You may not think of Britain’s canals as a gay holiday destination – but then they are the country’s best-kept secret in so many ways.
Truth is, the canals have always attracted a mixed crowd. Pensioners, hippies, young families and hen-do groups all find a distinctive way to fill their 50ft by 6ft hole in the water.
Here’s why I think a narrowboat holiday makes the perfect break for a group of gay friends too.
It’s the most relaxing holiday imaginable
In thousands of places across Britain, you can step from a busy traffic junction choked with fumes and suddenly find yourself in a peaceful corridor of water, banked with trees and flowers.
The noise dies away instantly. You can float under a bridge carrying a motorway and not notice it’s there.
The canals were the arteries of the dirtiest polluters in the industrial revolution – carrying coal, lumber and pottery. Ironically, today they have reinvented themselves as wildlife corridors.
We went on the Llangollen Canal on the borders of Wales and Shropshire, England to discover spectacular, rolling green countryside. Birds chirp, butterflies flutter, we even came bow-to-nose with a highland cow who has waded in for a swim. It’s beautiful.
What’s more, narrowboats saunter along at walking pace and the journey is the destination. You choose the pace of your trip and can tie-up almost anywhere. So there’s no big pressure to be at a certain place by a certain time.
Faced with all that, you can’t help taking a deep breath and relaxing.
It’s not just the countryside, you can always go clubbing
A canal holiday often combines countryside cruising and city scenery. And because the canals go through the very center of towns and cities, your boat becomes a great base for shopping trips, sight-seeing or a night out.
In cities like Birmingham and Manchester, you can moor for the night just a few minutes’ walk from some of Britain’s largest and liveliest gay villages.
Everybody has to do a little bit of work for the team
There’s plenty of tasks to keep you busy, although none of them are hard. The more physical among you will soon find they are running around opening bridges and wielding the lock windlasses. The more sedate can navigate, make tea or bring everyone else beer. And everyone can take a turn steering.
You soon discover each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Actually, it’s a pretty good way to get to know each other better. And the fact there’s stuff to keep people busy is particularly useful if you are bringing new friends together.
Pubs and canals go hand-in-hand. And that’s no coincidence
When the canals were first built, pubs were the motorway service stations of their age. They were the place you broke your journey and rested your horse-power.
So inns were built right next to the canals, with plenty of space to tie up, and stables for the horses which drew the boats.
It’s worth asking the staff at the boatyard you hire from which pubs they recommend and which do good food. But you’ll usually be spoilt for choice.
Other canal users are friendly
You meet the occasional grump on a canal. But most people are friendly, cheery and helpful. More importantly, after several gay narrowboat holidays, I’ve never met anyone overtly homophobic. And trust me, people would have spotted we are gay.
Yes, you can have a double bed
There’s another plus too. Gay travelers often worry, with countryside breaks, about running the gauntlet of potentially homophobic B&B owners. But on a canal boat, you completely control your space for your days onboard. It’s your home, not someone else’s. So nobody can complain who is sleeping with whom.
Some boats can have bedrooms that can be organised as singles or doubles, so it’s best to let the operator know what you want in advance.
You are all together in a small space
You quickly become a family on a canal boat. You’ll find yourselves crowding together in the kitchen and living area, drinking, eating and chatting. It’s a good idea to take a pack of cards or a board game, particularly on longer trips.
If anyone needs time out, the tow path is right there
If you just want to stretch your legs, plug in your headphones and go for a walk or run. The boat goes no faster than a very brisk walk so it will catch you up.
And even if you’re feeling lazier than that, it’s completely possible to get away onboard. Mostly, the party will be happening at the stern (back) of the boat. That leaves the bow as a good place to read a book or sunbathe.
You get to cook together, even if it’s only a hangover breakfast
The galley kitchens are pretty well equipped, with proper cookers, fridges and even a coffee filter machine.
It’s a small space, but very workable to produce a meal. On one trip, we even managed to cook a full-on roast. More likely, you’ll find yourself creating a fry-up while you nurse a hangover.
We’ve also discovered that the tin teapots they always provide on narrowboats are perfect for mixing large batch cocktails. There’s nothing like sitting on deck, once you’ve tied up at your destination for the day, enjoying the evening sunshine with a gin martini.
It’s child and pet friendly
If any of your friends have kids or dogs, just bring them with you. And if your group is too big for one boat, hire two.
You can go pretty much anywhere in Britain
Britain boasts about 2,200 miles of canals and rivers you can explore by boat. Around half of us live within five miles of a stretch of navigable inland waterway.
So you can take your pick of destinations, close to home or further away, spectacular countryside or urban adventure, weekend break or week-long get-away.
Our journey saw us travel from Wrenbury to Ellesmere, through some spectacular countryside.
But ABC Boat Hire has 16 marinas across England, Scotland and Wales. Prices for a day boat start from just £99. Check out the ABC Boat Hire site to choose your boat, route and marina. The FAQ page provides useful information for beginners.