See the world slowly from the deck of a pootling boat. Our network of navigable waterways is one of Britain's best secrets.
How far can I go?
The main waterways system stretches roughly between Bristol and London in the south and Lancaster and Ripon in the north, and between the Wash in the east and parts of North Wales in the west. The system includes many rivers, notably the Thames and the Nene. It's big.
In Scotland, the two main (unconnected) canals each connect the Atlantic and the North Sea. These are the Forth and Clyde Canal betweem Edinburgh and Glasgow and the glorious Caledonian Canal which was made by connecting the lochs of the Great Glen between Fort William and Inverness in the Highlands.
If your narrowboat is no wider than 6' 10" and no longer than about 60ft, and if it's not underpowered, then you'll be able to go pretty much anywhere... if you have the time. (For more about boat sizes and their pros and cons, see What kind of boat?)
Just how slow is it?
Jeremy Clarkson wouldn't like it.
The maximum speed is 4 mph on canals and about 6 mph on some rivers. Most of the canal isn't deep or wide enough to let you go any faster than this - open up the throttle and after a certain point you're just burning diesel to suck the water from underneath the boat and make a big bow wave. Downstream on the tidal Thames, though, you can go at quite a lick (because of the moon).
Locks take about 15 minutes to go through, depending on how they're set when you reach them and whether anyone else is waiting. In some places you won't meet a lock for 10 miles or more, but usually there's a lock every mile or two, and sometimes they're bunched together in 'flights'. The 21 locks of Hatton Flight in Warwickshire are packed into just two miles, but will still take you a few hours to go through. You could literally crawl the distance faster.
Estimate journey times by adding the number of miles to the number of locks and dividing the total by four (as it takes 15 to go a mile or get through a lock, on average).
Never was it truer than on the canals that it's not about arriving, but the journey. So ease up, enjoy the scenery, and sigh.
Find and collect
If there's a Fred Dibnah in you, try the Seven Wonders of the Waterways for starters.
Unless you're retired it's pretty hard to make an epic trip on the canals, but if you can snatch two or three weeks for a proper voyage, try a cruising ring. Instead of going out one way and coming back the same way, a cruising ring is... ah, you've guessed already?
There are two fantastic rings from London - for either you'll need to be equipped for the tidal Thames, which means having an anchor, among other things.
The Thames Ring is just magic - up the Grand Union to Warwickshire, down the South Oxford to the Thames and back to London, including the five miles of Thames tideway between Teddington and Brentford (or all the way down to Limehouse). It includes Braunston (the tiny village at the centre of the canal universe); the mile-and-three-quarter-long Blisworth Tunnel, the twisty-turny canals through pastoral Oxfordshire and a majestic glide down the Thames. It takes three weeks to do comfortably.
From Paddington, this ring runs along the Grand Union (Paddington Arm) to Bulls Bridge, down the GU main line to Brentford, out onto the tidal Thames to Limehouse, and back up the Regent's to Paddington (or you can go the other way, which is a bit easier). It takes a minimum of three days but it's worth spending longer over. This journey takes you right through central London on the tideway, past Parliament, the London Eye and all that. Sometimes St Pancras Cruising Club do this trip in a flotilla.