There are today over a hundred hire firms operating on the waterways of Britain. The ‘market leaders’ are three multi-based concerns: Anglo-Welsh (almost 150 boats at 11 bases), UK Boat Hire, incorporating Alvechurch Boat Centres and Viking Afloat (almost 200 boats at 12 bases) and Black Prince Narrowboats (almost 100 boats at six bases). But there are numerous medium-sized operators with fleets of between 15 and 30 boats, and even more small firms offering ten craft or fewer.
You can hire a boat anywhere from Inverness in the Scottish Highlands to Godalming in leafy Surrey, from March and Ely in the Cambridgeshire Fens to Llanfoist near Abergavenny in the Brecon Beacons. The biggest concentration of bases remains in the Midlands, with the Llangollen Canal, Four Counties Ring and the Avon Ring being the most popular holiday routes.
So who are today’s hire boaters? It is still a predominantly middle-class activity, with lots of overseas visitors boosting the numbers. They come mainly from Australia, New Zealand, USA and Canada, and also from Scandinavia.
Some 25 years ago a TV series entitled Travelling Man, starring Leigh Lawson, was broadcast over there and it generated an explosion of interest in Britain’s canals. The Norwegians, in particular, flocked to our waterways – and they have kept on coming. Look out for their national flag flying from the stern of hire boats all through the summer months – it’s a latter day Viking invasion.
And what does it cost to hire a present day luxury, all mod cons narrowboat. A four-berth boat will cost in the region of £900 for a week in June. Which may sound a lot, until you bear in mind that it represents the entire cost of the holiday – there are very few extras to pay for once you are aboard. Your boat is your home and your entertainment for the week. Furthermore, there are all kinds of deals normally on offer: early booking bonuses, short break/long weekends, late availability, long-term hire rates etc.
After a few difficult years, many operators have reported good performances lately. A number of factors – the decline of the pound against the euro, economic belt-tightening, security concerns – have persuaded more people than ever to holiday at home this year. And where better than on the canals, following in the footsteps of IWA co-founders Robert Aickman and Tom Rolt to discover a hidden Britain.
Political and funding issues notwithstanding, the future looks comparatively bright for the hire
industry. And that is good news for the inland waterways and its long term future.
Details of boat hire operators throughout Britain may be obtained from the Association of Pleasure Craft Operators (APCO), Marine House, Thorpe Lea Road, Egham, Surrey TW20 8BF. Tel: 08448 009575, or visit www.apco.org.uk. Alternatively, visit the individual waterways pages for details of hire fleets on each canal or river, or pick up a copy of the Waterways World Annual, which publishes a full list of hire fleets as well as providing a Route Planning Map featuring boatyard locations.
Acknowledgement: Grateful thanks to Harry Arnold for photographs and much original research for this article that first appeared in Waterways magazine.
(above) Waterway Images
(below) Robin Smithett