I took a canal boat holiday with my family when I was quite small, before access was ever an issue. It’s an incredibly relaxing way to spend a week, as you’re forced to slow down and pass the time just gazing out over the water, with no internet or TV to distract you.
My boyfriend and I were recently looking at ways to replicate this, but with the added challenge of my wheelchair. Barges are not known for their accessibility due to their size and multi-level set-up, but I came across the Bruce Wake Charitable Trust, based in Upton-Upon-Severn, who have adapted three barges specifically for the use of disabled passengers, and felt this was too good an opportunity to pass up.
We opted to hire the Charlotte III for five days. She was the largest of the three boats, berthing six (though anyone who’s ever spent any time on a boat will know that you would need to get pretty cosy if there were six of you on board). We picked her up from Upton Marina on a Saturday and, after an hour or so’s tuition, were ready to go.
In terms of access, the boat was incredibly well designed. It was clear that the person who had designed it had a good understanding of the requirements of wheelchair users. Spacious platform lifts were situated at the front and rear of the boat allowing you to get down into the cabin, and these lifts were flush with the floor which meant a small set of steps could be placed on top to allow people to climb in and out when the lift wasn’t in use. The bed had a ceiling hoist above it with enough space (just!) for a transfer, and there was a reasonably sized wet room although I think many would struggle to get their wheelchair in all the way. The kitchen and living areas had plenty of space to turn around in and were easily accessible from a wheelchair, and there were options to access both the front and rear decks – even to the point of steering the boat (although from the height I was at, I couldn’t really see where we were going!)
The organisation were very willing to lend equipment if required – I opted for a shower chair which was easier to manouevre around in the bathroom, but there was a long list of equipment which could be provided on request, and free of charge, such as commode chairs and portable hoists. They even let us bring our dog along, though she was less than keen about the whole idea.
While the boat itself was well designed for a wheelchair user, getting on and off was sometimes a challenge as many mooring points had steps connecting them with the river bank. We drew on the knowledge of lock-keepers quite frequently and found them to be very helpful in terms of directing us towards accessible mooring stations. Even then, though, the ramps provided were quite steep and certainly not the kind to attempt in the dark! I took my manual chair which gave us a few more options, but an electric chair could probably have handled the majority of places with a bit of extra muscle. Bear in mind of course that most moorings are floating, which means that the lower the river level is, the steeper the ramps are going to be!
I know cruises are a popular option with many Trailblazers but can be prohibitively expensive. Having done both I can thoroughly recommend a canal boat as an affordable substitute. The living conditions may be a little more cramped and it does perhaps lack the glamour of the enormous cruise liner, but on the upside you get to choose your own itinerary, and plan your own excursions to your own schedule. I got to see some parts of the UK that I’d never seen before and was able to take the time to really appreciate how nice the countryside looks in the summer. Tame, perhaps, but I came out of that five days feeling more refreshed than I’ve felt in a very long time.
For more information and picture of the Charlotte III, visit http://www.brucewaketrust.co.uk/inside-charlotteiii.html