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!