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Living Life Afloat on a Narrowboat?

Updated on July 7, 2014

Last weekend, while taking our dog for a run in the lusciously green spring grass and sunshine, we met an adorable Border Terrier and his owner. The two dogs immediately started playfully tugging at opposite ends of a rather large branch which led to a full on play and tug-of-war around the grass and through the stream.

Considering that our dog is a Dobermann and the Border Terrier was about one-third of her size, watching these two play was a funny sight to see and an irresistible conversation starter.

Adding to this is that we have often thought about getting a companion for our dog and the Border Terrier is our first breed of choice. This was an additional incentive to strike up a conversation with the owner as we always like to know about other owners’ experiences.

We found what this owner had to say to be quite surprising, apart from the expected response - that he had nothing but praise for the breed. He confirmed what we have heard over and over. The Border Terrier is smart, loyal and socially brilliant. They are mostly good with other dogs and just have that extra bit of savvy about them. The surprising part was the reason why he had chosen a Border Terrier. Up until recently, he and his wife had been living on a narrowboat and spent ten years literally afloat, going up and down the canals of Britain. The Border Terrier is a perfect boat-sized dog to have along for pleasant and entertaining company as well as a vigilant guard dog.

Immediately, this intrigued me as I had never met someone before who lived on a boat permanently. I had also never experienced a canal holiday but always wanted to. But our time afloat would be more along the lines one week, or two weeks at the most. We have entertained the idea of doing this in France as well, in the style of chef Rick Stein, in exploration of the countryside, local cuisine and wines.

To make an extended life of this beyond a week or two holiday seems, simultaneously, in one sense very romantic and idyllic while potentially very monotonous, boring and tiresome in another. I wondered how this transient lifestyle could retain its freshness and what challenges there might be to living in such cramped spaces for such an extended length of time. When I asked the Border Terrier’s owner, here are some of the main points that he brought up about canal travelling and living.

Some of the challenges for newcomers to canal travelling are learning how to operate the locks. The locks are where the water levels are lowered or raised for passage through grades such as when the canal goes through hills. There can be as many as twenty sequential locks, one after another. It involves opening gates to let water in and out of the locks, depending on which direction you are travelling (up or down). There are a lot of risks involved, potential injury and danger to others is very real. Mastering lock operation requires physical strength but it is not as difficult as it might seem and there are usually people around who will offer help if you need it. It is not long before the newcomer becomes the "expert" then able to offer help to the new novices they meet along the way.

As far as the boredom element goes, it all depends on personality and preferences. This form of travel is, by its very nature, a very slow pace as the boats do not travel faster than 4 miles per hour. But this is what many people find attractive about life on the waterways, especially for an artist, as he, who enjoys photography and painting landscapes. This mode of travel is relaxing and offers plenty for those who enjoy exploring countryside, natural beauty and spending a lot of time outdoors, especially during the warmer months.

Another bonus that comes with this lifestyle is that there is a true community spirit among canal travellers. There is always the opportunity to be as social or as reclusive as you like. When you live on the boat, you can spend more time at a place you find particularly enjoyable or where you have made new friends. If you are on a holiday, you may have an agenda that beckons you to carry on when you would rather stay. Also, when travelling on a one or two week holiday, your travels are often limited to a certain geographical area. When you own the boat and are committed to a life on the waterways, you have the freedom and flexibility to explore more of the canal systems in the country.

I asked him if there was anything in particular he missed the most about living his life on the canals. He answered that being constantly on the move around the country was the most addicting element for him. Even if you weren’t in a different place every day, the opportunity to do so was enchanting. Almost equal to this, he missed the waterways community. He said that if he were not for his age and declining health, he would still be living on the boat. It was the best ten years of his life, a sentence he could not finish without tears welling in his eyes. He was obviously very attached to that lifestyle and giving it up was very difficult for him.

From his perspective, it did sound romantic and tempting. However, I still think it would be best to try out the canal holiday first before making such a drastic move and buying a boat. Plus, with our Dobermann and three cats, I don’t know how well they would cope with living life on the waterways. And, there are the practicalities of life such as work, etc to consider. As a permanent way of life, it probably will not happen for us. But I can see how it would hold a great attraction and charm for others.

We chuckle at the irony of this chance meeting with this Border Terrier and his owner that got us thinking about this “dream holiday” once again. As our thoughts and fantasies float back to the waterways, planning and budgeting for this long-awaited experience, I am looking forward to Part 2 of this hub. This will be after we have gone on this holiday. Although it may be a long while in the planning, it will be fun to see if the experience meets the expectation!


Cost: The cost of boat rental varies greatly depending on location and your preferences from around £800.00 per week to over £2000.00. In additional to paying the rental charges, in most cases you will also have to pay for fuel during your travels and there may be mooring charges at the marinas where you stop. It sounds expensive but it all depends on how many people travel (such as two families). When the costs are split, the holiday can very cost-effective per person.

A list of what to look for on your boat, depending on your preferences and the time of year when you intend to travel:

Enough berths for the number of people in your group

Some things to take along with you:

Torch (Flashlight)
Ordnance Map
Maps of the Waterways
Fishing gear
Lifejackets, especially for children
Good walking shoes/hiking boots
Backpacks for day trips through the countryside

Food: You can take aboard staple items for food but there are usually places to shop along the canals and you can always get meals and drinks at canal side pubs and cafes - great places to meet other waterways travellers!

Dog and Family Friendly: Canal holidays are a very family and dog friendly way to travel and see the countryside. Most rental firms do allow dogs on their boats although some will charge a cleaning deposit.


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    • M Selvey, MSc profile image

      M Selvey, MSc 7 years ago from United Kingdom

      Claire, thank you for stopping by and reading, even if a coincidence! How funny about the timing with regards to your thoughts about getting narrowboat next year! We can't get a new puppy until we move but the BT is still at the top of our list of choices. With only a few exceptions, we have been impressed with nearly every BT we have met. All the best with the plans for the narrowboat! As I wrote in the hub, it just sounds like such an idyllic life!

    • profile image

      Claire 7 years ago

      We have a Border Terrier, and would heartily recommend one, as they are so full of fun and very clever. Its funny I should pass by here and see the BT mentioned, as we are thinking of getting a Narrowboat next year! :)

    • M Selvey, MSc profile image

      M Selvey, MSc 7 years ago from United Kingdom

      Thank you Christa and Dot for reading my hub and for your comments. Dot, another advantage of the self-drive narrowboat is that you can stop where you like and can have your own agenda. There is a lot more flexibility in that sense. But, with the cruise ship, there is a lot more entertainment and recreation available on board. Each have desirable elements. I guess it depends on your budget and what you want from your holiday.

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      Dot V 7 years ago

      This sounds like a fun thing to do. Yes, it would be a continuous adventure, and exciting to see the countryside from the canals. I went on a Small Ship river cruise and it was delightful arriving into towns or cities from the cruise ship. The canal boat would be fun because it would be more picturesque out in the country.

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      Christa Gefke 7 years ago

      This is a lovely and romantic piece from an enchanting writer. We cannot wait until the next installment on this hub!

    • M Selvey, MSc profile image

      M Selvey, MSc 7 years ago from United Kingdom

      Thank you Sandyspider and MFB III for stopping by and for your comments. MFB III, living in a cardboard box??? I think this sounds like a very worthy and interesting hub story, if you have not done one already.

    • MFB III profile image

      MFB III 7 years ago from United States

      A Houseboat rental would be a lot of fun, I have lived on an island, in a cardboard box, in my car, also at a marina, in tents and barracks and of course in many other standard residences, but a boat with the water lapping and lolling one to sleep...that sounds nice.~~~~MFB III

    • Sandyspider profile image

      Sandy Mertens 7 years ago from Wisconsin, USA

      Wonderful story.