Narrowboat — Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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Carver 28 Cruiser boat


Modern narrowboats for leisure cruising,

A narrowboat or narrow boat is a boat of a distinctive design, made to fit the narrow canals of Great Britain .


Terminology [ edit ]

Purists tend to write the term with a space (narrow boat) when referring to an original (working) boat or a replica, omitting the space when referring to modern canal boats of around 7′ beam and used for leisure including residence. The single word ‘narrowboat’ has been adopted by authorities such as the Canal and River Trust and the magazine Waterways World to refer to all boats built in the style and tradition of the narrow canal locks.

Although some narrow boats were built to a design based on river barges and many conform to the strict definition of the term, it is incorrect to refer to a narrowboat (or narrow boat) as a barge. In the context of the British inland waterways, a barge is usually a much wider, cargo-carrying boat or a modern boat modelled on one, certainly more than 7 feet (2.1 m) wide.

It is also incorrect (or at least incongruous) to refer to a narrowboat as a longboat. although this name was sometimes used in the Midlands in working-boat days.

Usage has not quite settled down as regards (a) boats based on narrowboat design, but too wide for narrow canals; or (b) boats the same width as narrowboats but based on other types of boat.

Size [ edit ]

The key distinguishing feature of a narrowboat is its width: it must be no more than 7 feet (2.13 m) wide to navigate the British narrow canals. Some old boats are very close to this limit (often built 7 feet 1 1 ⁄ 2 inches or 2.17 m or slightly wider), and can have trouble using locks that are not quite as wide as they should be because of subsidence. Modern boats are usually 6 feet 10 inches (2.08 m) wide to guarantee easy passage everywhere.

Because of their slenderness, some narrowboats seem very long. The maximum length is about 72 feet (22 m), the length of most locks on the narrow canals. However, modern narrowboats tend to be shorter than this, so that they can cruise anywhere on the connected network of British canals — including on the wide canals (built for wider, but shorter, boats). The shortest lock on the main network is Salterhebble Middle Lock on the Calder and Hebble Navigation. at about 56 feet (17 m) long. However, the CH is a wide canal, so the lock is about 14 feet 2 inches (4.32 m) wide. This makes the largest go-anywhere-on-the-network narrowboat slightly longer (about 60 feet) than the straight length of the lock, because it can (with a certain amount of shoehorning) lie diagonally. Some locks on isolated waterways are as short as 40 feet (12.2 m).

Hire fleets on British canals can contain narrowboats of many lengths from about 30 feet (9.1 m) upwards, to allow parties of different sizes or different budgets to hire a boat.

Development — traditional working boats [ edit ]

Historic working narrowboats on the Macclesfield Canal in Cheshire. England. The motor boat at the front Forget Me Not is pulling along an unpowered butty Lilith . This was the traditional working style used on working boats after motor boats became common.

The rear portion of the boat became the cosy boatman’s cabin, familiar from picture postcards and museums, famous for its space-saving ingenuity and for its interior made attractive by a warm stove, a steaming kettle, gleaming brass, fancy lace, painted housewares, and decorated plates. Although such descriptions rarely consider the actual comfort of a large family working an extremely hard and long day, and sleeping in the one tiny cabin, it is no doubt true that at the time there were many workers in harder, indoor, trades with less healthy conditions and worse accommodation where the family were separated for long hours rather than being together all day. Nonetheless it was impossible for such mobile families to send their children to school, and most boat people remained illiterate and ostracised by those living ‘on the bank’.

As diesel and steam replaced the tow horse in the early twentieth century, it became possible to move more cargo with the same manpower by towing a second unpowered boat, commonly referred to as a butty, buttyboat or butty boat. There was now no horse to look after, but someone had to steer the butty, unless on a wide canal such as the Grand Union Canal where the two boats could be roped side-to-side or ‘breasted up’, and handled as one while working locks.

Cargo-carrying by narrow boat was almost extinguished as a way of life between 1945 and the last regular long distance traffic finished in 1970. However some traffic continued into the 1980s and beyond including over 2 million tonnes of aggregate carried on the Grand Union (River Soar) from 1976 to 1996, latterly using wide beam barges however, and aggregate currently carried by narrow boats (and wide barges) between Denham and West Drayton on the Grand Union Canal. A few people are doing their best to keep the tradition alive, mostly by one-off deliveries rather than regular runs, or by selling goods such as coal to other boaters.

There are many enthusiasts dedicated to restoring the remaining old boats, often members of the Historic Narrow Boat owners Club [ 1 ] and there are also many replicas such as Working Narrow Boat Hadar ornately painted with the same traditional designs, usually of roses and castles. If the boat is not horse-drawn, it may have a refurbished, slow-revving, vintage diesel engine. and there are even some steam-driven narrow boats such as the ex-Fellows Morton and Clayton steamer President . [ 2 ]

Painted decoration on narrowboats [ edit ]

Decoration on a traditional English narrowboat: roses on the water can (top) and castles on the open doors to the cabin

Carver 28 Cruiser boat

By the latter part of the 19th century it was common practice to paint roses and castles on both narrow boats themselves and their fixtures and fittings. Common sites include the doors to the cabin, the water can or barrel and the side of the boat along with ornate lettering giving the boat’s name and owner. However, this was not done in all regions, the Chesterfield Canal being one waterway where the narrowboats never bore such decorations. [ 3 ]

The origin of the roses and castles found on canal boats is unclear. The first written reference to them appears to be in an 1858 edition of the magazine Household Words in one of a series of articles titled On the Canal, but while this shows that the art form must have existed by this date it doesn’t provide us with an origin. For some time, a popular suggestion was that it had some form of Romani origin, however there does not appear to be a significant link between the Romani and boating communities. Other suggestions include transfer of styles from the clock-making industry (in particular the decoration on the face), the japanning industry or the pottery industry. There is certainly a similarity in style and a geographical overlap, but no solid proof of a link. There are similar styles of folk art in Scandinavia. Germany, Turkey and Bangladesh .

In the eighteenth century, the similar Dutch Hindeloopen paintwork would only have been a sailing barge journey away from the Thames. There is also an article in the Midland Daily Telegraph of 22 July 1914 that credits the practice of painting of water cans, at least, to a Mr Arthur Atkins. The date of the events make the claim possible, but would require the Household Words article to be reporting on the very start of a phenomenon, rather than – as its tone suggests – something that had existed for some time. Until further evidence comes to light, it is impossible to support or deny the claim that Arthur Atkins was responsible for the start of the practice and thus the origin of the paintings remains uncertain.

While the practice declined as commercial use of the canals dwindled, it has seen something of a revival in recent times with the emergence of leisure boating. Narrowboat decoration with roses and castle themes are a reasonably common sight on today’s canals, although these may utilise cheaper computer-printed vinyl transfers in place of the traditional craft of hand-painted designs.

Modern narrowboats [ edit ]

The number of licensed boats on canals and rivers managed by British Waterways (BW), a government organisation, was estimated at about 27,000 in 2006. There are perhaps another 5,000 unlicensed boats kept in private moorings or on other waterways. [ 4 ] Most of the boats on BW waterways are steel cruisers popularly referred to as narrowboats.

Modern narrowboats are used for annual holidays, weekend breaks or as permanent residences. Usually, they have steel hulls and a steel superstructure, but when they were first being developed for leisure use in the 1970s glass re-inforced plastic (fibre-glass) or timber was often used for the superstructures. They are usually powered by modern diesel engines. and are fitted inside to a high standard. There will be at least 6 feet (1.8 m) internal headroom, and similar domestic facilities as a small landward home: central heating, flush toilets, shower or even bath, four-ring hobs, oven, grill, microwave oven, and refrigerator; quite a few also have satellite television and mobile broadband via the use of 3G broadband technology. Externally, their resemblance to traditional boats can vary from a faithful imitation (false rivets, and copies of traditional paintwork) through interpretation (clean lines and simplified paintwork) through to a free-style approach which does not try to pretend in any way that this is a traditional boat.

They are owned by individuals, shared by a group of friends (or by a more formally organised syndicate), rented out by holiday firms, or used as cruising hotels. A few boats are lived on permanently: either based in one place (though long-term moorings for residential narrowboats are currently very difficult to find) or continuously moving around the network (perhaps with a fixed location for the coldest months, when many stretches of canal are closed by repair works or stoppages).

Modern narrowboat types [ edit ]

On most narrowboats steering is by a tiller, as it was on all working narrow boats, and the steerer stands at the stern of the boat, aft of where a person emerges from the hatchway and rear doors at the top of the steps up from the cabin. The steering area comes in three basic types, each meeting different needs in terms of maximising internal space; having a more traditional appearance; having a big enough rear deck for everyone to enjoy summer weather or long evenings; or protection for the steerer in bad weather. Each type has its strong advocates. However, the boundaries are not fixed, and some boats blur the categories as designers try out slightly different arrangements and combinations.

Narrowboats with traditional stern [ edit ]

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