Drifters Waterway Holidays barge trip review

drifters canal holiday

by Stephanie Spencer |
Published on

If you’re looking to experience a more relaxed pace of life, and enjoy the sights of our wonderful British waterways, then a canal or barge holiday is the way to do it. The canal network and inland waterways of the UK played a vital role in our history and have a fascinating and unique heritage. From being the driving force behind national trade, the waterways are now playing host to a thriving industry – canal tourism.

You’ve probably walked alongside a canal at some point, either in the countryside or in a city, as many bustling cities and towns are host to the key hubs of our waterways network where they would have been used to ferry goods from factories to other cities, or even ports ready to be sold internationally. As such, when choosing a barge holiday you have a plethora of destinations and canal routes you can choose from.

Drifters Waterway Holidays is made up of nine hire boat companies across England, Wales and Scotland: ABC Boat Hire, Anglo Welsh, Black Prince, Countrywide Cruisers, Foxhangers, Kate Boats, Napton Narrowboats, Shire Cruisers and Union Canal Carriers.

Here’s how Yours.co.uk Hub Editor Stephanie Spencer got on when she tried out a Drifters holiday for herself, with Union Canal Carriers.

Our review of Drifters canal holiday

I’ve been on a barge holiday once when I was a child, so while I did have an idea of what to expect from this trip  I was looking forward to being on the waterways again. I also visit Marsden regularly, in Yorkshire, which has a strong tie with the canals, so we’re often walking beside them, seeing the locks in action. I love being beside water, and find something very comforting and traditional about canals especially!

I was contacted by the lovely Debbie at Drifters who sent over a selection of route suggestions. We were joining up with another couple who were coming from near Gatwick, and my husband and I were travelling from Norfolk, so we wanted somewhere that wouldn’t be too much of a drive for either of us. Debbie quickly recommended Braunston (to the North West of Daventry) as a starting location, with Union Canal Carriers. We were booked onto a six berth boat, Arbury, for over the Easter weekend, to make the most of the bank holidays.

I was then put in touch with Heather at Union Canal Carriers and sent some directions and arrival instructions, and a form to fill out with names of our group and bedding requirements (as beds can be made up into single or double configurations) and whether we’d need towels etc. Bedding is provided on all Union Canal Carriers boats, and towels are bring your own, but can be provided at an extra cost. You can also book Wifi devices as data signal can’t be guaranteed while on the waterways, but we decided we’d quite enjoy being ‘unplugged’ for the weekend. Plus you can bring a pet – one well behaved pet is an additional £25 (we decided against bringing our dogs for this holiday!)

Finding the Union Canal Carriers base was really simple, the instructions provided were very clear and I was the first in our crew to pull up beside the office and had a warm welcome from the team there. I was shown to Arbury, our floating home for the next three nights, and given a quick tour and told a bit more about the company and the routes we could take. Union Canal Carriers is a family business that started out as a carrying company in the 1960s, and moved into tourism. They still handcraft all their boats and it was fascinating to hear how their company has evolved. Heather was a true mine of knowledge, I got a real sense of the passion and enthusiasm the team has for sharing the waterways and welcoming new faces to the wonderful world of canals.

traveling under a bridge on canal
©Stephanie Spencer

Location-wise Braunston is a brilliant choice, as you have a range of different routes you can access from this one spot. Part of the Grand Union Canal, while you’d normally have only two directions you could travel from a canal hub, at Braunston there are four different routes filtering into even more options. We had originally planned to head up to Hawkesbury Junction, but due to a landslide further up the route, Heather advised us to instead head towards Bugbrooke, just outside of Northampton. She also pointed out some recommendations for pubs on route, which we were very grateful for!

Our boat, Arbury, was quite a large barge at 65ft, but we quickly got used to manoeuvring her along the canal and through the locks. Arbury fits up to 6 people, and inside felt light and surprisingly spacious. There are two double beds, which can also be set up as singles, two toilets with showers, and a galley with a saloon area that provides another sleeping area if needed. There were bench seats on the front deck with storage beneath, which came in handy for muddy boots, and the deck at the back had a safety rail around it, providing a perch for whoever was driving/ their co-pilot. There are privacy doors throughout the boat so you can close off both of the bedrooms.

galley kitchen union canal carriers barge
©Stephanie Spencer

The galley kitchen was well equipped with everything that we could have needed, there was a gas oven and hob, kettle and toaster, as well as all the tableware we would need. The amount of space for food storage in the galley was a little limited, but there was lots of storage beneath the dinette, so we stored most of our food that didn’t need to go in the fridge here.

bedrooms in Union Canal Carriers barge
©Stephanie Spencer

The beds were comfortable, although there was a slight ridge between the two mattresses, and the bedding provided was pristine. There’s plenty of clothes storage space, both hanging and in cubbies beneath the beds. One thing both couples mentioned was that it would have been good to have a shelf above/near the bed, for glasses of water or a book/phone, the bits you may want to have at hand during the night.

interior of union canal carriers barge
©Stephanie Spencer

The bathrooms, indeed the whole boat, was also really clean, with good water pressure – you didn’t have to wait for the hot water to come through either. There was a pump in the shower to pump the water out after you’d finished. As the boat has central heating it was always lovely and cosy inside, and there’s a good amount of headroom too. I also loved the beautiful traditional painted details - they were a lovely touch that added to the whole experience of being on a barge.

So, that’s the boat itself, now back to the start of our trip! Once the rest of the gang had arrived and we’d unpacked and were ready to go, we met Tim who showed us a few more technical bits around the boat, like how to work the central heating. Tim also showed us everything we needed to know about driving the boat and using the canals, from how to start, steer, moor up, as well as rights of way, and how to use the locks. He also took us through our first couple of locks, which was very reassuring as none of us had been on a barge in a long time! Once we were all happy, Tim left us to continue on our way.

As it happened, on the first day we didn’t get very far as by the time we’d all got there, got unpacked and learned how to use the barge, it was around 5pm. We’d also already ended up at one of the pubs Heather had recommended, so we made the team decision to stay put for the night and continue in the morning! We enjoyed a delicious steak dinner at the Admiral Nelson before heading back to Arbury to rest up for the day ahead.

We set our alarms, determined to make the most out of our next couple of days, as we were conscious we had to return for 9:30 am on the Monday. So, we planned to travel as far as we could get on Saturday, moor up for the night, and then know we could make the return on the Sunday. Canal etiquette means you’re advised not to set off too early so as not to disturb other barges who are moored up, around 8:30/9 was about the earliest we got going and we found this gave us plenty of time to have breakfast before setting off on the water.

We quickly got into a rhythm as a barge crew, myself and Kat running the locks, while James and Dan drove the boat the majority of the route (though myself and Kat also had a go, and Kat drove us back through Braunston tunnel!)

along the canal
©Stephanie Spencer

The fun of being on the canal was that you had moments of serene calm, just enjoying pootling along the water, the wildlife and the sights around you, then you’d get to a set of locks and had the satisfaction of setting them up, watching the water move and these impressive feats of engineering do their thing. The route we took meant we did two sets of locks – one of six and another with seven, then did them on our return.

in a double lock
©Stephanie Spencer

While doing the locks along the route we also got the chance to meet some other groups, as the locks were all doubles – meaning they can fit two barges in them at a time. Because of this, for certain stretches you’d end up paired up with another boat, and got a chance to chat while waiting for water to move up or down the lock. Everyone we met was very friendly, and impressed that we’d only been on the water for a couple of days.

We also travelled the Braunston tunnel which was another impressive feat of engineering, and takes 20 minutes to pass through. The other two pubs we visited during our trip were the Narrow Boat at Weedon and the Bugbrooke Wharf – near the Bugbrooke Marina where we turned around, though we just popped in for a drink at these, deciding to cook the rest of our meals on Arbury. Both were situated right on the canal so we didn’t have to walk far, and it was lovely to sit overlooking the water enjoying a drink and watching other barges go by.

Although you do turn for home and travel along the same route, it didn’t feel repetitive as there are always new things to see. Upon our return to the Admiral Nelson, we enjoyed a last meal out on the Sunday evening. Honestly we were quite sad when our trip came to an end, we truly enjoyed the whole experience.

Final thoughts

Overall I think this is a fantastic holiday whether for a couple, a group or a family. All four of us had an absolutely brilliant time, we’ve even suggested we could make it an annual trip! While I’ll admit I was a little nervous about doing the locks, operating them became my favourite part of the day, and we managed perfectly well with the four of us – for most of the locks it was just me and Kat doing them, and although a couple of them were stiff and gave our arms a good work out, we did them all no problem.

doing the locks
©Stephanie Spencer

It is worth noting that obviously space is limited on a barge, so choose who you holiday with wisely! Our boat could fit up to 6 and it felt like a luxury to have the extra space, plus a bathroom per couple, so we did have more privacy then I’d been expecting, but you do still have to walk through each other’s bedrooms to get around the boat, so pick people you get along well with!

The only other thing we commented on was that it would have been nice to have outdoor seat pads to sit on the benches on the front deck, or perhaps something padded that could be fitted onto the safety rail on the back deck, but I appreciate this is something else to clean/maintain/potentially have tourists lose. I would have no hesitation at recommending Drifters and Union Canal Carriers for a staycation – whether you’ve done a canal trip before or are a complete beginner, they will take good care of you and you’ll have the best time.

Booking a canal trip with Drifters

Drifters Waterway Holidays offers 550 canal boats for hire from 45 bases across England, Scotland and Wales.

There are over 3,000 miles of waterways for you to discover, all at your own pace and you don't need to be an expert.  Tuition is included as part of Drifters’ holiday packages.

2024 hire prices for Drifter’s holiday packages start at £590 for a short break (three or four nights) on a boat for four, £815 for a week.

Narrowboats range from 32ft to 70ft and can accommodate from two up to 12 people.

For more information visit www.drifters.co.uk or call 0344 984 0322

For more information about visiting the canal network visit www.canalrivertrust.org.uk

Stephanie Spencer is the Hub Editor of Yours.co.uk. Having worked across a variety of topics, from travel and food to pharmaceuticals, she also has a particular interest in mental health and wellness. She has a house full of pets with two dogs and two cats.

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