Our 2016 mini-break on a canal boat could have gone horribly wrong. The interior was like something from a plywood time warp, all brown varnish and stale carpet. The toilet smelled, the shower curtain was mouldy and the mattress woefully-skinny. English holiday narrowboats are not known for their contemporary styling, and this was a case in point. Our romantic weekend plans looked decidedly lacklustre.
A new kind of experience
But once the training was complete and we were cruising on alone in the wilderness of Leicestershire, our concerns were all but forgotten. The feeling of freedom was almost overwhelming. We could cruise for as long as we liked and moor when and where we wanted, for two whole days, carrying our home with us like some kind of reverse snail on steroids.
There were no deadlines, no traffic queues, no bedtimes. We could moor at the end of the pub garden and swing open the little gate just for “boaters.” We could sip drinks on the towpath as the sun set, and greet ducklings paddling past our kitchen window at breakfast. The speed limit was four miles an hour.
In short, this was like no mini-break we’d ever had before, and we couldn’t shake off the feeling that this was our future. But how to drag the bleak English canal boat interiors out of the dark ages? There was only one thing for it. Within months of our holiday, we had bought a cheap boat and set to work redesigning and refitting it, using borrowed money, elbow grease and a few offerings to the Goddess of Hopes and Dreams.
That first boat was a huge learning curve but as a proof of concept, it worked – our holiday guests loved it and Boutique Narrowboats was born. Later, when the holiday boat business at Union Wharf came up for sale (from where we’d taken that first mini break), we knew it was the perfect fit. We now have a thriving little fleet of eight hire boats.
Putting the sexy into narrowboating
So how did we turn things around? By employing that classic business strategy of putting ourselves in our customers’ shoes. As guests, we wanted a king-size bed with a hotel sprung mattress and a coffee machine. We wanted a large shower, an efficient toilet and – more than anything – we wanted to feel valued.
Good interior design does this. Luxury hotels spend millions on the design of their properties in order to make their guests feel special. Retailers do the same thing with the high-end branding of their stores. We believed that if we could use good design to create inviting, modern spaces, we would make a success of our new business idea.
In time, we brought together a hugely-talented team of craftspeople to join us, so that each boat features bespoke carpentry, luxury finishes, antiques and original art. Demand is high for the rental of the Boutique Narrowboats and we also occasionally fit-out boats for private sale, too.
After thousands of guests over the first few years, we now have a clear picture of our customers’ needs. The contemporary interiors and modern fit-outs have attracted a fresh audience to the canals, something which has breathed new life into the industry. Our guests tend to be younger and a more diverse demographic than most traditional boaters. Many are novices just like we were, and often they are celebrating anniversaries, birthdays, civil partnerships or are on honeymoon. We are proud to say that makes Boutique Narrowboats very different from other hire companies and we are delighted to have played our part in bringing a bit of glamour to the English waterways.
The Boutique Narrowboats for couples are bookable online at
Office is at 1a Canalside, Union Wharf, Market Harborough, Leics, LE16 7UW. Tel 01858 432123
Aaran Chapman and Sharon Peach are the husband and wife team behind Boutique Narrowboats at Union Wharf, Market Harborough. This post originally appeared on www.boutiquenarrowboats.co.uk