Everyone must add this to their ‘bucket list’

The Wilson Family reviewed their short break narrowboat holiday from our Brewood base for whatsgoodtodo.com:

All packed and ready to go, our first day begins with the drive down to the Shropshire Union Canal at Brewood, near Stafford.

Prior to our start we received a DVD, boater’s handbook and a couple of canal maps to help navigate us along the way. It’s a good idea to study both the DVD and handbook as it gives information on getting started, the basics such as operating locks of different types, controlling the boat, mooring up, safety, rules and good boat behaviour.

It’s not essential to become an overnight seaman as you are also given a good explanation from the canal boat hire staff – plus help and advice from general holiday makers and regular boaters along the way!

Arriving at Brewood, my family and I (my wife Lisa and two daughters Holly, 9 and Megan, 7) were greeted by Nadia, who was very friendly and helpful and showed us where to unload our car, as well helping us with the lifejackets provided.

Cliff went over the health and safety of the boat, including maintenance, checking the water and oil daily, topping up the water tank etc. Nothing too taxing and fairly straightforward procedures most people will be a custom to when using their own car.

Onboard the boat was lovely, well kept, clean to a high standard, with everything you would expect and more from the usual fridge/freezer, oven/hob kitchen facilities. Toilet and bathroom are modern and clean. Plenty of fresh towels and even fresh fruit were waiting for our arrival.

Cliff joined us for a couple of miles to make sure all was ok and any additional questions were answered. Should you forget any of the procedures, then a log book is available onboard to quickly recap.

Before long we were on our own sailing down the picturesque Shropshire Union Canal on our very own 40ft barge! A little daunting at first but soon you get the idea and control of the boat.

After a few miles and the first lock we were relaxed and started to enjoy a great experience that you wouldn’t get with any “regular” holiday. The girls were very excited and helped out tying the ropes on and off and moving the lock gates – as well as obviously playing pirates ha!

We decided to have a go at mooring up after only half an hour or so, just for practice whilst it was quiet and no other boats around. It also gives you a feel of using reverse to slow down and stop – canal boats they don’t come with brakes!
Getting used to guiding the boat in is a team job, as one jumps off when near to the back to help pull the boat in and begin mooring.

Our first lock went ok-ish! One of us actually forgot to jump off the boat to open the paddles but a friendly boater helped us out with the first gate and once the boat was in, Lisa jumped out to wind down the other end.

Sometimes the paddles can be a little stiff so choose one of the strongest members of your team, or, like me, let your wife have ago and laugh until you get shouted at.

Our route is a simple one, great for newbie’s such as us, not many locks and tunnels to negotiate. We decided our first stop would be Wheaton Aston, once a farming village that now consists of mostly houses and typical village amenities, such as post office and convenience store.

We stopped off and moored before eating at the local pub, Hartley Arms, offering a good selection of ales and food.

On our first night’s stay, we all slept well. Usually all boats are moored around 8pm so it’s very quiet and mooring up is fairly straightforward. Again there’s always someone at hand to help out too if needed.

All facilities onboard worked as they should. The kitchen was well equipped and had all the cooking, washing and eating facilities you would wish for. The bathroom is well fitted and the shower and hot water worked very well.

The next day, all washed and fed, we started on our next stretch of scenery. There are various stops along the way and many a tavern and local pub or tea room to take a rest or grab something to eat.

We did a few hours before stopping, but it was enjoyable and relaxing with the sun shining, taking in the scenery, tiller in one hand and a cup of tea in the other – it’s a far reach from life back home for most of us in our hectic lifestyles.

On a canal boat, you become part of a lifestyle where you can’t rush or fly past and hurry along. Trying to do locks at top speed or mooring up in under five minutes won’t do you any good. Take your time slow down relax and become part of a long history and lifestyle that only knows how to “go with the flow”.

Our girls didn’t get bored one bit. It gave them time to enjoy watching the many a duck and swan family gently paddle past looking for the odd bit of bread or anything on offer.

We stopped off at Gnosall Heath, moored up and walked around a mile or so to a lovely little deli called the Gastronomy Shop, where we had chocolate brownies and Panini.

Returning to the boat, we filled up with water which, depending on how far you go and how much you use, you may have to fill up daily or every other day. We had to fill up twice in five days. It only takes a few minutes – much like filling up your car water or fuel, just a cap and a hose goes in and away you go. A full tank gives you around 100 litres of clean water good enough to drink, make a cup of tea or take a shower.

We drifted off, heading further towards our main destination Market Drayton and stopped short at Tyler Grange. Here we moored up for the night and took a walk up to the first of five locks in a row that we would have to negotiate in the morning.

It was also another place to fill up on water if needed and another local eatery nearby was available, but after a long stint the kiddies were a little tired so we dined in, played a couple of board games and watched a DVD whilst listening to the rain beat down on our cosy little canal boat.

Morning soon came and we took a walk to the locks to watch a couple of people who had mastered the art of locks and took notes. It’s worth noting – and it does mention this in the handbook and DVD provided – that you do need to use some manners and common sense. For example, if you need to fill a lock so you can get in to go back down, take a look ahead and give way to someone in the opposite direction that will be coming up. Might as well have a boat in the empty lock and let them come through as you fill it again, likewise the same in reverse.

The girls enjoyed pushing and pulling the gates open with their mum and being part of the action. Five locks later and we didn’t do too badly. A little bit of help along the way and as there is always someone coming up or down, there’s always a helping hand to make things that bit easier.

Shortly after the final lock we arrived at Market Drayton, a bustling little town with some familiar shops and lots of little cafes and pubs. Wednesday is a good day to arrive as the markets are on and you can pick up a few bits and bargains.

We grabbed a few cheap items to keep the girls entertained on the boat as well as a couple of fresh punnets of strawberries, which went down nicely on the boat with a glass of wine.

As our journey was scheduled to end Friday morning at 9am, we decided to be back to Brewood Thursday evening. On the way back, arriving at the first lock of five, it seemed there was a queue of about five boats before us as we needed to wait for everyone to come down the flight, before going up.

Patience is the order here. It took time but caused no issues and we had a little chat to the fellow boaters, whilst others had a drink and worked on their tan!

A couple of hours later we’d gone through our last lock and stopped off at a water point before mooring up at Gnosall for the evening.

The following day we reached Brewood in good time. Lots of people we talked to mentioned how lovely this town is, very picturesque. We decided our last evening meal would be The Mess – a lovely Bistro/restaurant offering a good menu for adults and children. The food was excellent and obviously fresh – being in the industry myself I can guarantee this. We can recommend the Sicilian beef stew with crusty bread and homemade baked vanilla cheesecake and chicken goujons made from freshly seasoned chicken – not the usual processed stuff you might find elsewhere!

To conclude, the canal boat holiday surpassed all our expectations and we had a great time. The girls seemed to get on better than ever, maybe due to the calming atmosphere and general kindness that’s offered here. Talking to some of the boaters you can see why they choose this as a way of living. It certainly gave us food for thought heading back to house we work long hard hours to keep – maybe there’s another way of living to look at?!

We will definitely be re booking and heading out again. This was a holiday but also a lifestyle change, if only for a short time. We really felt like we’d had a break. Yes, you have to do a bit of exercise on the locks and mooring but how else do you expect to work off all that food and drink?!

Everyone must add this to their “bucket list” as one thing to try.

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