Afloat with Fly Boats and Leggers

Enthusiasts are rediscovering the vast system of narrow canals that connects England’s byways and backways

Saturn, a restored 1906 fly-boat
Saturn, a restored 1906 fly-boat Wikimedia Commons

As a girl, Linda Anfuso dreamed of living on one of the gaily painted "narrow boats" that meander through England's network of two-century-old canals. Twenty-five years later, Linda and her husband have realized her childhood dream, becoming part of a group of canal aficionados that enjoy a leisurely life puttering through the countryside at four miles per hour. "There's a sense of community here," she says, "that our parents and grandparents talked about, but we never knew."

Recently, a new interest in the unique art, language and folkways of the boatmen and their culture has resulted in the restoration of more than half of the 4,000 miles of once crumbling waterways. The late 18th century saw a boom in English canal building as owners of potteries, textile mills, ironworks and brickyards realized that a horse pulling a barge could move more than 15 times as much cargo as one pulling a wagon on a good road.

Eventually, the railroad and other technological innovations made the canals obsolete. Today, volunteers ranging from 20-somethings to retirees are cleaning up, restoring and rebuilding abandoned canals and locks, reports author Susan Hornik. Meanwhile, a growing number of enthusiasts travel the canals in boats painted to recapture the bygone era of the narrow boat heyday. Last year some 250,000 vacationers rented canal boats for floating holidays.

One boat owner sums up the slow pace of life on the canals, "You don't do it for getting there."

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