We travelled with Black Prince Holidays, a member of award-winning holiday boat companies
Messing around, in, on or under water has always been a passion of mine, so given the chance to take some friends—Paul, Scott and his girlfriend, Marta—on a narrowboat for a long weekend, I jumped at it.
None of us had experience with this type of boat, but any concerns were addressed on our arrival at our base in Falkirk. We were given a thorough tour of our 52ft floating home and while waiting for our departure slot, we considered our course. With all good intentions, we planned to head towards Edinburgh and stay at Linlithgow overnight.
The Edinburgh and Glasgow Union Canal is 31.5 miles long between Edinburgh and Falkirk and linked to the Forth and Clyde Canal to Glasgow by the Falkirk Wheel—the world's first rotating boat lift. This revolutionary design lifts 600 tonnes of water plus boat more than 115 feet in less than four minutes, to solve the age-old problem of transferring boats between levels that traditionally required a flight of 11 locks. Despite its size, each turn of The Wheel uses virtually no more energy than boiling just two kettles. On board we were guided through our first lock, then joined by one of the lock-keepers during our ascent on the Falkirk Wheel. The view was quite spectacular. Being in a boat and still afloat while being 'scooped up' on to the Union Canal was very odd indeed.
Two locks later and we were on our way. It was early April and still quite cold, so between reading my book, I took regular mugs of coffee to our 'Captain' Paul, and his 'first mate', Scott.
We eventually arrived at the Falkirk tunnel, at 631m long and at least 12ft high. It's cut through solid rock and, like the rest of the canal, was hacked out by navvvies with picks and shovels. Legend has it that this canal was used to secretly transport the bodies murdered by the infamous Edinburgh body snatchers, Burke and Hare, who were labourers on the tunnel.
During this long, dark passage I volunteered to take over as first mate. Typically, the weather had taken a turn for the worse, and I found myself battling with an umbrella in sharp rain and bitter wind and with night falling rapidly. Reaching civilisation and suitable mooring for the night we got out the two pegs and mallet, supplied for such occasions. Scott hammered in the first peg, but the wind pushed out the stem and the said peg now lies at the bottom of the canal!
With one peg, no torch, cold, wet and rapidly losing the will to live, we found two branches and a boulder to cobble together a peg system —now the boat was going nowhere, at least not tonight! After a long, long day, we found the nearest pub, had a chat with the locals and returned to our boat for a well-earned rest.
The next morning, I decided that I was going to take the helm. We continued leisurely, cruising the calm and peaceful canal over the Avon Aqueduct and admired the beautiful fauna and flora on the way to our next stop, Linlithgow Canal Centre.
I was rudely awakened the next morning by tne captain, who advised me we had no hot water or heating but, being an engineer, he could fix it—but not until he'd had breakfast. As I don't function well either until I've had a (hot shower) I reluctantly made my way to the galley! Fed at last, we set off for Falkirk and, other than a short spell trying to get ourselves off the bank, we (and the boat) arrived wet, cold, but relatively unscathed back at the top of the Falkirk Wheel.
A narrowboat holiday, although hard work at times, can be very relaxing and a great deal of fun. Have a rough plan of action, but the best plan is to forget the time, wave to the passers-by, enjoy the scenery and quite literally go with the flow. Most importantly, don't forget your sense of humour, waterproofs and a willing crew member with a constant supply of hot tea. You certainly need it to stand in abundant liquid sunshine and pilot a boat with a top speed of 4mph!
What do you need to take?
Black Prince provides a list of basic provisions they can buy on your behalf for a nominal feeJhis is a self-catering holiday, so take supplies - you never know how long it will be until you find a shop or canal-side pub that sells food!
How much experience do you need?
None at all - narrowboats are easy to steer and control. Basic routine maintenance needs to be carried out daily, so do take notes. You will be given a tour of the boat and an explanation of lock procedures, route and most importantly how to manoeuvre. As the canals are quite narrow and shallow, you can't travel at more than walking pace, so there's little chance of you causing damage to the boat or yourself if you misjudge a manoeuvre.