Narrowboating for Beginners

What Americans need to know when considering a narrowboat vacation in the UK

Shadow box image of narrowboats on canal against windmills, churches, Oxford-like spires and thatched cottages

If you’re reading this book, you’re probably already planning to take a narrowboat vacation, but you may have friends who ask what’s the appeal of the canals. Of course the majority of your friends have no idea what a narrowboat is, about the history of the canals or the part they played in the Industrial Revolution. I’ll address all that later, but first I thought I’d relate what drew me (and will possibly draw you) to narrowboating.

For some reason, I’ve always been fascinated by the thought of rivers and boats. When I was growing up in San Antonio, Captain Gus was the afternoon kids’ show on the CBS affiliate television station KENS. More than once, I recall, the show played a serialized version of Journey to the Beginning of Time, which depicts four boys who visit the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The boys somehow take a rowboat down a river of time and view extinct animals like woolly mammoths and dinosaurs. The movie was shown in six-minute segments and I enjoyed it immensely. I’m sure it’s responsible for many paleontology degrees.

note iconJourney to the Beginning of Time was originally a 1955 Czech movie, Cesta Do Praveku. An American company filmed new opening and closing sequences and dubbed the dialog for serialization in the US. You can find some snippets on YouTube. VHS and DVD issues of the original Czech film are available. The 1975 Three Men in a Boat can also be found on YouTube, and it even inspired a BBC documentary by the same name.

Then just as I started college, I watched a BBC television adaptation of Jerome K. Jerome’s book Three Men in a Boat, about three Victorian men who take a skiff from Kingston upon Thames (now a suburb of London) to Oxford. It’s a silly movie and a rambling book, following their misadventures that include being lost in the Hampton Court maze, trying to open a can of pineapple without a tin opener and the unpopularity of a banjo poorly played.

Three Men in a BoatJourney to the Beginning of TimeHuck Finn and The Heart of Darkness somehow combined over the years into a desire to take a boat along the Thames or punt the Cam. It was further fueled by a 2001 trip to London when my husband and I walked along Regent’s Canal, and the fire would be stoked again by reading The Wench is Dead, in Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series, wherein Morse solves the death of a woman whose body was found in the Oxford Canal in 1859.

Unfortunately we weren’t able to return to England until 2011 when we took our first narrowboat vacation. I was overjoyed to find that expectations matched reality but I also discovered that my childish enthusiasm has mellowed into a quiet enjoyment.