Western Daily Press - March 07


A Narrow Escape
By Jon Bennett


EVERYONE thought I was mad when I told them I was taking my wife and two young daughters on a canal boat long weekend out of season.
“Make sure you take your thermals,”seemed to be the stockresponse. But my head was filled with romance borne from too much of The Wind in the Willows when I was young and, to be honest, I couldn’t imagine better time to be taking this trip than in the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.

And I was right. After an easy jaunt up the M5 to Brewood, just north of Birmingham, our Shropshire canal experience began as we were introduced to the Sir Belin –an eight-berth cruiser that was to become our home for the following three days.
As something of a landlubber,the 63ft length of this beautiful vessel was nearly enough to put me off before we’d even begun. After all, Iwas the one expected to become helmsman of this floating behemoth.

Before we had even left our mooring, the children had already made themselves quite at home in their bunks –the novelty value faroutweighing the fact that there was little room for manoeuvre on these, the tiniest of beds.
Hot and cold running water, a fully functioning gas cooker and central heating are just afew of the home comforts in the narrowboat, although the lack of mains electricity meant prudent use of electronic devices. My initial horror at not being able to rechargethe laptop or the mobile phone was soon assuaged with the realisation I was there to recharge my own batteries.
While my wife put away the provisions in the small, but beautifully formed kitchen, I was not only given comprehensive “driving”lesson, but also taught how to clear the propeller of leaves, pump out the bilge, and top
up with water. To my utter relief, the yardman came with us as far as the first lock at Wheaton Aston, allowing me to take the helm for the very first time under expert tuition.

After the frantic pace of modern living, it takes a while to get used to the relaxed pace of life on the canals. Four
miles per hour is flat out, but 2mph is the accepted normwhen passing moored vessels or fishermen. Steering, however, turns out to be remarkably simple.Just point the tiller in the opposite direction to the way you want to go and wait, wait, wait for the boat to respond. It is ill-advised to travel at night, so our first foray into the canal network was curtailed by diminishing light. Having rejected the chance to stay at the designated mooring posts in favour of some independent driving practice,it came as something of a shock to find ourselves in the middle of
nowherewith onlythe owls for company. Any feelings of disconcertment soon gave way to the utter tranquillity of it all.

Doors bolted and heating on, the Sir Belin was more snug than any hotel room, and no-one, but no-one, knew where we were.

Day two saw us make steady progress along the Shropshire Union, experiencing life on the water to its fullest, appreciating the embankments and cuttings that Thomas Telford himself worked so hard to construct. Passing
under a high bridgeand into the prodigious Woodseaves Cutting, it feels as if you’ve entered Tolkien territory; mosses and ferns flourish in the misty environment, the steep 70ft sides untouched by human hand for many a long year.
We reached Tyrley Wharf in the late afternoon and decided to avoid the flight of five locks. Instead, we turned our vessel around ready for the return journey, moored up and went on foot to watchother, more experienced boaters unravel the mysteries of the Victorian lock system.

WHEN we awoke the following morning, the drizzle was descending on our “caravan on the water”, but as we had to be in the vicinity of Brewood by nightfall, it was up to me to don full waterproofs and take the helm once again.
Numerous cups of steaming hot tea and the ubiquitous bacon butty kept the early chill out, and before long the sun’s rays were fighting through the clouds.
My family ventured back out on deck to help with the steering and to drink in the scenery on this, our last day on the water. We stopped for lunch at the Junction Inn at Norbury Junction and had a well earned roast dinner while the children dispensed with some of their excess energy in the play area.
It was with sadness that we moored up for the final time at Wheaton Aston. Just as we had come to terms with a carefree life on the water, and with the smell of woodsmoke still heavy in our nostrils, it was time to leave our lovely
boat.

But as WHAuden wrote: “I have onlyto close my eyes,cross the iron footbridge to the towpath, take the barge through the short brick tunnel and there I stand in Eden again.”

Exactly.