WITH the Easter Holidays in full swing, and lots of people making plans for summer, I took a look at an increasingly popular pastime: canal boating.

I joined people who had travelled from all over the South West and the south coast of England on Sunday (April 7) to Trowbridge to sample the joys of life afloat.

They were responding to an open day staged by the Canal & River Trust, the regulatory charity that cares for and brings to life 2,000 miles of canals and rivers in England and Wales, and charter hire company Drifters Waterway Holidays.

Phil Temple, of ABC Boat Hire at the Hilperton Marina, which was hosting the open day, said: “We’ve had people coming from all over, including Gloucester, Brighton and Bournemouth.

“It has been a good day. I would say we’ve taken nearly 100 people on about eight or nine short trips throughout the day.”

The company was cruising a short stretch of the Kennet & Avon Canal from Hilperton towards Semington using a 35-foot day boat called Cheers.

With Phil, 57, at the tiller, we were given a snapshot of what life could be like afloat, and were offered the opportunity to try our hand at steering the boat.

Among the families on my trip were the Quinn’s from Bulkington, mum Paula, dad, Liam, daughter Grace,9, and son Tom, 7.

They’ve been thinking about booking a canal boat holiday but wanted to try it out first to see whether they would like it.

“We thought we’d give it a try,” said Liam, who works for an IT consulting company in Andover. “Paula has been talking about going on a canal boat holiday.”

First to try his hand on the tiller was Tom, who thought it was “great” to steer the boat, with Phil providing a steady and correcting influence on the direction of travel.

Next up was Grace, who prefers horse-riding, but was happy to come along for the ride, while mum sat at the front of the bike, saying ‘this is the life’

Also on the boat was a couple from Clevedon in Somerset, Lin Coombes, 60, and her husband, Steve. They had seen the open day advertised in a boating magazine and decided to see what it was like.

“I’d like to have a go,” said Lin. “We’re thinking of going on a short break canal boating.

“It’s wonderful. It’s so peaceful travelling along the canal, and there’s always so much wildlife to see.” I could not but agree with her.

The taster sessions included free short trips on the boat, skippered by Phil, as well as boat tours and holiday discounts.

To tempt those enthusiastic about life afloat, there were even four canal boats of various lengths for sale, with prices to suit wallets both large and small.

Richard Thomas, the Wales & South West Director for the Canal & River Trust, says: “We believe that waterways have the power to make a real difference to people’s lives.

“Spending time by the water makes us all healthier and happier and early research is showing evidence of this.

“The marina is a great place to start your Kennet & Avon experience. The waterway takes you through so many different landscapes from lush countryside to historic cities.

“Hundreds of people already enjoy boating holidays on the Kennet & Avon and these free canal boat taster sessions are a great way to make sure this sort of holiday is for you.”

Nigel Stevens, director of Drifters Waterway Holidays, said: “Travelling at just 4mph through peaceful countryside, sleepy villages and vibrant waterside towns and cities, canal boat holidays are often described as the ‘fastest way to slow down’.

“Each year, around 352,000 people enjoy holidaying on Britain’s canal network and last year around 3,000 people got afloat at one of our national open day events.”

Drifters Waterway Holidays is made up of nine hire boat companies, including ABC Boat Hire at Hilperton Marina, Anglo Welsh, Black Prince Countrywide Cruisers, Foxhangers at Devizes, Kate Boats, Napton Narrowboats, Shire Cruisers and Union Canal Carriers.

Between them, they offer 550 boats for hire, operating from 45 bases across England, Scotland and Wales. Prices start at £495 for a short break and £705 for a week. Narrowboats range from 32 foot to 70 foot for up to 12 people.

John Baker