‘Taking the family afloat’ by Stan Cullimore

Waterways World Magazine November 2012

Stan Cullimore once found fame as the guitarist in ‘80s pop group the Housemartins. Now, having swapped his ‘Caravan of Love’ for a 62ft narrowboat, he is introducing his children, grandchildren and newly-acquired puppy to the waterways with a canal boat holiday, starting from Drifters base on the Grand Union Canal at Stockton.

My trouble is that I get overexcited.  A taste of success goes straight to my head.

Take this boating lark for instance.  A couple of months ago the wife and I hired ourselves a modest little narrowboat and had a great week quietly cruising the Oxford Canal between Fenny Compton and Duke’s Cut.  It was glorious.  The sun shone, most of the time, I got the hang of steering and we even sorted out a perfect system for working the locks.  Our system works like this: I do the locks, my wife does the cooking.  Perfect.  There’s no grumbling and everyone’s happy.

So anyway, there we were, halfway through the narrowboat holiday.  We’d just had a delightful stroll into Kirtlington to pick up some supplies from the excellent village shop and had even found time to smell some roses.  I was now happily sitting by the side of a quiet lock somewhere near Bridge 213, when a very pleasant dog ambled up.  She sat down at my feet and wagged her tail at me.  I ruffled her ears and thought that I would love to have a dog like this.  Then the lock filled up and life moved on.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and the family have come round for Sunday Dinner.  It’s quite a gathering: there are us two oldies, our four grown-up children, their partners and the four grandkids. So when we start to talk about our trip on the canal, quite a few heads start nodding – they like the sound of a canal trip.  I see where this is heading and explain that an enormous family holiday is entirely out of the question.

For a start, we would never find a boat big enough for the whole family – after all, that’s 14 people.  There were a few sad faces at this point so I decided to make a generous offer and said that maybe one day in the distant future, my wife and I would consider taking a couple of the grandkids on a boating trip.  Four people on a boat for a couple of days – nothing too adventurous.

The two oldest grandkids, aged six and eight, immediately volunteered themselves for the job, so I said we’d try and take them away for a weekend next year sometime.  That way the grandkids would get a fun couple of days, their parents would get a weekend off and I would get to practise being captain of a slightly bigger and more boisterous boat.

What could possible go wrong?  At this point, my wife interrupted. “We’re getting a dog,” she said.  The entire family started cooing and sighing and congratulating me.  I don’t know why, I didn’t know we were getting a dog.  I thought we were taking up boating.  My wife carried on, “And we’re taking the grandkids away next month.”

All of which is why, one month later, I’m standing on the back deck of a 62ft boat and my wife is in the galley making tea.  We’ve just left the canal boat hire yard at Stockton Top Lock heading towards Napton Junction on the Grand Union and things are not going entirely to plan.  Mainly because we now have a 13-week old Miniature Schnauzer puppy called Mabel who has tangled her lead round my legs.

This wouldn’t be so bad, if it wasn’t for the bridge that is heading towards us at something approaching walking speed.  I put my head inside the boat and, trying not to sound too concerned, ask my dear wife to come and please give me a hand.  I then stand up and find the dog is under one of my feet, and, opting not to stand on her, I fall over instead.  The boat decides that if I’m not going to pay attention the time has come to have some fun.

When I eventually get back up the bridge is upon us.  We collide.  My wife appears on deck and scowls.  “When are you going to get the hang of steering this thing? It’s not much bigger than the last one.”

Before I can pin the blame on Mabel I notice a young lady standing on a nearby boat.  She is waving at me.  I wave back in a friendly way.  “Please don’t hit my boat,” she cries. “I live on it.”

I shake my head and get ready to explain that it’s not my steering that’s at fault, it’s my dog. But the minute she sees the puppy in my wife’s arms the young lady is all smiles. “She wasn’t hurt by the crash, was she?”

Later that week my wife, who obviously hasn’t seen the captain badge I am wearing, gives me my orders.  She tells me that we’re picking up the grandkids the next day and I need to find a good spot for us all to meet.  I like the sound of this.  I take a good long look at my Nicholson Waterways Guide 1 and decide to rendezvous back at Norton Junction.

The next morning was a bit of a slow start due to weather but things began to improve around the same time we arrived at the Braunston Lock flight on the Grand Union. A narrowboat full of young lads bumped its way into the lock beside us.

The youngster at the tiller happily admitted that none of them had ever been on a narrowboat holiday before and that they hadn’t yet worked a lock.  He took one look at my captain’s badge and suggested that perhaps I could tell them what to do.  My heart rose, this was more like it.  It didn’t take me long to get a system worked out and soon we were up and running.

By the time we got to the top lock though, I was ready for a cup of tea and a rest. So we waved farewell to the lads and my wife put the kettle on.

The next day we stopped at the New Inn, a pretty canalside pub at Long Buckby Wharf. Daughter No. 1 was there with her husband and the two grandkids and it was lovely to see them all. Then I noticed the pile of luggage beside them which seemed rather large for two small children. Daughter No. 1 smiled at my concern.

“Mum invited us along as well. We’re all going to stay for the rest of the week.”  The four of them clambered aboard and the boat filled up with bags and boxes and noise.

I shrugged. The boat had room for six to sleep quite comfortably; having my lovely daughter and her husband along was an unexpected bonus. After all, what could possibly go wrong?

I went back on deck and cast off.  Put my hand on the tiller and smiled happily as we cruised along a quiet stretch of the Grand Union Leicester Section.  The sun shone, birds sang and the puppy closed her eyes, curled up in her bed and began to snore. Suddenly all was well with the world, and I decided that boating really is the perfect life.

Then Son-in-law No. 1 appeared. “Thanks,” he said. I presumed he meant, “thank you for having us.” Indeed he did, but he also meant thanks for letting him and his wife have the double bed. I hadn’t been told about this, but I didn’t really mind sleeping on the sofa beds in the living area.

Son-in-law No. 1 shook his head. Apparently those beds had already been allocated, to my wife and the puppy. I looked puzzled and wondered where I was going to sleep. “Oh, you’re sharing a cabin with the kids,” he smiled. “Good luck – they get up quite early!”

Over dinner that night I explained to the grandkids how life on a boat works.  Everyone has to do what the captain tells them to do. Like staying in bed until breakfast time, for instance, because the captain is in charge.  The kids nodded wisely, they got it at once…I hoped.

The next day, after a very long morning which started around daybreak, I went back on deck. We were passing through a particularly delicious green valley and Son-in-law No. 1 was happily gazing at it.  Handing me a beer, he admitted that when I’d first talked about a canal boat holiday he had expected it to be a bit boring.  But it wasn’t, it was very enjoyable.

He carried on, ticking off his fingers as he went. “The wives are happy, the kids are happy, even the puppy loves it.  And, we get to drive a boat while drinking beer.  It doesn’t get much better than that, does it?”

I have to say.  He had a point.  Okay, maybe I wasn’t captain of my own craft, yet.  But still, this narrowboating business has a way of getting under your skin.  Maybe it’s the fact that when you step onto a boat you seem to step into a kind of 1950s’ paradise, where everyone is friendly, fellow boaters wave and strangers help you at every turn.  Whatever it is, I’m hooked.

Now all I need to do is find a boat big enough for 14 people and a puppy, as well as a captain’s hat with my name on it.  No doubt I’ll end up sleeping on the roof but I don’t care, it’ll be worth it to see the family having that much fun together.  I know one thing, we’ll be back.

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