Eastern Daily Press - June 07

Just go with the flow

Boating is one of the fastest ways to slow down says Brian Caldecott after cruising canals in Cheshire.

FOR A FIRST FORAY INTO THE WORLD OF CANALS AND NARROWBOATS it's hard to imagine an environment more relaxing, easy.going and friendly than the glorious Cheshire countryside in spring.

As a Lancastrian, I'm familiar with the Welsh border area, having made many visits by road over the years. And I have always been curious about the brightly-coloured and decorated narrowboats that are seen regularly. So it was an easy decision when we were offered a choice of areas for our weekend break.

Our Anglo Welsh Waterway Holidays boatyard base was at Bunbury Lock, south of Chester, where my partner Patricia and I met my nephew John and his wife Pamela who had driven from Lancashire. On arrival we were given a comprehensive rundown on everything necessary for safe and trouble-free operation of our boat on the Shropshire Union Canal.

We had been river cruising in France only a few weeks earlier and had become accustomed to the automatic locks which are almost universal there. John had had some experience at a narrowboat tiller and he was confident he would be able to navigate the ‘Shroppie's' tight- squeeze bridges and narrow locks with DIY mechanisms. But Bunbury involved a staircase. lock and this can demand pause for thought from even an experienced crew.

A lock staircase, or riser, is defined as two or more adjacent locks where the upper gates of one lock serve as the lower gates of the next. This means there are no pounds between locks and on leaving one lock the next in the staircase is entered immediately.

We were happy to let our instructor manoeuvre us through the staircase. Then he hopped on to the towpath and we chugged off at three miles an hour, taking care not to whip up a breaking wash. After just a few miles, Cap'n John was acting at the helm of our 58ft Moonstone craft like a seasoned veteran.

There's no doubt that boating, is one of the fastest ways to slow down and although none of us would claim to be totally au fait with breast posts and butt straps we soon felt totally relaxed.

Our boat was a revelation: a double cabin; convertible dinette double; bath-type shower and toilet; well-equipped galley with cooker, microwave, fridge-freezer; TV/video, radio, CD player; carpets, wardrobes and storage lockers. There were open-air seating areas fore and aft.

It was a lovely evening as we meandered through a gently undulating landscape of spacious pastures and, after negotiating our first bridge at Calveley, we made a brief coffee stop before continuing to Barbridge Junction and its impressive marina. It's a very popular overnight mooring but we found a vacant spot on the canalslde and crossed a bridge to try the two pubs before choosing the Barbridge for dinner.

After a towpath stroll we were on the move next morning while Patricia and Pam were still preparing breakfast. All of us had that back-to-nature feeling, enhanced by the bird chorus, regular sightings of herons, a kingfisher flash, birds skimming over the mirror-still water and a duck and a dozen or more ducklings waddling on the towpath or scurrying out of our path. It was easy-going and soon we arrived at Hurleston Junction, entered the Llangollen Canal and encountered our first real challenge, a flight of four locks that raise the water 34 feet.

Pam and I found it easy to raise the lock gate paddles by winding the rack and pinion mechanisms and with no competition for access, we were through surprisingly quickly.

A rush of water at the foot of two locks at Swanley affected manoeuvrability but John quickly learned to compensate at the tiller.

Mooring next at Wrenbury, we wlaked into the pretty village to admire the church and large green before making a refreshment halt at the Cotton Arms and returning to the canal to check out the electrically-operated lift bridge. All we had to do was swing a barrier across the road, insert our key, set off the flashing lights, press buttons and — hey presto! — the timber bridge slowly rose and Moonstone was through. Dinner at the canalside Dusty Miller put the seal on a fine day.

Next morning, as John steered back towards Hurleston, the rest of us walked a couple of miles between locks. There was more activity at the flight of four locks but waves and friendly words were invariably exchanged and assistance was always available from experienced boating folk.

We rejoined the Shropshire Union and made for Nantwich but finished up in a packed marina from which we managed to disengage only with difficulty. Another leisurely passage took us back to Barbridge Junction for dinner at the Jolly Tar and our final overnight.

It had been a super weekend (lots more sunshine than in France) and we'd have loved to go on. That's the downside of a short break — it's all over just when you're getting into the flow.