See also: Ten reasons to go on a boating holiday
The Holiday hire boat industry has a proud past and a bright future, as this article from the November 2010 edition of Waterways magazine, by Keith Goss, explains.
The 1970s and ‘80s were arguably the heyday of hire boat holidays on the canals. You didn’t see that many private boats around in those days. Today it is different – private boats rule the roost. But present day boat owners were, in so many cases, yesterday’s hirers, a week or fortnight’s holiday on the waterways being the natural entry route into boating – and the recruiting ground for future Inland Waterways Association members. And despite some contraction in recent times, the hire industry continues to thrive and attract newcomers to the canals.
Of course the history of hire boating goes back a lot further than 40 years. The first boats available for weekly hire appeared on the Norfolk Broads and the River Thames in the early part of the 20th century. Canal holidays lagged some way behind – it was not until the 1930s that pioneering boatyards such as the Inland Cruising Association (subsequently Inland Hire Cruisers) at Chester began offering boats for hire on the Llangollen and Shropshire Union canals.
The Tom Rolt factor
The publication of Tom Rolt’s famous book Narrow Boat led, not only to the founding of The Inland Waterways Association in 1946, but also to an upsurge in interest in cruising the main canal network. Hire bases began to spring up around the system from the late 1940s. Early operators included the Wyvern Shipping Co at Leighton Buzzard on the Grand Union Canal, Blue Line at Braunston, Canal Pleasurecraft at Stourport and Swan Line at Fradley on the Trent & Mersey Canal.
Canal Cruising Co at Stone, established in 1947 by Rendel Wyatt, was one of the notable early firms. It was their hire cruiser Ailsa Craig that was famously hired by IWA co-founders Tom Rolt and Robert Aickman for a campaigning cruise through Standedge Tunnel on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal. The company is still in business today, and is still run by members of the Wyatt family.
Primitive to luxurious
Early canal cruisers came in all shapes and sizes and were, by today’s standards, decidedly primitive. Toilets were either ‘bucket and chuck it’, with shovels supplied to bury the contents, or were sea-toilets, flushing straight into the canal (unthinkable, and indeed illegal, today). On board heating was largely non-existent and drinking water was generally stored in bulky containers.
Outboard engines were the norm, and lengthy treks carrying petrol cans to distant garages were all part of the canal holiday. Then came the steel narrowboat and with it, in stages, came water-cooled diesel engines, proper drinking-water tanks, better cooking and heating facilities and, perhaps best of all, pumpout toilets. The advances in boat technolgy and design have continued and the hire boat of today is a real home-from-home featuring showers, central heating, full-sized cookers and fridges, colour TVs, DVD players and videos.
Over the years operators have come and gone. There were Shropshire Union Cruises at Norbury Junction, Ladyline at Barbridge, Aylesbury Cruisers, Club Line Cruisers at Coventry and Brummagem Boats in central Birmingham, to name but a few. All are now consigned to history. British Waterways had a go at hiring too in the 1960s and ‘70s, and were berated by other operators for doing so; “landlords competing on unfair terms with their tenants” was the oft repeated complaint. They gave up after a while, to concentrate on running the waterways.
But other operators came and stayed. The industry produces more than its fair share of great survivors, big and small. Anglo-Welsh, Alvechurch Boat Centres and Black Prince have all been on the scene for 30 years or more, but so too have small family concerns like Chas Hardern on the Shropshire Union Canal and Teddesley Boat Company on the Staffs & Worcs Canal.
Photo: Great Haywood Hire Base (Graham Booth)