Trevor Davies recently reviewed his Drifters canal boat holiday in the Daily Mirror (8 April 2017), setting off from our canal boat hire base Barnoldswick on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal.
I always fancied walking the Pennine Way but when I looked into it, I realised that was perhaps a bit ambitious.
And then I found out you could cruise along it in a barge.
The Leeds & Liverpool canal meanders, climbs and tunnels 127 miles through the backbone of England.
Its journey reveals both timeless scenery and the era of industrial revolution that forged its place on the landscape in brick and iron.
My family and I joined Shire Cruises to spend a weekend on a narrowboat, discovering all the canal has to offer – its pleasant views, villages, pubs and, as we soon found out, a whole new way of life.
The first thing you notice as you load your stuff on the 56ft craft is the quiet – ducks and swans gliding along the canal, diverting their course for the occasional boat softly chugging along at 4mph.
It was a welcome peace – away from city life and its traffic – which was shattered only by us. Well me, actually.
Navigating our way from Barnoldswick to Gargrave, four miles from Skipton, North Yorks, was not easy, at first. After a thorough guide to the boat and its operations, we were accompanied by Matt, after casting off and moving into forward gear.
He explained: “There are no brakes. You have to put it into reverse to slow down to a halt. And the barge won’t steer unless it is in forward.”
“Oh,” I thought.
“It’s a good job the owner wasn’t in,” he said after my first collision with another barge, stationary at its mooring. “He wouldn’t have been happy about that, probably would have shouted and called you all sorts,” he added.
“Still, no damage done?” I said, attempting a gruff Yorkshire attitude.
After taking us through the first three locks, telling us how to wind open the sluices of the giant gates before pushing them to the side and motoring in, we were on our own
The panic on our faces before the next likely collision was noticed by the seasoned hand on the tiller of the barge coming towards us. “Oh no, it’s another boat,” he laughed, mocking us as we narrowly avoided him.
L-plates on the bow
We might as well have had L-plates on the bow.
But it was a balmy Friday evening in the Yorkshire Dales and soon we began to relax.
Our first destination was East Marton, five miles away – although it seemed a lot further to novice navigators like us.
We were told we could moor virtually anywhere on the towpath for the night, by banging in two giant steel stakes and tying up.
The Cross Keys pub
But East Marton, close to where the Pennine Way joins the canal, had all the amenities we needed – a pub called the Cross Keys, which had a highly recommended restaurant.
To minimise the number of locks, engineers built the canal along contours of the hills to stay at the same level. The first three locks had lowered us some 135 feet, but we were still cruising along at 459ft above sea level.
The twists and turns of the waterway give you an ever-changing view over a lot of rolling green hills, home to sheep and cows. And on the horizon stand the taller, brooding peaks of the dales.
A unique perspective
It’s a unique perspective, and you start to daydream about living the good life on a canal boat.
Congratulating ourselves on just one slight scrape going round a hairpin bend, the famous double bridge of the Pennine Way came into view and we had reached our destination.
East Marton was a safe place to moor, but we still locked up before going to the pub. The Cross Keys is a good 50ft above the canal and from the garden we enjoyed a local pint as we admired our nifty bit of parking achieved with ropes, a pole, forward and reverse gears, and virtually no shouting.
A boat like ours, which sleeps six, with kitchen, good shower and two toilets, will cost between £30,000 and £50,000 to buy. There’s everything you need, including microwave, TV and central heating, all running off the mains charged by the barge’s diesel engine, which needs to be on for a few hours a day to keep all systems up and running. All you need is to top up with water and fuel along the route.
A seductive lifestyle
It’s a seductive alternative lifestyle for some. At the pub we met two couples coming up for retirement who were using the holiday to see if they wanted to invest in a boat and fully explore the 2,000 miles of waterways in England and Wales.
It’s free to moor in places, where you can stay for up to two weeks, so the costs are low. Of 33,000 boats on our waterways, 26% are now primary residences. That’s up 16% in 10 years, according to the Canal and River Trust, the charity that maintains the routes. But we were warned, there are plenty of places to avoid mooring up overnight.
One couple, who had been holidaying on the canals for 28 years, told us: “Don’t stay in Leeds.”
But we were only here for the weekend and would make Gargrave after tackling six locks the next day.
The biggest Yorkshire puddings
The food in the Cross Keys was well worth the trip and we made a booking for Sunday lunch for what we were told are the biggest Yorkshire puddings in the county.
After a tiring first day we slept soundly on the barge – and no need for the central heating. We didn’t even hear the rain.
The next morning we cast off for Gargrave, pursued by swans, trying to grab some of our breakfast on the patio at the stern.
It was a bit of a slog going down he six locks at Newton Bank, but we were assisted by an energetic keeper, giving us instructions and warning us about boats coming the other way.
Gargrave was a welcome sight, sandwiched between the canal and the River Aire. We moored up for the night and headed off into the village for an excellent meal at the Bollywood Cottage restaurant.
Over dinner, I asked my daughters, aged 21 and 23, about the trip. I wasn’t sure it would be their thing, imagining it might be a bit too quiet. But they assured me they loved the serene, slow pace through the beautiful countryside.
And they were both amazed that we were getting a superb 4G phone signal. By the time we headed back we felt like professionals and everyone was at home with their hand on the tiller.
I’ve often used the expression ‘I wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole’, so when the day came that one was thrust into my hands and I was told to use it and ‘be quick about it’, my initial over-riding feeling was bemusement.
Canal boat holidays had always had a certain appeal for me and my wife, and after watching a few episodes of Timothy West and Prunella Scales pottering about in their series Great Canal Journeys, we decided it looked easy enough.
Hiring a narrowboat
So, with many a light-hearted boating quip, we ‘plunged’ into it by hiring a narrow boat for long weekend from Drifters’ member ABC Boat Hire who have boats and routes all over the country.
Arriving at the marina, we were presented with our boat and realised that two and half tons of wood and metal totalling sixty feet in length may not be as easy to control as we’d imagined. Driving in London at rush hour suddenly seemed very easy.
After a panic when we couldn’t find any saucepans (we later found them stored in the oven), we started loading essential supplies. A word of advice here – if you’re taking wine on board, do use boxes, they’re easier to store and they bounce, which bottles don’t.
You get the choice before you go of how you want your narrowboat laid out bedroom-wise, a double bed and/or singles. These boats can take up to eight people in theory, but it could be a bit of a squash – we found the accommodation ideal for four people with four single beds in two bedrooms.
So, after a good introductory talk from the staff at the marina where we learned how to fill up water, check for weed around the propeller, how to operate the cooker, toilets, and showers and pump out the bilge each morning, we settled down in the cabin.
As well as an onboard ‘in-flight guide/ handbook’ which tells you everything you could want to know about the boat and your trip, you are also sent a canal cruising guide in advance of your trip which explains all about the aqueducts, lock gates and tunnels on the canal. We were given a Skippers’ Guide as well, which included a canal map which we found incredibly helpful.
After few days afloat I became an expert at using my bargepole, whether it was to ward us off canal banks or lock gates or even, as on one memorable occasion, attempting a bit of impromptu pole vaulting! Still you do get a certain feeling of superiority when members of the public are watching you thinking you’re an old hand at this game.
Enjoying our holiday
I have to say I really enjoyed this holiday. Once you figure out that if you want to go in one direction you need to push the tiller the opposite way, you get quite confident.
However, it doesn’t pay to get too complacent, as we often managed to scrape bridge piers and walls. We were actually quite worried when we saw all the scuff marks and dents on the hull, but we noticed every other boat had them too so we didn’t feel too bad!
Chugging sedately along
The one thing I found so unforgettable was how peaceful it all was. Sedately chugging along at two miles an hour, it was easy to talk to people walking on the towpath or in other boats as we passed by.
When we got better at mooring up at night and felt safe, a pleasant conversation over a glass of wine as the sun went down was the perfect end to the day.
All four of us were surprised at how easily we produced a curry night from what appeared at first to be a small kitchen, but we soon realised it was more than adequate and how easily things were stored or converted to suit what we wanted to do.
Apparently even London and Birmingham are wonderful to cruise through as are many of our other cities and towns. The stunning views we got as we passed over aqueducts and the cold eeriness of the tunnels made each day so different.
Loving the wildlife
My wife, Caroline, particularly loved the flowers and the wildlife. In places the canal banks were inaccessible to humans and remained untouched so they were alive with colour, covered with orchids, flag irises, marsh marigolds and many more plants that would make a botanist tremble with excitement.
Swans and kingfishers came to say hello and many a fish jumped out of the water nearby, either trying to catch a fly or escape something lurking below. As the branches curved down to kiss the water the reflections made some lovely sights along the way.
We learned so much on our first time on board, and I’d love to take another trip. Just be careful, though, it’s very addictive I even came to be very possessive about my barge pole.
Before you go
• Visit the Inland Waterways site, which gives you so much information which we found really useful, waterways.org.uk.
• Pack wet weather clothes. Most boats will provide waterproofs for two but it’s better to be dry than wet.
• Do invest in some deck shoes or sailing footwear so you have plenty of grip on the deck.
• Take some board games – you could well pass through areas where there is no mobile or WiFi signal. Most boats have a TV/DVD player, but personally we enjoyed being away from those aspects of modern life and found a pub near most places we moored up for the night!
• If you’re on a narrow boat holiday with friends, chose them very carefully. Being cooped up in such a small space can be great but it can also get a bit fraught!
Canal boat holidays are fantastic for families, offering the chance to set off on an adventure together – learning how to work the locks and speak the boating lingo, as well as spotting wildlife, exploring traffic-free towpaths and visiting waterside attractions along the way.
Here are our top six destinations for Easter 2017:
VisitEngland has declared 2017 as the “Year of Literary Heroes” – recognising the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, 20 years since the first Harry Potter book, and other publishing phenomena that have helped put England on the map.
To celebrate, we’ve put together our Top 5 Literary escapes afloat:
Day boat hire on the canals offers the chance to spoil hard-working Mums with a relaxing day afloat, nourished by a picnic afloat or a pub lunch along the way.
Drifters offers day boat hire at 16 of its bases, from less than £10 per person. Full tuition is included so if you are new to narrow-boating, you can get the hang of steering, mooring up and working the locks.
Our day boats are equipped with cutlery, crockery and a kettle and most day boats also have a toilet, cooker and fridge.
Here’s a list of our day boat hire centres, route suggestions and prices for 2017:
Cruise to the Canal Museum in Stoke Bruerne – from Drifters’ canal boat hire base at Gayton on the Grand Union Canal in Northamptonshire, it takes around an hour to chug along to the pretty canalside village of Stoke Bruerne, passing through the 2,795-metre long Blisworth Tunnel along the way. Once there, moor up and take time to visit the intriguing Canal Museum, whose stories, films and collections give visitors a fascinating look at the history of Britain’s canals. There are plenty of places to eat in Stoke Bruerne, including the Boat Inn, Navigation Inn and the Museum’s Waterside Café. ****Day boat hire from Gayton is £130 for a boat for 12 people on a weekday, £165 on weekends and bank holidays.
Historic pubs in the heart of the canal network – from our base at Braunston on the North Oxford Canal in Northamptonshire, day boat hirers can enjoy lock-free boating and a choice of historic canalside pubs. The quiet village of Hillmorton is a delightful seven-mile, three-hour cruise away, where boaters can stop for lunch at the canalside Old Royal Oak, or take a short stroll into the village to the Stag & Pheasant. Alternatively, head south along the Oxford Canal to Napton on the Hill for lunch in the village at The Crown or King’s Head Inn, or canalside at The Folly. Again this journey is lock free and takes around two hours. ****Weekday boat hire from Braunston on ‘Water Ouzel’, which can carry up to 12 people, is £135, £170 on weekends and bank holidays.
Travel across ‘The Stream in the Sky’ – from Trevor on the Llangollen Canal in North Wales, it’s a 20-minute cruise to the World Heritage status Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. At over 38 metres high and 305 metres long, the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct is truly one of the wonders of the waterways, offering stunning views of the Dee Valley below. Day boaters can reach the pretty mountain-side town of Llangollen in two hours. ****Day boat hire from Trevor starts at £120 for up to 10 people, £160 on weekends and bank holidays.
Catch a lift on the lowland canals in Scotland – from Falkirk, at the junction of the Forth & Clyde and Union canals in Scotland, day boat hirers can travel through the incredible Falkirk Wheel, the World’s first rotating boat lift and along the Union Canal to Polmont, where they can moor up and enjoy a short walk to The Claremont Inn. Or continue on to the canalside Bridge 49 café bar and bistro, next to Causewayend Marina. ****Day boat hire on the ‘Jaggy Thistle’ which can carry up to eight passengers, is £220, Friday to Sunday.
Visit the ‘Cathedral of the Canals’ – our base at Anderton on the Trent & Mersey Canal in Cheshire, is next to the historic Anderton Boat Lift. This incredible edifice, also known as ‘the Cathedral of the canals’, looks like some giant three-storey-high iron spider and provides a 50-foot vertical link between two navigable waterways – the River Weaver and the Trent and Mersey Canal. From Anderton, the canalside Leigh Arms at Little Leigh (bridge 209 for Black Price forge), offering home-cooked pub food and cask ales, is an easy day trip away. ****Day boat hire from Anderton starts at £99 for up to 12 people.
Glide through the Brecon Beacons – from Goytre Wharf on the beautiful Monmouth & Brecon Canal near Abergavenny, enjoy incredible mountain views on the two-and-a-half-hour journey to the popular Star pub at Mamhillad, a short walk from bridge 62. ****Day hire from Goytre starts at £99.
Explore Shakespeare’s country – from Wootton Wawen on the Stratford Canal near Stratford Upon Avon, boaters can head south to the pretty village of Wilmcote and back (2.5 hours each way), to enjoy lunch at The Mary Arden Inn and a visit to Mary Arden’s Farm. ****Day boat hire from Wootton Wawen starts at £99 for up to 10 people, £140 on weekends and bank holidays.
Wend your way through Wiltshire – from Hilperton Marina near Trowbridge in Wiltshire on the beautiful Kennet & Avon, cruise east through unspoilt countryside to the waterside Barge Inn at Seend, or head west to historic Bradford on Avon, with its stunning medieval Tithe Barn and choice of pubs, cafes and restaurants. ****Day boat hire from Hilperton starts at £99 on a boat for 10 people.
Experience the rural North Oxford Canal – from Stretton-under-Fosse near Rugby, cruise north through open farmland to the pretty village of Ansty with its pottery and Rose & Castle pub. Or head south, travelling through quiet woodland to the village of Newbold, and enjoy home cooked food at the canalside Barley Mow pub. ****Day boat hire from Rugby starts at £180 for a boat for 12 people, £220 on weekends and bank holidays, £200 on weekdays in July and August.
Chug along the Staffs & Worcs Canal – from Great Haywood on the Staffordshire & Worcester Canal near Stafford, cruise to the historic market town of Rugeley and back, through several locks, past Lord Lichfield’s beautiful Shugborough Hall and the delightful Wolseley Arms at Wolseley Bridge. The journey there and back takes a total of six hours. ****Day boat hire from Great Haywood starts at £99 for up to 10 people, £140 on weekends and bank holidays.
Sightseeing along ‘The Shroppie’ – from Bunbury on the Shropshire Union Canal near Crewe, cruise north past Barbridge and Nantwich to Baddington Bridge. With no locks to negotiate and plenty of pubs en route, it’s a delightful way to spend the day afloat. ****Day boat hire from Bunbury starts at £99 for up to 10 people, £140 on weekends and bank holidays.
Tunnel through rural Worcestershire – from Tardebigge on the Worcs & Birmingham Canal near Bromsgrove, cruise north to the family-friendly Hopwood House at Hopwood and back. The route is lock-free but there are two tunnels to pass through. ****Day boat hire from Tardebigge starts at £99 for up to 10 people, £140 on weekends and bank holidays.
Discover the beauty of Berkshire – from Aldermaston on the Kennet & Avon Canal in West Berkshire, day-boaters can travel east to Tyle Mill Lock in just over two hours, and take a ten-minute walk to The Spring Inn in the pretty village of Sulhamstead for lunch. Up to eight people can enjoy a day out on Aldermaston’s day boat ‘Wyvern’. ****Day hire at Aldermaston starts at £125.
Visit Foxton Locks – from Union Wharf in Market Harborough it’s a pleasant two-and-a-half hour cruise to the top of Foxton Locks, with stunning views of the Leicestershire countryside, plenty of places to picnic and the historic Foxton Locks Inn. Visitors can watch canal boats negotiate the famous Foxton Staircase flight of locks and find out about the intriguing Victorian Foxton Inclined Plane Boat Lift that once operated there in the tiny museum dedicated to it.*****Day boat hire at Market Harborough starts at £150 during the week for up to 12 people, £200 at weekends and bank holidays.
Enjoy a Shropshire rural idyll…from Whitchurch in rural Shropshire, day boaters can head west along the beautiful Llangollen Canal, reaching Whixall Mosses National Nature Reserve in two hours. For a longer journey, continue on to Bettisfield Mosses, travelling through unspoilt countryside straddling the Welsh borders. There are no locks, but there are four easily-operated lift bridges along the way. ****Day boat hire at Whitchurch starts at £99 per day for 10 people.
Perfect picnicking on the Llangollen Canal…from Blackwater Meadow on the Llangollen Canal in Shropshire, day boaters can head east to Whixall Moss, one of Shropshire’s truly remote wild places, and a mecca for a diversity of wildlife with plenty of lovely places to picnic. Or head West, passing a series of farms, small villages and distant hills, to the Narrowboat Inn at Whittington, with Real Ale served and a delightful canalside garden to enjoy. ****Day boat hire at Blackwater Meadow starts at £99 per day for 10 people.
Once you have mastered the locks – an unavoidable part of navigating the canals – pottering along the waterways proves to be an extremely relaxing holiday.
Suitable for beginners, as tuition is given before you set out, a trip on a narrowboat is a great way to see life in the slow lane.
The accommodation below deck is comfortable with a well equipped kitchen, TV, heating and shower.
Maps are provided, so you can choose your route and where you might moor for the night, while places of interest are marked, along with pubs and shops.
You will also get advice on how far you may want to travel – remember you have to get back to base!
Starting from Stockton in Warwickshire, the route south meanders along the canals at a slow pace. Travelling at around three miles an hour alongside fields of cows, horses and ponies gives you time to soak up the atmosphere, admire the scenery from a totally different perspective and spot unusual wild flowers and birds.
On the first night, you can moor up by The Folly, a cosy pub serving heart-warming food in huge portions.
Then chug along the Oxford Canal, passing under 30 ancient bridges.
If you have time and want to rejoin the world of shops and restaurants, it’s worth visiting the ancient market town of Banbury, passing through pretty Cropredy on the way.
Published 21 September 1937 to wide critical acclaim, the popularity of JRR Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’ endures, not least amongst the canal boat community where dozens of boats bear the names of Tolkien’s characters.
Tolkien spent much of his childhood exploring the village of Sarehole (now Hall Green), Moseley Bog, the Malvern Hills, and nearby Bromsgrove, Alcester and Alvechurch.
From our canal boat hire base on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal at Alvechurch, narrowboat holiday-makers can travel through some of the landscapes that inspired Tolkien’s masterpiece.
On a short break, travel along beautiful tree-lined waters to the village of Lapworth and back, with only one lock to pass through – perfect for canal boat holiday beginners.
On a week’s holiday from Alvechurch, more experienced boaters can tackle the Stourport Ring, travelling 74 miles through 118 locks in around 45 hours.
****To Lapworth & Back – suggested short break (three night) itinerary for beginners
Day 1: On a weekend break from Alvechurch, pick-up your boat on Friday afternoon and after an hour’s handover and tuition, head north along the Worcester & Birmingham Canal towards Birmingham. After three miles, pass through the 2493-metre long Wast Hills Tunnel, one of the longest in the country. Two miles later at King’s Norton Junction the Worcester & Birmingham meets the Stratford Canal. Turn here onto the Stratford Canal and pass through Brandwood Tunnel and the Stop Lock, the only lock on this journey. Soon after, moor-up for the first night at the visitor moorings at Yardley Wood Bridge number 5.
Day 2: Continue on a further six lock-free miles through the countryside before reaching the top of the Lapworth Flight. Moor-up here and take a short walk to the National Trust’s Packwood House, a stunning Grade I listed timber-framed Tudor manor house, with its famous Yew Garden containing over 100 trees planted in the mid-17th century. Alternatively, it’s also a short walk into the village of Lapworth to dine at the Boot Inn, a traditional country pub with a wide-ranging menu, and the Canal Shop is also close by for provisions.
Day 3: Turn and travel leisurely back towards Alvechurch, stopping to moor up for the last night at Hopwood, where The Hopwood House historic canalside pub serves traditional pub food and Rotisserie chicken, freshly roasted every day.
Day 4: Complete the last hour cruise back to the canal boat hire base at Alvechurch, in time to return the boat at 9.30am.
****The Stourport Ring – a summary of the route and ideas of where to stop to explore along the way
From Alvechurch, head north along the Worcester & Birmingham Canal past King’s Norton Junction and Cadbury’s Chocolate Factory at Bourneville, travelling lock-free all the way into the centre of Birmingham – a journey that takes around four hours.
Here boaters can moor up in Gas Street Basin, close to Brindleyplace and enjoy waterside restaurants, the National Sea Life Centre and access to Birmingham’s many city centre attractions, including the spectacular Symphony Hall.
Next the route travels onto the Birmingham Canal Main Line heading to Wolverhampton, which takes around six hours. Continuing to travel lock-free, the route passes through Cosely Tunnel, then Wolverhampton Tunnel, after which boaters can stop at visitor moorings to explore Wolverhampton, including its Grand Theatre and the fantastic Pop Art collection at its Art Gallery.
The Wolverhampton flight of 21 locks is next to negotiate, which takes about four hours, before reaching Aldersley Junction and the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal.
Six miles and another six locks later, boaters reach Bratch Top Lock and pumping station in the pretty village of Wombourne, with its popular Railway Café and choice of village pubs.
A mile later, the canalside Waggon & Horses pub with an extensive menu and large beer garden, is a welcome stopping place.
After another eight locks, boaters reach Stourton Junction, where the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal meets the Stourbridge Canal. From here, it’s an eight-hour journey on to Stourport, travelling through 13 locks, past Kinver with access to the National Trust’s intriguing Kinver Rock Houses, and the market town of Kidderminster, with canalside dining at The Watermill and The Lock Inn.
On arriving at Stourport, once a busy inland port, boaters can explore the basins by following circular walks, and enjoy dining at the Bird in Hand, Windlass Café or Rising Sun Inn.
Next there’s a 12-mile section of the River Severn to travel along to reach the beautiful Cathedral City of Worcester, and transfer back onto the Worcester & Birmingham Canal at Diglis Basin in the heart of the city. From here, boaters can take time out to see the City’s many splendid buildings, including its spectacular cathedral – with medieval cloisters, ancient crypt and magnificent stained glass.
Now on the last leg of the journey, the Worcester & Birmingham Canal takes boaters out of Worcester and steadily upwards through rolling fields and wooded cuttings, passing through the village of Tibberton, with its Bridge Inn.
Dunhampstead Tunnel is next and then Hanbury Wharf, where the Droitwich Canal meets the Worcester & Birmingham Canal.
After travelling through the Stoke flight of six locks boaters can rest at The Queen’s Head at Stoke Pound, which offers wood fired pizzas, barbeques and live music, before tackling the mighty
Tardebigge flight of 30 locks. One of the largest flights in Europe, these locks take the canal up 67 metres over a two-and-a-quarter mile stretch, and take around five hours to complete.
There are moorings at the top of the flight at Tardebigge and spectacular views. From here, it takes just over an hour to get back to Alvechurch, passing through fields and woods and two short tunnels – Tardebigge and Shortwood.
Natalie Croft reviewed her first hire boat holiday in Waterways World (July 2016). She took her trip with Drifters, visiting giant horses, a landmark boat-lift and Scotland’s only canal museum…
Peering over the barriers of the M9 in a taxi from Edinburgh Airport, the Kelpies were our first view of Scotland’s waterways – and I don’t think it could have been more awe-inspiring.
A one-hour flight, followed by a 30-minute cab, ride brought us from the East Midlands to Helix Park, where the sculptures stand. Nearly 100ft tall and glinting in the sunlight, the giant horses provided a dramatic backdrop to our lunch at the Helix visitor centre.
But our hire-boat was waiting for us four miles along the Forth & Clyde at the Falkirk Wheel. The words “strongly recommend you take the bus” spoken to us by the helpful visitor centre receptionist were somehow forgotten by the time we left the building.
Perhaps it was the glorious weather, or maybe the mythological power of the water kelpies that lured us along the towpath. Nonetheless, we, luggage in tow, continued on foot to the Falkirk Wheel.
The wide Forth & Clyde passes quietly past industrial units and slowly rises through Falkirk before the Wheel emerges around a final bend on the outskirts of the town. Exhausted, we plonked ourselves down in the café. On reflection, a walk between the Kelpies and Falkirk Wheel would be best tackled downhill, in the opposite direction to the way we headed. And without a suitcase.
Joining the Union
‘Florence’, a 62ft narrowboat and new arrival to the Black Prince hire-boat fleet, was to be our home for the weekend. We were briefed in great detail by the firm’s engineer, Kenny, who spent an hour explaining everything from the water pump to the weed hatch. He also gave us a few hints on planning our onward journey, advising on the best places to moor and, equally importantly, where to find good pubs.
Paperwork signed, we started the engine. My partner Chris took charge of the tiller and I headed to the bow in preparation for the first challenge: Golden Jubilee Lock. All locks on the Scottish canals are operated by lock-keepers – so no paddle-winding or gate-heaving to worry about. Instead, a crew member at each end of the boat is required to wrap a line around one of the poles located at intervals along the chamber to steady the craft as the water rises or falls.
In truth, our first lock experience and our entry onto the Falkirk Wheel (with Kenny there to guide us) was a blur. Once on it, however, and with a few minutes to breathe, we looked out over the beautiful Scottish Lowlands as the wheel slowly turned, taking us 115ft up to join the Union Canal.
Left to our own devices now, we exited the wheel straight into Roughcastle Tunnel. At less than 500ft long, it was over in a blink and we soon emerged to tackle the final two locks of our outward journey.
We slipped through Top Lock 1 with no problems but on entering Top Lock 2, I, standing rope in hand at the bow, was confronted by a heavy flow of water leaking through the gates ahead. The boat rammed unintentionally into the cill and I ended up getting my first shower of the holiday.
Seemingly amused by our inexperience, the lock-keepers were in no hurry to advise Chris that I was getting drenched and that he should reverse the boat. Sopping from the neck down, I reminded myself that these were the only locks on the Union Canal.
Bow duties over for the time being, I squelched out of my sodden shoes and started through the boat to join Chris at the tiller. Shattered glass glinting from the galley floor forced me to replace my soaking footwear – a broken wine glass and our dented pride were, thankfully, the only casualties of our canal holiday and those were over and done within the first few hours.
There was just one more structure to negotiate before we could begin to relax: Falkirk Tunnel. At over 2,000ft long it appeared a sinister prospect and we’d been warned that overhead leaks were likely – there was no point me changing into dry clothes yet!
Headlamp lit and horn beeped, we approached the entrance and soon realised that the structure, with its substantial lighting and towpath, was far from foreboding – in fact, it proved a really fun experience.
After emerging on the other side we took a moment to properly look around us. Up in the hills, you’re a world away from the modernity of the Wheel, with its clean lines and dramatic architecture. The narrow Union Canal snakes between farmland, with thick weeds desperately trying to reclaim the water from the boats.
After several miles the trees morphed into new builds and warehouses and we spotted a lone pontoon after Redding Bridge – our first stop. We drifted up to the pontoon and moored with some skill (i.e. neither of us fell in), trying out our best hitches.
With nothing but a single energy bar on board, convenience was paramount: a 24-hour supermarket in one direction and a recommended pub in the other meant this was an excellent place to overnight. Positioned opposite our mooring was a juvenile prison, but the huge concrete wall that separated us from the inmates looked substantial enough.
After a well-earned meal we waddled back to ‘Florence’ and were pleased to see the ropes had held tight. We locked ourselves in and, exhausted by the day’s events, let the calls from our neighbouring convicts lull us into a dreamless sleep.
On to Linlithgow
Peeking out of the curtain on waking confirmed we were still safely moored. The extra thick duvet was difficult to surrender, but the lure of the canal ahead was too much to risk the snooze alarm.
Our morning journey to Linlithgow was punctuated only by bridges, the Avon Aqueduct and a canalside bistro. The sun teased us for an hour but soon buried itself behind thick cloud, leaving us to shiver together at the tiller between regular doses of tea. A few quaint cottages indicated that we were nearing our destination, Manse Road Basin, where we chose an empty mooring and tied up.
A short walk took us onto the main road through Linlithgow, where we found a great selection of cafés, pubs and shops. We had a short, but necessary, diversion into an artisan chocolate shop before settling on a café for lunch.
With a mere 24 hours left to return to the Wheel for our booked slot, there wasn’t much opportunity to hang around and explore the town. An extended stay would have permitted a visit to Linlithgow Palace, birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots, overlooking Linlithgow Loch.
We did, however, have time to take in Scotland’s only canal museum – at less than 15ft2 it didn’t take long. Located in Manse Road Basin, the museum is run by the Linlithgow Union Canal Society volunteers and houses a small selection of canal artefacts and pictures, which provide a brief, but fascinating insight into the country’s working waterways past.
Winding hole woes
Continuing our eastward journey in the early afternoon, we were soon studying the map for a suitable winding hole. At 62ft ‘Florence’ would be too long for most, but keen to get back to Linlithgow before sundown we naively picked one marked 55ft, remarking as we approached that it looked big enough.
The theory of turning a boat seems simple. However, our first attempt, in the blustery climes of the Lowlands and with no clear strategy, resulted in an argument nearing epic proportions. Realising that we weren’t getting anywhere with each other, or with turning the boat around, we continued – at opposite ends of the boat.
The next winding hole big enough for our boat was ten bridges away – plenty of time to make friends again over hot tea and biscuits. And with mossy, fern-strewn woodland surrounding us on both sides, it was one of the loveliest parts of our trip.
Just after Bells Mill Bridge we turned the boat with relative ease and began our return. It was on this jaunt back to Linlithgow that we passed the first moving boat of our entire journey. A scattering of moored craft had been spotted but we’d thus far had the route to ourselves.
Relaxing having conquered the winding hole, we continued onwards to Linlithgow and moored near Manse Road Basin. That evening we enjoyed an on board meal prepared in the boat’s small but well-equipped galley.
Back to Falkirk
We arose early on Sunday morning, stuffed some breakfast down our necks and prepared to top up our water tank. We had moored not far from a water point but on unravelling the hose found it was about 1ft too short.
While preparing to nudge ‘Florence’ along the bank, another hire-boat jumped to the front of the queue – with four competent crew aboard they were quick to move on. Feeling like amateurs, we muddled through re-mooring and filling up with water before heading off.
With the sun now making an appearance, by early afternoon we’d passed through the chilly Falkirk Tunnel and, with plenty of time until we needed to be at the lift, moored for an afternoon drink near Greenback Aqueduct. Sitting out on the well deck with blue skies overhead and mug of tea in hand, I couldn’t help but think that life doesn’t get much better.
After phoning ahead to confirm our passage through the Wheel, we steeled ourselves and unmoored. In complete contrast to our outward journey, negotiating the Top Locks on the way back was straightforward and dry. The lock keepers were chatty and genuinely helpful – although on day three at the helm, Chris was starting to master manoeuvres like a seasoned pro. As such, we sailed through the locks, Roughcastle Tunnel and into the Wheel without incident.
Reaching the bottom of the Wheel it was clear that the combination of glorious sunshine, narrowboats and the unique boat-lift is a real draw for local residents. We’d already had plenty of friendly waves and cheery hellos along our journey, for, although boats are few and far between on the Union Canal, walkers, cyclists and dog-owners make excellent use of the towpath.
This, however, was something else. We exited the wheel, sunglasses firmly in place to avoid eye contact with our audience, and made our way into the final lock of the weekend, feeling like our every move was being scrutinised.
Back on the Forth & Clyde Canal, a short hop to Lock 16 provided room to turn. Spotting a space at the end of the hire-base pontoon, we moored up and paused for 10 minutes to regain our composure. We spent our final evening dining at a restaurant just a few minutes away, on the other side of the canal.
On returning to the boat we bumped into the water point queue-jumpers from earlier that day. Chatting until the sun went down, it appeared they were, in fact, complete novices, who at several points during the weekend had got themselves stuck while attempting to turn and had a rather spectacular prang in front of a substantial audience.
Exchanging stories of our waterborne weekends made us realise that, however inept we thought we were, there are other hire-boaters who feel exactly the same way.
On handing the keys over to the Black Prince team on Monday morning, the boating part of our holiday was officially over. Back on land we instantly became gongoozlers, eagerly photographing the Wheel in action, but now more careful not to intimidate the boaters cruising through.
A lazy lunch and a walk up to Roughcastle Tunnel for a final chance to soak in the sun-drenched Lowlands concluded our long weekend in Scotland.
As first-time hirers, we were delighted with our slightly unusual choice of the Union Canal. The Falkirk Wheel and Falkirk Tunnel were truly exhilarating, while, beyond the town, the quiet, lock-free route proved the perfect waterway training ground, allowing us to relax and gain confidence at the tiller – something we might not have had the luxury of doing on the Shroppie or Llangollen canals.
Our only regret is that we didn’t have more time to visit the towns en route and explore the entire canal as far as its Edinburgh terminus. But this is something we intend to rectify – we are already planning a return journey to Scotland with the intention of arriving at its capital by boat, and also taking the Forth & Clyde to Glasgow. Caledonia and its canals are definitely for us.
A is for Anderton Boat Lift – also known as the ‘Cathedral of the Canals’, this fascinating example of Victorian engineering provides a 15-metre vertical link between the Trent & Mersey Canal and River Weaver Navigation.
B is for Bingley Five-Rise Locks – completed in 1774, this spectacular staircase of locks on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal near Bradford, raises (or lowers) boats 18 metres in five cavernous chambers.
C is for Caen Hill Flight – with 16 of its 29 locks falling in a straight line, the Caen Hill flight of locks on the Kennet & Avon Canal at Devizes in Wiltshire is visually the most impressive in the country.
D is for Docks – built to accommodate ships and store cargoes, such as London Docklands, once the busiest in the world and Liverpool’s Albert Dock, a World Heritage site.
E is for Everywhere – there are over 2,000 miles of navigable waterways to explore in Britain, and half the UK’s population lives within five miles of a navigable canal or river.
F is for Falkirk Wheel – the world’s first and only rotating boat lift which stands 35 metre high and moves boats between the Union Canal and Forth & Clyde Canal in Scotland.
G is for Gongoozling – the leisurely watching of boats, often passing through a lock, it’s thought the word may have arisen from the Lincolnshire dialect ‘gawn’ and ‘goozle’, both meaning to stare or gape.
H is for Heritage – canals were built to transport goods and materials to support the Industrial Revolution and are vital part of our nation’s industrial heritage.
I is for Iron Trunk Aqueduct – built in 1811 by canal engineer Benjamin Beavan, this impressive 10-metre high structure carries the Grand Union Canal over the River Ouse near Wolverton in Buckinghamshire
J is for Jessop – one of the great canal engineers who worked on the Grand Union, Rochdale and Llangollen canals.
K is for Kennet & Avon Canal – which travels 87 miles through spectacular scenery, linking the River Thames and the Bristol Avon.
L is for Locks – there are over 1,650 locks on the canal system, all enabling boaters to travel up and down hills.
M is for Mooring – along the length of the majority of our inland waterways boaters are free to choose where they stop to moor for the night.
N is for Navigation – another word for a canal and travelling by vessel, you don’t need a licence to skipper a canal boat and tuition is provided as part of canal boat hire packages.
O is for Oxford Canal – one of the oldest canals in Britain meandering slowly through the countryside, this canal opened in sections between 1774 and 1790 to transport coal from the Coventry coalfields to Oxford and the River Thames.
P is for Pubs – there are hundreds of waterside inns along Britain’s canals and rivers, many of them historic rural locals, so you’re never too far away from the next watering hole.
Q is for Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park – the six-mile network of historic industrial rivers that criss-cross the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in East London were restored to full navigation as part of preparation for the London 2012 Olympics.
R is for Relax – with canal and river speed limits of just 4mph, canal boat holidays are said to be the fastest way to slow down, relax and escape the stress of busy modern lives.
S is for Standedge Tunnel – at over three miles long tunnelling beneath the Pennines, this incredible feat of 18th and 19th century engineering is the longest, highest and deepest tunnel on the canal system.
T is for Telford – another of the great canal engineers, Thomas Telford worked with William Jessop on the Llangollen Canal and was responsible for the magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Status Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.
U is for Underwater – canals support a thriving underwater ecosystem of many varieties of fish, eels, invertebrates, larvae and underwater plants.
V is for Vole – best known as ‘Ratty’ from ‘Wind in the Willows’, but sadly now one of our most endangered species, to spot a water vole look out for closely grazed ‘lawn’ areas, often covered with neat piles of chopped grass and listen for the ‘plop’ sound as they enter the water.
W is for Wildlife – waterways provide homes for large numbers of birds, plants and animals, including many protected species, like water voles, otters, bats and kingfishers, so there’s always something special to look out for.
X is for Station X – close to the Grand Union Canal at Fenny Stratford in Milton Keynes, Station X at Bletchley Park is where Britain’s wartime code breakers helped win the Second World War.
Y is for Yesteryear – with a much slower pace of life, a friendly camaraderie amongst boaters and a structure that hasn’t fundamentally changed for 200 years, the canals are often described as an escape to yesteryear.
Z is for Zoo – the Regent’s Canal passes alongside ZSL London Zoo, giving boaters the chance to spot a variety of exotic birds in the spectacular Northern Aviary, designed by Lord Snowdon.