Narrowboats are a design throwback from a world long gone.
These traditional boats stem from the industrial revolution, and they’re a design that’s changed very little over time. Sure, they have moved with the times on the inside; I get that, but the basic shape of a narrowboat hasn’t changed much in years.
And they’re shape is primarily the reason why they haven’t changed.
Narrowboats are a variation on a theme. After all, they’re long, thin tubes of steel, so how creative can you get with them?
Let’s start with what a normal narrowboat should look like.
Traditional Narrowboat Interiors
Canal boats and narrowboats have two standard layouts: The traditional layout and the reverse layout.
You’ll find the bedroom at the rear of the boat, with the saloon at the front. This is a traditional layout because it harks back to the days when narrowboats were working vessels, carrying coal, wood, steel; pretty much everything a developing nation needed.
Canals were the superhighways of the industrial and commercial world 200 years ago, much like freight by air, sea and rail is today. So the boats were designed for the maximum loads possible, leaving little room for the men, women and children who lived and worked on these boats. Squashed at the boat’s stern, families lived cheek to jowl, in cramped conditions.
It’s fair to say that luxury was non-existent for canal families in the 18th and 19th Century.
This layout has the bedroom at the boat’s front bow. The saloon is usually located at the rear, although it’s possible to find narrowboats with a middle saloon and back galley.
This layout works for many boaters because it makes the galley and stern a friendlier space, especially when the captain needs a cup of tea to help concentrate on steering the boat.
Which layout you prefer depends on how you enter and exit the boat. Some people feel odd walking through a front bedroom when boarding the vessel, so the stern becomes the main access point. And the reverse can be said for making your way onto the rear if the bedroom’s at the stern.
The Boatman’s Cabin
The boatman’s cabin was an area no larger than 10ft in length, at the rear of the boat, where the family slept, ate and lived. Hence why boats with bedrooms at the stern are traditional in their layout.
The Pullman Dinette was first introduced inside train cars by the Great Northern Railway Company in 1879, in the form of a Pullmans Carriage, or dining car, which mimicked a restaurant’s traditional seating layout. Narrowboat designers stole the idea and adopted it on their boats when narrowboats became a leisure boat rather than a means of transporting goods.
It works on a narrowboat brilliantly and is the most popular layout for a dining area. It also has multiple uses, as the design allows for a pull out bed between the two benches for guest sleeping.
You can have an L-shaped arrangement too, but the simplicity of the Pulman Dinette layout is hard to beat.
It’s a Mad, Mad World of Narrowboats
Well, now that we’ve dealt with traditional interiors, let’s see what happens when someone tears up the rulebook and does something completely crazy.
This next bunch of eccentrics has done precisely that!
This is one crazy boat! Made from the shell of an old narrowboat, this replica German U-Boat was lovingly created by Richard Williams, with the help of a movie industry props company. U-8047 was designed and built to educate people about German submarines during World War II.
This narrowboat interior is fashioned to resemble an authentic submarine of the period, and comes complete with a periscope! The exterior even has mock torpedo tubes.
The boat was for sale in 2015 after “Captain” Richard Williams was found guilty of 1 Million pounds worth of tax fraud and was forced to sell the boat to repay Her Majesties Revenue and Customs. I suppose he got that sinking feeling in the end (sorry, I couldn’t resist the joke).
Do “we all live in a yellow submarine”? Just The Beatles, I think, in their 1968 film of the same name.
But it’s now possible to book a stay in a yellow submarine-themed barge.
Based in Liverpool (where else, of course), this funky, sixties-inspired narrowboat interior is packed full of nostalgia. This boat is adorned with references to The Beatles, with silver and gold discs on the walls, and psychedelic wallpaper throughout.
There’s even a Lambretta from the movie Quadrophenia in the saloon, for those that remember the mods and rockers.
Equipped with all the modern amenities you’d expect from a hotel, this boat has a state-of-the-art kitchen and a crisp shower room. But when you get to the bedroom, it all gets a bit Gothic. From gilded mirrors on the ceiling to black fabric covered walls, this room’s more akin to “Interview with a Vampire” than “Yellow Submarine”.
For those of you who haven’t heard of Only Fools and Horses, it’s a British sitcom about two brothers and their grandad, who, rather than earn an honest living, make their money by shady dealings. It’s a true classic and regularly voted in the all-time top three UK sitcoms.
So it comes as no surprise to learn that super-fan Tony Vaughan spent thousands of pounds converting his narrowboat into a shrine to the show. Okay, so I admit that most of the money has been spent making the exterior look like the famous yellow car that the Trotter family drive.
He started by splitting a Reliant Robin, 3-wheeled van in two and welding the two ends to the front and rear of his boat.
The Reliant Robin is the mode of transport for the main character in the show, Del ‘Boy’ Trotter.
The idea came to Tony after a few pints of Guinness (the best ones always do), and the rest is history. He even had the 3-wheeled van’s famous livery of “New York, Paris, Peckham” written on the side of his boat.
The Floating Salon is a fully functioning hair salon on a converted narrowboat. It’s moored on the Kennet and Avon canal and has featured in “Great Canal Journeys,” starring Prunella Scales (Sybil from Fawlty Towers) and her husband, Timothy West.
How cool is it having a floating bookshop on the canals!
This independent bookshop travels the canals of the UK, bringing great literature to the masses. High street chains and online sales have their place, but you can’t beat the experience of climbing aboard a boat and exploring the rows of bookshelves, lined with shiny new books.
I think this has to be one of the coolest barges on the waterways.
The Future of Narrowboat Design
With hundreds of years of history behind them, narrowboats are traditional as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. But what about the next generation of canal enthusiasts? What sort of craft will they steer in the next 200-years?
This futuristic narrowboat rips up the rulebook and sticks up two fingers to tradition. There’s nothing “old world” about this boat. Designed primarily as a pleasure craft to carry passengers on short canal cruises, the Regent Explorer is more James Bond than narrowboat.
Minimalism with sleek lines and straight edges rather than curves, are all design features here, dragging the narrowboat into the 21st Century.
And this boat will appeal to the kids!
Now, this boat’s more James Bond Villain! It’s called the “Orca” because the designer used whales as inspiration. It rethinks the narrowboat in almost every aspect, appealing to the new generation that will cruise the inland waterways, keeping narrowboating alive.
This one will certainly turn heads if it ever gets built. At the moment, this is just a concept and part of a project to reimagine what the future of narrowboats could be like.
Just as in other walks of life, madcap schemes and ideas are alive and well in the world of narrowboats.
Not everyone is trying to turn their boat into the Starship Enterprise or the Batmobile, but I’m glad someone’s crazy enough to have a go at building the impossible.
It puts a smile on my face that’s for sure.
Wait! The Starship Enterprise narrowboat; now that’s an idea worth considering.
Mark Weir lives on a canal boat in the heart of England, with his wife, Julie, and his grumpy dog, Eric. Mark likes to travel the waterways in his wide-beam barge, filming his exploits as he travels. Julie paints the wildlife, and Eric likes to bark, mostly.