Birmingham Mail - June 2011


All aboard for
high adventure

A four-day break on the Trent and Mersey Canal
turned into a never-to-be-forgotten adventure for
SYLVIE DALTON as she and her family
embarked on their first barge holiday

 

THEY had told me it would be relaxing. I had visions of chugging along sundappled canals, floating effortlessly on gently rippling waters.
It wasn’t quite like that. It could have been… but I hadn’t factored in a few home truths.

Firstly, I’m not great on water– yes, sadly even canals! Secondly, our dog, it turned out, was even worse; and thirdly, this was our maiden voyage.


This was a holiday that was going to test our resilience, teamwork and reef knots. There was high adventure. At
one point we were shipwrecked, resulting in a rescue mission by fellow boaters.

There were mishaps. We snapped a barge pole, got wedged halfway through a three-point turn and moored in a turning bay (oops, sorry!). But our kids loved every moment, every lock, every bridge, every tunnel. In fact there wasn’t a dull moment.

Our four days were full-on from the word go. Within minutes of leaving the safety of our mooring at Stoke-on-Trent we were confronted by our first lock – and it was a whopper. My stomach knotted as the water gushed
through the gate paddles, lifting our boat steadily. The photo of the flipped boat that served as a warning during
our pre-voyage briefing kept flashing into my mind. It was obviously going through my partner’s, too, as he was taking no chances of the back end of the barge becoming caught on the cill and kept the boat rammed forward.

These locks and canals are an incredible feat of 18th century ingenuity. I don’t think there was a moment that I didn’t wonder at the fact that every inch we were travelling was hand-dug. And I was keen to impress on my kids the sheer magnitude and human cost involved!

The Trent & Mersey Canal was completed in 1777, one of the earliest inland waterways to be navigable in Britain, its main purpose being to link the Potteries around Stoke-on-Trent with Liverpool.

You get a real sense of industrial Britain on some stretches and although not always ‘pretty’ this scenery has its own charm, especially to anyone interested in history.

The winding or paddle gear is itself a wonderful oily, greasy two fingers to our squeaky-clean 21st century existence. We spent our trip smeared in oil, though strangely none of our fellow boaters seemed to have this problem! Our 12-year-old son was sharing the lock duty with me. Both our children were intrigued by the winding gear, with its grimy cogs, and I could sense their satisfaction at seeing their efforts lift the boat.

Whereas I found the locks a bit of a drag after a while, they welcomed each one with renewed enthusiasm – which was good as there were quite a few. They thrived on the physical exertion whereas I could feel my arm muscles coming out of semiretirement. (If you’re pre-holiday routine includes a manicure, don’t bother. I returned home
with a full set of blisters!).

There came a point on our trip when the penny finally dropped. You literally have to go with the flow. Once you’ve accepted thisyou can start to relax. Nothing is achieved on a barge holiday in a hurry. And once I stopped faffing about how long it would take to reach the next lock, I started to take in the scenery. Life looks different from the water. Cattle, birds, even the urban areas have a strange appeal.

Sadly, our dog preferred to be on dry land rather than admiring it from a boat. After a couple of successful leaps to shore which saw us hurtling after him on the towpath, we had to keep his lead on.

We travelled from Stoke to Stone on course for Great Haywood where we planned to turn for our return voyage. There are canal-side pubs on the way. We stopped off in Stone where we spent an afternoon exploring this pretty town before enjoying a pub meal.

Mooring is something of an art but after a few bumps and scrapes we honed our skills. One thing you can be sure of is plenty of advice from fellow boaters, especially those who recognise you as ‘newbies’. Many were boat owners who literally tested the water with barge holidays like ours before buying. We became aware of a waterways community, where people either lived all-year round on their boats or spent the best part of the year touring across the UK. And like all communities, they had their own set of rules, ones that are passed on by word of mouth. There is plenty of community spirit so you’ll never be struggling on your own for long – something we were very grateful for.

The appeal of narrowboat holidays is obvious and I can see how it can become addictive. Certainly, we came away with plenty of memories and stories to tell, not least mooring up in the dark opposite a graveyard. The date? Hallowe’en, of course!

the boat was well equipped with a modern kitchen and living area. Although a television was provided, we chose not to use it. The shower-room and toilet were compact, as you would expect, but impressed me nonetheless and were certainly adequate for our needs. Bedrooms were partitioned off during the night for privacy and the beds were comfortable. Parking was free.