The Peak District’s new barge hostel for backpackers

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What's the closest you've ever come to your host on holiday? You've probably chatted over a cup of tea at breakfast. Maybe you've shared a friendly aperitif with them before heading out for dinner. Have you ever shared three meals a day with them, though? Have you ever been woken in the morning by the sound of them weeing?!

If you're not comfortable with that, the Wandering Duck – the UK's first hostel on a barge – is not for you. It's communal living at its skinniest: your hosts, and up to seven shipmates, will see you in your pyjamas.

The 21-metre, ex-rental narrowboat belongs to Ruth and Mark, an easygoing couple in their 30s. Having travelled the world and managed a hostel in New Zealand, they decided to reinvent barging by opening a floating hostel specifically for backpackers this year. You can join an organised trip and "enjoy the company of like-minded travellers", or charter the boat privately with friends. Whichever you decide, the emphasis is on socialising around the onboard ale pump more than anything.

Below deck, there are eight bunk beds, two shower rooms, and a double at the bow for the owners. The "rooms" are separated by wardrobe doors that fold back, as rudimentary screens. I went with just three buddies but even we had to operate a one-way system in the corridor.

The cost for a two-night weekend trip on the Peak Forest canal (including all meals) is ?115 per person. For a backpacker, that's pretty pricey – the Manchester YHA costs ?13 a night. But, compared with barge rentals (this boat fetched ?1,849 a week in high summer in its previous life), it is a relatively cheap way to explore the network, though that meant there wasn't the challenge of steering the thing to distract us from the unlovely views sliding by.

Passengers can choose from two itineraries: "relax and enjoy" (from the Peak District to Macclesfield) or "locks and tunnels" (Manchester to the Peak District), which we chose. We chose the latter, which meant embarking at the back of a pretty grim car park near Hyde Central railway station, a 15-minute train journey from Manchester Piccadilly.

Our first mooring, after an hour's cruise, was in Romiley, an unremarkable suburb of Stockport. Ruth cooked a veggie curry and we tried the ale. The boat is licensed, so you can't bring your own booze. Instead, there's an honesty bar: ale is ?1.50 a half, wine ?2 a glass.

Ruth and Mark encourage passengers to get off the boat in the evening, so directed us to the Duke of York pub in Romiley. Not somewhere on the radar of most international backpackers, I thought, as we supped Strongbows by the fruit machine.

The following morning, we cruised over the Marple aqueduct, which rises 30 metres above the swollen river Goyt (it had been, and still was, raining) before tackling the Marple lock flight.

To raise the canal by 64 metres, there are 16 locks to open and close, which takes three hours. In the rain, that soon palled. By number eight, we downed tools and got back on board: kettle on, brownies out … more like it.

In the afternoon we strolled to a manmade Victorian lake near Disley. We longed to strike out for a hike but were still really in the 'burbs and, all too soon, back on the boat. While Ruth made cottage pie and a good chocolate pudding, we huddled at the front of the barge in our cagoules and drank wine as the city finally receded and we settled into the gentle pace of the canal.

After dinner we were directed to the White Lion in Disley – its claim to fame is that it's amazingly dog-friendly, which says a lot about how much fun it is for humans on a Saturday night – but couldn't face many ales, so snuck back onboard at 11pm, quietly, as our hosts were asleep.

The "highlight" of our final day was a glimpse of the bleak-looking Swizzels Matlow sweet factory in New Mills, then we were dropped off at Bugsworth canal basin on the edge of the Peak District. We'd craved open countryside all weekend, but were now burdened with our luggage.

As we waited for a (?40) cab back to our starting point, we felt deflated. It's early days, and Ruth and Mark plan to add more activities, but for us, the barge hostel trip through the suburbs of Stockport concept didn't float our boat.

• Trip provided by the Wandering Duck (07584 122614,; two-nights from ?115pp. Train from London to Manchester, Virgin Trains (08719 774222,

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