It was a decade ago that I first wrote about “cool canal boating”. I stayed on one of the first design-led barges, based in London’s Primrose Hill and explored east London’s canalside cafes, joking that perhaps even the dowdy canal boat-holiday company Black Prince would go all trendy.
Well, a decade on, with Hackney Wick’s canalside now as lively as Ibiza, it seems it finally has. Black Prince’s new Signature range has been upgraded, with naff orangey woodwork traded for cool grey tones, modern black radiators replacing perfunctory white, Scandi-ish furnishings and kitchen nooks reconfigured with sleek modern appliances. A new exterior paint job conjures a folksy, Gypsy caravan vibe.
The boats are available at two of Black Prince’s nine bases: Napton in Warwickshire and Stoke Prior in Worcestershire, to which I head with my family to take one for a (sedate) spin.
This location appeals because it’s home to the only loop on the canal network that can be completed in a weekend: the mid-Worcestershire (or Droitwich) Ring, covering 21 miles and 33 locks.
Except when I speak to Black Prince they tell me that actually, as rental is from 2pm Saturday, we’d be hard pushed to complete it, even though it’s a bank holiday.
“People always ask how far they can go?” says spokesman Daniel Johnson, “but you have to get out of that mindset, relax and take your time. Canal boating is all about slowing down.”
He recommends a shorter there-and-back route to Droitwich instead. But he doesn’t know us – we like a challenge.
It’s a beautiful sunny day when we step aboard our 20-metre Ivy, beside a jolly group who proclaim they’ve come all the way from Canada for this experience. I ask if they’ve done everything else in England already, but no, turns out Midlands canal boating is on the world’s bucket list, and, in fact, much of Black Prince’s business comes from overseas.
We set out south down the Worcester and Birmingham canal fresh from a 90-minute briefing that seemed exceedingly thorough at the time, covering everything from clearing the weed hatch to working the new blue mood lighting. But now, as I’m careering towards an oncoming boat, I realise we missed a few key details, such as which side of the canal you’re supposed to stay on.
“Stay to the right!” yell the guffawing lads on board as we narrowly miss them, smashing into overhanging branches opposite.
We float past fields and houses, getting used to steering and locks, and after two hours arrive at Hanbury Wharf’s Eagle and Sun, our first suggested stop. A pint in a waterside beer garden is always good, and I introduce my kids, Heidi, eight and Hamish, six, to the delights of cheesy chips, but rather than moor for the night nearby, as advised, we stage our first rebellion to continue south into more rural terrain.
Trees become taller, rushes so wondrously high the kids gaze as if it were the Pantanal, dangling their fishing nets over the bow as the sky darkens. Somewhere past a field of alpacas we tie up in the pitch black. Then it’s decision time. Do as advised and return to Hanbury tomorrow to potter to Droitwich and back, or push on for Worcester and the full loop? We look each other in the eye. I think we know that decision has already been made.
Waking to rain feels like vindication, as the original plan involved Droitwich’s saltwater lido. But with almost 20 hours of boating ahead we have to crack on. I make breakfast on the move, boiling eggs while watching the watery world go by, ducklings bobbing past the kitchen window. The new interiors, though still very much playing it safe, make being below deck a pleasure.
I sprint to every lock, summoning strength to turn the windlass and heave the gates, grateful when the kids can be bothered to help, which, despite their size, speeds things up.
They’re too happy relaxing onboard, reading, playing Top Trumps, being entertained by wildlife: herons flying off, wings flapping like newspapers tied to an arrow, swans atop huge, twiggy nests. Once, we hear the rare call of a cuckoo.
Black Prince recommended the shorter route partly so children can stop often to expend energy. Though older couples are their core customer base, families have become a greater focus following the pandemic-led trend for UK holidays. The new boats are designed for families, not young hipsters, with blackout blinds, comfier mattresses, suggestions of kid-friendly stop-offs and a downloadable activity guide, which inspires mine to keep a captain’s log and dress as pirates.
At Worcester, we moor seconds from the shopping streets and dash around the grounds of the cathedral, buying supplies from M&S and americanos and rocky road from Commandery Coffee, a stylish towpath cafe attached to the Commandery Museum, once the civil war headquarters.
Passing through vibrant Worcester Marina we descend at Diglis Basin locks on to the River Severn, leaving the industrial canals for a wider, wilder, green eden that makes us certain the ring was the right choice. Conscious of missing the lido, I even jump in for a cold, velvety swim before we rejoin the canal system.
Next the loop follows Droitwich Barge Canal, which reopened in 2011 (along with Droitwich Junction Canal) after 80 years of disuse. It dates from 1771, when canals were crucial arteries of the Industrial Revolution: this one was built to carry salt from the Roman spa town of Droitwich, famed for its natural brine springs.
People invariably appear at locks to help and chat, some volunteers from the Canal and River Trust, others boat owners with stories of sinking and accidents. “I’ve fallen in so many times I’ve lost count!” chuckles one. The chats are a delight, as are other boats’ names – “Simply Luvleh”, “Bez” – and I can’t resist peeking through their glowing windows at their dollshouse interiors, that is until a naked man glowers back at me.
The journey is a tableau of round-the-back places and hidden scenes – a mother and daughter metal-detecting in a garden, a foal suckling, a lonely teenager smoking at dawn.
It’s not always pretty – we pass under the M5 several times, the roar of speeding cars rattling the bridge overhead – and the hip canal-boating scene is noticeably absent, but it’s never dull. Though we’ve tackled the route in one big bite, doing 12 hours of boating on Sunday, you can’t really rush even if you try. We’ve slowed to a notice-every-detail pace of life without even meaning to.
For a final stop we moor near Hanbury Hall, a National Trust stately home, and picnic in its lovely formal gardens, but no one wants to linger long. As my daughter says, “I just want to get back to the boat, where you can relax and do what you want.”
The trip was provided by Black Prince (01527 575 115), which operates canal holidays from nine bases across the UK. Short breaks of three or four nights on the new Signature range of narrowboats starts from £729, which is for a Duchess 2, which sleeps up to four. Diesel is extra and costs around £15 a day