Scales — whose name makes her sound like a witch in a kids’ movie, but turns out to be a lovely person in real life. She is probably most famous for playing the wife of Basil Fawlty (John Cleese) in the British comedy series Fawlty Towers. In any case, they punt around in their narrow boat and talk about where they are going, and you get a really good impression of what it’s like — including watching Prunella jump off the boat as they get to a lock, so that she can crank the giant gate open and let the boat through, which is pretty amazing considering she is in her eighties.

Unfortunately, after 12 seasons of doing the show — which West and Prunella came up with because they were such passionate narrow-boaters, having helped revive and restore a canal called the Kennet and Avon canal — they had to stop hosting it because Prunella was finding it difficult as a result of her Alzheimer’s disease, which they both talked about quite openly during the show. It’s really quite heart-warming to see the two of them navigating the canals and talking and joking with each other — it’s just so relaxing, which during COVID became something I was very interested in searching out. Who knows, maybe someday I will get my own narrow boat and punt around on the canals!

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