Written in Alma, Colorado, March 11, 2023.

In 2019 Christine and I spent 3 weeks piloting a 61-foot-long narrowboat in England. This was the realization of a dream that I held for over 40 years, an idea planted by a 1974 National Geographic article which I read seated in a barbershop chair. The experience of canal boating in England, parts of which we shared with friends, Kris Ashton from Colorado, and Canadians Tom Shillington and his wife Nanci Burns, was extraordinary, so much so that we are returning in 2023 to reprise the adventure. Here is information that will provide insight into life on the canals of the United Kingdom:

Omitting the British canals of the Roman era and those of the Middle Ages associated with the construction and support of castles and monasteries, the dawn of the “modern” UK canal system dates to the mid 1700’s. It coincided with the Industrial Revolution, but whether the Industrial Revolution gave birth to the canals, or the canals were the progenitor of the IR is in the realm of what came first, chickens or eggs.


By the end of the 18th Century construction of a remarkable system of connected waterways was well underway. It was the 18th and 19th Century equivalent of the United States Interstate Highway system. At its zenith the canal network of the United Kingdom extended to over 2,000 miles of inland waterways providing the efficient transport of coal, raw materials, and manufactured goods throughout the realm. It was a technological tour-de-force in its day and remains a marvel in the 21st Century with parts of the system declared as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Steam rail service in the late 19th and early 20th Century became the chief rival of the canal system. Train operators undertook to purchase segments of the canals and then raised canal fees to a level that made them uncompetitive. The death knell for the canals was struck in the Great Winter Freeze of 1962-63 when the entire system closed due to ice. Rail service had won its century long battle for supremacy.


Visionaries and conservationists believed that the Canals might again find relevance… not as networks of commerce but purposed as a recreational windfall. In the 1960’s the Inland Waterways Association was founded to restore the canals. This effort was later passed to the management of British Waterways. Finally, an act of Parliament placed the ownership and management of the canal system into the hands of the newly formed Canal and River Trust, a not-for-profit that has been responsible for the restoration and maintenance of the system since 2012.

During the second half of our 6 weeks in England Christine and I will again be piloting a “Narrowboat”. This time it is the 62-foot-long, 7-foot-wide “Fjord-Empress” out of the quaint village of Middlewich that dates to the time of the Roman Empire. For 21 days the Fjord-Empress will be our personal magic carpet upon the waterways of England. We will be joined by Kansas City friends, Pat and Wendy Mejia, during the first week, and by Charlie and Mary Murphy during the second week.

Narrowboats are… NARROW! Here is a diagram of the Fjord-Empress’s interior:

The interiors of the vessels provide accommodations for sleeping, cooking, bathing, and relaxation. These boats are powered by small inboard diesel engines that are designed to propel the narrowboat at the canal speed limit of 4 mph. Interiors are comfortable if not spacious.



The canals wander across country, connecting villages and cities alike. England is not flat. In order to accommodate the undulating landscape engineers of the 18th and 19th Centuries had to devise systems of locks to climb hills and descend valleys, hundreds of locks. Most are human powered by the narrowboat operators (us!). In some locations there are “flights” of locks, as many as 21 in a 3-mile stretch! There will be no lack of exercise for any of us.

Where the hills were too daunting tunnels were dug, the longest of these being over 3 miles long and pitch dark inside.

In the pre-diesel days of the 1800’s men would hire themselves out as “canal walkers” to propel the vessels through these tunnels using their feet against the tunnel walls and ceiling!

The Anderton Boat Lift, constructed in 1875, still lifts narrowboats 50 feet from one waterway to another. Its 21st Century equivalent, the Falkirk Wheel, looks like a huge Ferris Wheel and lifts boats nearly 80 feet to the connected canal.

Finally, there are the stone aqueducts that carry narrowboats in 200-year-old cast iron troughs 175 feet above the valley floor below.


Canal boating in England is essentially safe, but not entirely free of peril.

We are counting down the days to departure in earnest. We hope you will travel along with us through my posts and pictures.

Peace Everyone. Pete

(Note: Parts of the preceding post were previously published by me in August 2018.)



18 thoughts on “England 2023. Part 2: The Canals of the UK

  1. Lauren Snyder says:

    A fascinating look at transportation history! There must be a cost involved. Cost to travel cost to park. How do they deal with that?

    • Hi Lauren and thank you for your comment! The narrowboat we are renting sleeps six at a total cost of less than $200 a day for three weeks. That includes fuel. There is no cost to “park” which can be done over 90% canals, even in popular tourist centers. It is, indeed, an extraordinary experience that can be quickly learned by a first timer.

  2. Chery Pound says:

    Safe travels to all of you….of all of the adventures we have shared with you, this one I can honestly say I truly covet. Maybe someday. ❤️

  3. Oh my word … I was showing Frank your post and we are ready to … well, maybe join you for coffee at least! Not sure about piloting our own boat at the moment! That looks like SOOO much fun – except for the really high – up in the air stuff (said from the woman that climbs mountains??). Can’t wait to hear of your journey. Much love…

  4. Susan Scully says:

    Hi Peter & Christine,
    Lovely to meet you today at Manchester Oxford Road Station and help you with your tickets. Hope you have a fabulous time in the UK . Will look forward to seeing the photo’s of Hadrian’s Wall and your canal journey . You both know more about my country than I do haha . Have fun and thank you for your little business card. Your website is great and i’m learning alot off it.
    kind regards


    • Susan, you are a precious gift to travelers such as us! I only regret that I did not get a picture of you, as I would like to make mention of your help in some early future post. Again, thank you so very much! Pete and Christine

  5. Monica Ganz, Children’s Book Writer says:

    This is fabulous. I did not know about these boats. This is indeed a great adventure. Have fun!

What Do You Think?