Canal-Boating Britain

What’s it like when travel with children becomes a way of life? Frances Thomas travels the UK waterways year-round on a narrowboat with her partner and two-year-old son; here’s her take on life as a Continuous Cruiser with baby-on-board.

Boat 1 Tamlyn

Two weeks before the birth of our son, we bought a narrowboat, a renovation project, which, over the last two years, we have slowly been  turning into a cosy family home. We ignored the many sensible cries of  “A child on a boat? But how will you keep him safe/ warm/ happy/ clean/ in nappies/ from becoming a social outcast?” We had decided that our first steps into the unknown world of parenthood were going to be taken whilst pursuing another long-dreamt-of adventure. We were going to live our lives cruising, very, very slowly, around the inland waterways of Great Britain.

During the first turbulent year, I acquired many skills. Much of it was spent breast-feeding amidst the sawdust-ridden carcass of our semi-demolished future home, or angle grinding the roof while baby napped, or learning the art of swiftly netting small plastic toys before they slip beneath the murky waters. My little boy has thankfully already learnt that swans aren’t partial to Thomas the Tank Engines for breakfast. They prefer Mummy’s toast.


Our little water baby, now a toddler, has flourished whilst at times we have floundered and struggled to adjust to the (im)practicalities of our new lifestyle. His first word was “duck”, and one of his greatest pleasures is watching the ever-changing view from the window above his cot in his tiny, cosy cabin. He is mesmerised by the heavy globules of a summer downpour hitting the water, whilst the sound of tiny droplets falling from the overhanging trees lull him to sleep, tinkling and chinking upon the steel roof. Reflections cast onto the cabin sides by early morning sun hitting the water entertain him, giving us those much coveted ten minutes more to curl up.  A delighted squawk of “Noonin!” heralds the sighting of a proud moorhen, sitting atop a tangle of brightly-coloured canal detritus, and cows meandering down to drink from the opposite bank are always greeted with a loud “Moo!” We have learnt, however, the perils of mooring underneath oak trees. The almighty crash of an acorn, dropped by a clumsy squirrel, has been the cause of a few very early morning cries for “mummydaddylighton!”.

boat 4

We are what are known as “continuous cruisers”; we have no fixed mooring, stopping in no place for more than two weeks. The travelling itself was by far the most daunting and exciting unknown of our adventure. Before the first move, we ummed and we ahhed and we scratched our heads, where is the best place to stow an infant when cruising the canals? The answer to this, we have found, is much dependent on weather, and our little boy’s mood. On cold, blustery winter days, we time our moves with nap-time. The sound of the engine, we soon found, works better than any mobile, song or cradle. Curled up contently in a little seat next to us in the heart of the boat, the engine room, vibrations from the great lump of agricultural machinery beneath lull him to sleep. On crisp spring afternoons, he sits on the roof, held in the pincer grip of very strict mummy. When wriggling turns to pinching, and the strategically placed biscuit tin is no longer enticing, the unlimited supply of electrical power generated by moving the boat means the ultimate treat, as many episodes of The Moomins as he likes.

However it is the long summer evenings that have held for us weary traveller parents the ultimate pleasure. Bedtime rituals completed, small person happily dreaming of moon cake, and bottle of wine opened, we are free to potter along. With the peace and solitude of the fields and woodlands flanking the towpath, and the gentle sun on our backs, the slow pace of the narrowboat fuels conversation, and helps to shake off the chaotic echoes of a busy day onboard. But we must remember, no oak trees this time, Daddy.

boat 3

If you’re inspired to have your own (less permanent) narrowboat adventure, many UK narrowboat holiday companies offer child-friendly facilities: Waterways Holidays, Black Prince  and Anglo Welsh all have a database of bookable boats, so that you can find your perfect watery ride.


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