Taking to the waterways is a great way to unwind

Says Sue Austin of The Shropshire Star

We live just a mile from from the beautiful Llangollen Canal in Ellesmere.  It’s the first place we take visitors.  We use its towpath for endless training runs, we have fished on it and have even canoed on it.

And, although we may have poo-poo-ed the idea of a holiday on transport we can run faster than, we have both run past families barbecueing on the side of the waterway or sitting on board a narrowboat, glass of wine in hand, and secretly wondered what it would be like.

So when we were offered the chance of a weekend cruising an inland waterway courtesy of Drifters – the flagship organisation for narrowboat holidays in Britain – we jumped at the chance.

Drifters work with British Waterways on more than 2,000 miles of waterways, with almost 500 boats to choose from.  Along with our friends Will and Jan, who were accompanying us, we know every step of the towpath alongside the Llangollen Canal, so instead headed for Gailey Wharf on the Shropshire/Staffordshire border to embark on a journey out of our comfort zone.

Staff at Gailey struck the perfect balance between putting us at ease and impressing on us that we would be in charge of a 15-tonne mode of transport.  Our decision to ask our friends to come with us was certainly the right one! I would not like to undertake a first canal trip as just a couple, particularly when locks need negotiating.  We could have chosen a route out of Gailey with no locks, but neither the Austins nor the Morrises ever choose the easy option and, once we got the hang of them, they were a highlight of the trip.

The canal we were on was built in 1772.  How different it must have looked in its heyday, brimming with working boats transporting good across the Midlands.  Yet the canalside buildings and bridges have hardly changed.

We took the advice of staff at Gailey and invested in the Canal Companion – a fabulous guide to canals like ours, along the four counties ring.  It brought our journey to life, telling us the places to see, eat, drink and shop along the way, and where the boating facilities are.

Those more experienced than us also passing on advice on the best places to moor and what to see along our route.  We planned to spend the first night in Penkridge, taking advice from a friendly narrowboat owner about where best to go that wasn’t a designated boat stop, away from the noise of the nearby motorway.  Sure enough, on the side of the waterway, I saw an old fuel pump – not for filling cars, but boats.

We were soon deep in the country, an ideal place for us to spend the night, with just birdsong for company.  While Mel and Will moored up, Jan put the finishing touches to the feast she had begun earlier while we were on the move.

Forget any idea of a cramped and basic kitchen on board.  Our galley had every modcon. There was a television and media system but we were so tired after nine locks that we settled down to sleep.

Like the galley our craft, the Nerthus, had bags of space for two double beds or any combination of double or twins. The boat’s piece de resistance was the night-time privacy. By day we had kept a thoroughfare from front to back, but at night one door shut off the rear bedroom area and a second shut off the lounge, which turned into the second sleeping area. In between, a small corridor led to a sumptuous bathroom.  We were amazed by the luxury, from kitchen and bathroom to the top quality finishes and the bags of storage space.

A day of fresh air and hard work meant we all slept like logs.  Refreshed, we all woke early and quickly made the decision to cruise for a couple of hours before stopping for brunch.

Although we all took turns as captain, Mel had taken to the driving like the proverbial duck to water, and we were happy to let him take the tiller while we took turns as lock labourers.  We all had time to enjoy the flora and fauna.  It was the perfect way to see the British countryside, changing, if only slowly, before our eyes.

We reached our halfway point far quicker than we had expected.  We could have carried on but the nearest turning point for the narrowboat was some miles away.  Instead we moored up at Great Heywood.

We had intended to go and explore part of Cannock Chase but, with the weather not brilliant, we walked along the towpath to Shugborough Hall.  Again I had a feeling of going back in time with no cars in sight.  A visit to a wonderful farm shop for fresh supplies and it was back on board to cruise to our overnight mooring at Tixall Wide.

At Tixall the canal widens to resemble a lake and we ate looking out at the water birds, the herd of Jerseys in the fields and the evocative and imposing Tixall gatehouse.  It was idyllic and I for one was mesmerised as the sun’s late evening rays played on the wide.

The next morning I went on the towpath run I had promised myself leaving the others to shower and get ready for our last day.  I met my crewmates cruising upstream just before reaching our first lock – great timing.

Drizzle turned to steady rain, yet with the waterproof leggings and tops supplied by the boat company it didn’t stop us staying outside, wanting to make the most of our all to short break.

And, before we knew it, we were back at Gailey Wharf.  We had all set off wondering whether we would enjoy the narrowboat, but we were all agreed that we’d had a wonderful time.  All of us made a vow that our first adventure cruising Britain’s beautiful canals would not be our last.

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