So what’s all the fuss about?

Karen Longden edited this first time boating feature published in Canal Boat Magazine, March 2014.  The narrowboat holiday described was from Drifters’ canal boat hire base at Gayton.

For years I’ve listened to boating friends talking about the peace, the wildlife and the wonderful camaraderie experienced on the canals. But I was stuck on holidays abroad. Then, when I last moved house, I ended up close to a canal. As I explored the towpath by foot, I began to wonder – was I missing out on something?

And, just when I began to hanker after a canal boat holiday myself, the boaters I knew disappeared and I had no-one to go with. I cast my net wide, making sure everyone knew I wanted to go boating and, finally, two friends of a friend invited me along for a weekend of hire boating. They, like me, hadn’t been boating before, so we’d all be in the same boat, so to speak, with no experience and no idea what to expect.

We booked a weekend as a taster but, as it was only going to be for two days, we wanted somewhere that wasn’t too far from home, so we picked Gayton Marina in Northamptonshire.

We decided not to rush, to enjoy the scenery and lifestyle and, because time was short, not to do any locks. So we’d right up to Buckby and no tunnels, but we also wanted to visit Stoke Bruerne (which is to the south) so we planned to drop in there on the way up by car on the Friday morning, have lunch, then go on to Gayton.

Stoke Bruerne was brilliant, just what you’d expect a small canalside village to be. After lunch in the Navigation, we went out the back of the pub to the lock to watch the boats going through. Two Canal & River Trust volunteers were manning the lock and, after we explained we were off to do our very first boating trip, they allowed us shadow them as they operated the lock for the craft passing through.

We got to Gayton Marina around 2.30pm and were shown a video which explained the essentials, like the speed you should keep to, which side of the canal to stick to and going through locks.

Then it was what we’d been waiting for – the first sight of our floating home for the weekend. Audouin’s Gull was a 6ft cruiser stern. The boat was amazing, a real floating palace with not only totally separate bedrooms but two bathrooms as well. Just what was needed for a couple and a friend who they didn‘t know that well. It also had a full kitchen, a cosy place to sit and eat, a TV (not that we used it much) and enough space for us all to stand out on deck.

Jason from the marina came to give us a full lesson on how to pump out the shower, how to turn on and off the heating and, more importantly, how to start the engine and how to moor up.

We were a bit apprehensive about the next bit – actually making the boat move somewhere, but Jason took us some way up the canal, giving each of us a turn at steering, and one of us also had the job of winding (turning around) to come back to the marina again. Here, Jason jumped out and we were on our own.

With a collective deep breath, we set off, and soon came to a fairly tight turn from the Northampton Arm onto the main Grand Union Canal. Help, how would we manage? Well, we helped each other. One of us had picked up the knack of steering very quickly while, for the
other two, it came a bit slower, or rather the confidence to try it did. So with our ‘expert’ steering and the rest offering moral support we were fine and completed the turn in one go. Then it was an easy-going straight bit – until the first bridge.

The first reaction is to panic at your first bridge, but don’t, when you get nearer you find it’s bigger than it looks from a distance and the boat will just glide through.

We chugged along through a mix of countryside, farmland and the gardens of houses located on the banks. It was spring and the trees were clothed in a verdant mantle and there were plenty of geese and ducks with their tiny goslings and chicks swimming along the canal
after mum. You seemed to be so much closer to all the wildfowl on the boat.

We decided to moor up at Bugbrooke for the night, so we brought the boat alongside and two of us stepped off to secure the mooring ropes. Even that was much easier than we expected and we’d soon got the boat tied up.

With the engine stopped and the boat locked up, it was off to the village to find a pub for a quick drink. After that, it was back to the boat for snacks and card games – who needs TV. The saloon was super cosy with the curtains drawn and the central heating on. We were all tired that night and very pleased to ease into the surprisingly comfortable beds.

The next morning we pulled back the curtains to find a swan looking in the window at us – you don’t get sights like that at home. After a leisurely breakfast, we set off for Weedon, There we would stop for a pub lunch. En route, we had to fill up with water, but finding the water point and using it was very straightforward. Mooring was easy at Weedon and, after making sure everything on the boat was secure, we walked into the village. Finding a pub
was simple – the hardest part was deciding which one to go in.

Back at the boat, it was big decision time. We debated going through the seven Buckby Locks to Norton Junction but, while we all would have loved to have done one or two locks, we didn’t feel we’d have the time to go up and down the seven and get back to Gayton for lunchtime on Sunday (we could have had the boat until the Monday morning, but one of us had to be in work on the Sunday evening). So we took a vote and decided to wind at Whilton Marina.

The journey back seemed to go very quickly. We again moored at Bugbrooke for the night and went in search of a different pub this time (it’s good to try the different beers…).

The next morning we took our time over breakfast then made the short hop back to Gayton, and it was genuinely with sadness that we moored up. Even on this short trip we discovered and enjoyed canal time, a much, much slower pace of life. Being so close to nature was just magical and the friendliness of other boaters was astounding – I can now see why friends and relations have been so keen to jump on board in the past. We all loved the experience and are set to go for another, longer, trip as soon as we can.

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