Ahh! Messing about in boats - can there be anything more fun? In times gone by, narrowboats criss-crossed Wales on an extensive canal network taking coal and other minerals to the wider world. Whilst those old commercial barges are long gone, you can explore sections today by boat, on foot and by bike. We've got some lovely stretches of water in Wales, in particular a clutch of tranquil historic canals. So, here are a few reasons why we think canal holidays in Wales are rather special!
It's a great way to slow down
One of the best things about a canal holiday in Wales is you have to go slow! The speed limit is just four miles an hour. It's wonderfully relaxing, gliding gently along. If you're at the helm, you need to keep an eye out for other craft, but there's plenty of time to enjoy the tranquility and let go of your cares. You'll pass the odd other narrowboat but particularly on the Montgomery Canal you'll often have the water to yourselves.
The views are tremendous
Puttering along on a narrowboat is also a great way to take in the scenery. Just one example is the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal which canal cruise fans often vote as the prettiest in the UK. Much of it winds through the Brecon Beacons National Park, a feast of wooded valleys, rolling hills and flower-strewn canal banks. You'll spot wildlife too - brightly coloured kingfishers, regal swans and fish plopping and splashing beside you.
There are world class industrial monuments
The canals were built at the height of the industrial revolution and wow, could those engineers of old innovate! Take Thomas Telford's Pontcysyllte Aqueduct on the Llangollen Canal. It's the highest in the world carrying boats dizzyingly across 18 slender brick arches 126 feet (38 metres) above ground. Nearby Chirk Aqueduct is similarly impressive particularly with the railway bridge running right alongside. Walking the tow path with a torch in the Chirk tunnel will be a highlight for adventurous kids and Goytre Wharf is home to well-preserved ancient lime kilns.
You can do heaps of touristy things
Many of the towns the canals pass through are bustling communities with heaps going on. So why not moor up and explore? Abergavenny is a foodie hotspot, famous for the food festival held in September. Cathedral town Brecon is a friendly base for walks in the national park and buzzing with life on market days.
Llangollen is home to a motor museum and a standard gauge heritage railway where sparkling locos puff alongside the gurgling River Dee. Chirk has the brilliantly preserved Chirk Castle and is the gateway to the beautiful Ceiriog Valley. Head to Welshpool for the Welshpool & Llanfair Light Railway and the glorious leafy grounds of Powis Castle. There's also a wonderful 12 mile walk along the disused section of canal between Welshpool and Newtown.
It's great value for money
You get the best of all worlds on a narrowboat. The cost of accommodation is covered as you're sleeping on the boat. You can self cater if you want to, but there are cosy pubs along the way for evening meals and lazy lunches. And you have your own entertainment right there navigating, working the locks and taking in the scenery. It all adds up to a holiday full of variety and new experiences that's exceptionally good value.
Everyone will enjoy it
Obviously we wouldn't recommend a canal break in Wales if you have kids who can't swim! But older ones will love the excitement of being aboard a boat and even sleeping on it. With careful supervision they can help with the locks and even have a go at driving. But it's not just a great break for families. A canal holiday in Wales is ideal for groups of friends and for couples looking for some time together away from the busyness of day-to day-life.
You don't have to drive
You don't have to drive your own narrowboat either. There are day cruises on offer - at Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, Brecon and Welshpool to name a few. Kids will love canal cruises pulled by horses. You can hire a canoe and go for a paddle on the Swansea Canal and also at Goytre Wharf. And you don't have to take to the water at all. The tow paths make splendid walking trails. Many places offer bike hire to explore a little further afield. You can even cross Pontcysyllte Aqueduct on foot if you've a head for heights!
Three canals in Wales to try
Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal
The Mon & Brec, as it's affectionately known, flows 36 miles between Brecon and Pontypool. It's a great introduction to canal cruising with just six locks to navigate, a tunnel and an aqueduct. Much of your journey is through the Brecon Beacons National Park. Along the way you'll putter through sleepy villages and pass close by historic industrial sites - in particular the Blaenavon World Heritage Centre.
The Montgomery Canal was a spur that ran for 38 miles from a junction with the Llangollen Canal down to Newtown. Currently you can only easily navigate a small section by narrowboat. Seven miles are open turning off at the Frankton Junction. You're likely to have this stretch pretty much to yourself, it’s in an area of outstanding natural beauty and exceptionally tranquil.
Cruising the full length of the Llangollen takes seven days, so it's a perfect week long break. You start across the border in England, progressing via the staircase locks at Grindley Brook and the wide Cheshire plains over the Chirk Aqueduct into Wales. The journey finishes with the jewel in the crown of canals in Wales, UNESCO listed Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and the bustling town of Llangollen itself.
Where to hire canal boats in Wales
If you fancy just having a go at driving a narrowboat ABC Dayboat Hire has eight-berth boats that you can navigate along an easy lock-free stretch of the Mon and Brec from Goytre Wharf.
Ready to try a proper narrowboat holiday in Wales?
Here are few operators accredited by the British Marine Federation. There are lots to choose from, so it makes sense to do your research before booking:
Beacon Park Boats has a fleet of luxury narrowboats at Llangattock on the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal.
Anglo Welsh are based in Trevor Basin, from where there's access to the Llangollen and Montgomery Canals. As well as boat hire for holidays, they offer day boat hire and Pontcysyllte Aqueduct cruises.