Ready, steady… slow! At a top speed of 4mph, there’s no danger of taking things too quickly on a narrowboat holiday. The leisurely pace forces you to slow down and appreciate your surroundings, in our case the lush delights of the Cheshire countryside.
Our trip started at Drifters’ canal boat hire base at Anderton Marina, near Northwich, where we took possession of Glaucous Gull, a modern 66ft craft. She was to be our home and transport for the next week, and the friendly staff at the marina first gave us a tour of her and showed us how to steer and operate the engine. We also watched a short film about lock operation (there are no locks in the vicinity of the marina).
Once the formalities were completed, we wasted no time in departing, as there were only three hours of daylight left on this spring afternoon. With some trepidation, we gently eased the boat into the Trent & Mersey Canal.
Despite her great length, we soon got used to the basics of steering: move the tiller to the left to turn right and vice versa; slow to a crawl when passing moored boats and anglers; and be alert at bridges, as they are often sited on sharp bends.
The initial stretch of canal took us past the giant factories on the southern outskirts of Northwich. Soon this was left behind as we headed into open country. On the first night we moored in the depths of a forest alongside the River Dane and got our first chance to look at the Glaucous Gull in detail.
It was very well appointed, with two double bedrooms, two bathrooms, a galley, and a living room which doubles up as an extra bedroom if needed. As we were a party of four in a six-berth boat, there was ample room for us and all our belongings.
Day two dawned fair and the delightful setting reminded us of the adage that on a canal holiday you wake up in a different country cottage every day. After carrying out the routine checks, we set off for our first full day.
Two hours of cruising took us to Middlewich and our first set of locks. Always a source of fascination to onlookers, the operation of a lock is a relatively simple matter, although opening some of the heavier gates does require some strength.
A sharp right turn took us on to the Middlewich branch of the Shropshire Union Canal, a delightful rural waterway. We moored for the evening outside the The Olde Barbridge Inn to enjoy a well-deserved pub meal.
The next day, we joined the main section of the Shropshire Union and struck out westwards towards Chester. At Bunbury, we encountered our first staircase lock. Here, it is vital to get the sequence of operations right.
Fortunately, volunteers from the Canal & River Trust were on hand to give advice, or, as in our case, to operate the locks for us. Thanks!
The next stretch saw us making 4mph progress across the flat Cheshire Plain, the only prominence being Beeston Castle, sitting proudly on top of its 350ft sandstone bluff. The locks here are widely spaced and include one made entirely of cast iron, the iron being necessary to overcome the quicksand at its base.
We moored for the night in the delightful village of Christleton, on the outskirts of Chester.
Day four saw the Glaucous Gull approach historic Chester. The locks arrived thick and fast through the industrial suburbs, and then comes the impressive section through the city centre. We entered a sandstone cutting alongside the medieval walls of the city, negotiated a three-tier staircase lock successfully and then – showing our increasing confidence – we smoothly moored the 66ft boat in a 68ft gap. Feeling rather pleased with ourselves, we spent the rest of the day exploring this delightful city. Chester merits more than a day for visitors.
But we had an itinerary to follow, so it was off north into the Wirral the following day. The rural landscape gradually disappeared and modern industry and motorways intruded as we approached the River Mersey at Ellesmere Port. After a break for lunch, it was off for a quick visit to the National Waterways Museum, the largest collection of canal boats in the world (canalrivertrust.org.uk, adult £7.15/child £4.95).
That stop was the halfway point of our voyage, and so it was time to turn around and head back to our base, which is famously the home of the Anderton Boat Lift, a spectacular Victorian engineering marvel which is a lift lock that raises or lowers boats 50ft between the River Weaver and the Trent and Mersey.
Now thoroughly adjusted to the slow pace of life on the canals, on our return trip we visited some of the places, pubs and restaurants that we passed on our outward voyage. Our growing expertise was displayed to its full at the Chester flight of locks, where we performed a “shuffle” – a manoeuvre where two boats going one way pass one boat going the other way.
As Phil Collins sang, you can’t hurry love…and you can’t hurry a holiday like this. And it’s bliss.