Prior to stepping on foot on the narrowboat I’d be calling home for a few days, my experience on boats was minimal.
Other than travelling across the English Channel and jaunts on the Mersey and Hudson Rivers, I was struggling to recall other occasions I’d even been on a boat.
I had a few reference points thanks to the music industry. That video by Duran Duran and On A Boat by The Lonely Island. Part of me hoped it’d be like the latter, just on the Grand Union Canal, and with my partner Alys rather than the rapper T-Pain. It was nothing like this.
There were idyllic moments of tootling along from pub to pub and relaxing in the sun, moored up overlooking the Northamptonshire countryside listening to football results.
However, it was hard work and there were as many moments of standing out in the elements being battered by hail and wind while dodging overhanding trees.
A firefighter friend had thankfully explained how long it takes to hoist boats out of locks which had got caught on the cill at the bottom, flooded and sunk. (Thankfully, this didn’t happen).
We collected our narrowboat from ABC Boat hire at Gayton Marina, south of Northampton where we watched a video of ‘do’s and don’ts’ of river travel as well as guide on how to operate locks. Once on board, an employee took us through everything we needed to know.
Modern narrowboats are kitted out with all the mod cons including a gas cooker, a dining/lounge area with a TV and DVD player and a radio. Ours had two double beds and two bathrooms with showers and central heating throughout.
We were taught how to refill the water tank, flush out the shower water, ensure the boat’s alternator was charging during the day and how to clear anything tangled around the propeller.
Most importantly, we were shown how to steer using the tiller, moor to the side of the canal and turn around. They won’t let you out until they’re satisfied you can do this.
We had three nights with our narrowboat from Friday afternoon until Monday morning and had decided to head south into Blisworth, Stoke Bruerne, towards Cosgrove and to Wolverton before returning.
The plan for the first night was to moor up at Stoke Bruerne for the night and find a pub for dinner but this involved navigating along Blisworth’s notorious tunnel. At 2,813 meters, it’s the third-longest navigable canal tunnel in the UK.
It was fairly daunting travelling through it, having only set foot on a narrowboat an hour or so earlier.
Thankfully, the hour-ish journey through was largely uneventful with the odd knock against the wall and the occasional soaking from water pouring through ventilation shafts. The tunnel is wide enough for two boats and we only passed one on the return journey.
Once through we moored up for the night (narrowboat travel is only allowed during daylight). Navigating locks is an integral part of canal life and there are several south of Stoke Bruene. It’s easier and quicker to team up with another narrowboat when making your way though locks to share the work and once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty straight forward. If you’re in luck, the water level will be in your favour and all that is necessary is to open the gates and head in. If not, it’s just a case of operating the winding gear to drain (or fill) the main chamber.
Most people using the canal network are friendly folk, with tales of travelling all over the country and are usually more than happy to assist any amateurs.
The other reason to travel south was to cross the aqueduct over the River Ouse outside of Wolverton. While there is a pedestrian route over one side, the drop over the other side is enough to make sure you hold firmly on to your narrowboat while going across it.
On a three-night break, it would be possible to travel further, but we opted to turn around shortly after the aqueduct and begin our return journey at a leisurely pace.
Life on a narrowboat can be as hectic or as relaxing as you want it to be. We were on the move most of the time and the benefits of a longer holiday are obvious. That said, a narrowboat is a very enjoyable way to spend a few days travelling through the countryside.