The Star - May 2010

Argy Bargy

Taking a turn at the tiller can leave you cruising for a bruising on Britain's canals.


EVER tried guiding a belligerent cow through a cat flap? Me neither – although that’s what it felt like as I tried to
steer a narrowboat towards a sliver of bridge.

Three friends and I had picked up the boat from the Wootton Wawen base of barge specialists Anglo Welsh in Warwickshire. First we were given a thorough tour of the boat. Our guide Craig taught us the essentials of turning the boat on and off, checking for leaves clogged in the engine and, erm, distinguishing the front from the back.
Then it was time to put our “skills” to the test – steering the barge through a teeny-tiny bridge. “They’re usually smaller than this one,” Craig said, ominously. Somehow I managed to squeeze through without smashing the
sides of the boat but I’m really not sure how. Another member of my “crew” managed to turn the boat around
and we moored up again at the base.

It was too late to start chugging along the canal, as you can’t move the boats after dark, so we stayed put and explored the barge. Ours had a double bed at the back and two singles at the front, which converted into a table for daytime. The kitchen had just enough room to cook up a full English for four and there was a shower room with toilet.

The boats come with one full tank of water but there are regular points along the canal for topping up. All in all, there were enough home comforts for all but the most pampered types.

Settled in and unpacked, we popped in to the Navigation Inn, a lovely old pub serving traditional grub and a variety of ales – conveniently located in the car park next to the marina.

The next morning we steered the boat out and headed north towards Stratford-upon-Avon. The aqueduct, where the canal crosses a road, was the fi rst challenge. There was no danger of the boat tipping off the edge but any bump against the side can leave you clinging on for dear life.
The views across the c ountryside were stunning and there’s something fabulous in the contrast between the peaceful movement of the barge and the speeding cars below.
Safely over, we got our priorities sorted – one of us would make bacon and sausages, one would make tea, while the other two would take turns steering from the back and directing from the front. It all seemed so easy at
fi rst, manoeuvring under narrow bridges, waving at fellow boaters, keeping to the middle of the canal. But
under pressure, things are different. Remembering to push the tiller (which steers the boat) left when you need the front to go right, for example. Faced with crashing into a blackberry bush, another boat or someone’s back yard, instinct kicks in – and it isn’t always right. That’s how I acquired scratches up my arms and a barnet full of twigs – and how the boat ended up looking like a black forest gateau.

It’s lucky the maximum speed on canals is 4.5 mph. After all the adventure, it was almost a relief when we came to the marathon run of locks – there are 17 between Wootton Wawen and Stratford. I did say almost. It’s fun if you’re steering the boat. But it’s not so much fun if you’re doing the grafting, wrenching open each lock, pushing it wide and closing it again. Defi nitely tough on the old muscles.

As we neared Stratford we had an audience peering down from the bridges. In the marina, after a miraculously crash-free bit of parallel parking, we moored up and headed into town. We had drinks at the Dirty Duck, on Waterside. It has a cute front terrace and a massive beer garden out the back. To fi nish off the evening we
bought fi sh, chips and mushy peas from The Kingfi sher on Ely Street and ate them back on the boat under the stars. Bliss.

Next morning we set off early. Somehow the locks seemed more exhausting and time-consuming on the way back.
It didn’t help that we came face to face with an angry barger armed with a wrench. The people before us had kindly left the lock open for us, only to incur the wrath of a fierce fraulein coming in the other direction. I guess not everyone heads to the canal for the slow pace of life. Still, we made it through intact.

Rather than head straight back to Wootton Wawen, we moored up half an hour away near the village of Wilmcote, a useful stop with a decent general store and several pubs. One of the cosiest is The Mary Arden Inn, with wooden beams and an open fi replace. Outside is a lovely beer garden, which is perfect for relaxing with the Sunday papers and a few pints.

The food is decent too – I had a roast Scottish sirloin of beef with all the trimmings for £9.95.

The next morning we steered the boat slowly back to base. Finally we had the hang of this boating lark and each of us could steer with one hand on the tiller, while clutching a mug of tea in the other. Our sea legs wobbled as we
stepped on to dry land. But as we recovered over a pint in the Navigation Inn, we were already planning our next bit of argy-bargy.