South Wales Echo - Autumn 07

Messing about on the river

by Laura Wright

CANAL boating. Not a venture that had ever crossed my mind before this holiday... Yes I had seen narrow boats tied up along the banks of canals, but I had never thought about hiring one out for a weekend away. But I was in for a pleasant surprise.

There are bases across the UK where you can pick up your narrow boat which can accommodate up to 12 people, which would be a real party but a bit of a squeeze.

A bit too nervous to go it alone on our first time, my partner and I decided to invite along another couple to test the waters for the three-night weekend trip.

On arrival at the Anglo Welsh Waterway Holiday base just outside Oxford on a Friday afternoon, we were shown our vessel — which was called The Stafford — and told to load our belongings aboard. From the brochure we had received, we knew that we were to have a coaching session on how to control the boat and then we would be thrown in the deep end and left to it.

We were all a bit apprehensive as to whether we would remember everything from the boat tour and a rundown of how things worked. The guide stayed aboard for the first mile and saw us through our first lock, then it was up to us.

But once we got going, we were relieved that it was a lot simpler than we feared and we board. took to it like a duck to water. Or rather, a boat to water.

There were a few minor glitches as we got used to manoeuvring the 6Oft boat into locks and tying it up to moor. Other than that, the trip was trouble free and by the end we almost felt like experts.

Dusk came too soon on our first night and we moored up along the riverbank in Oxford. After tying up the lines as tight as we could, we wandered off into the heart of the city for dinner and a pleasant evening at the pub.

We wished we had taken a torch as staggering back to the boat on the riverside in the dark wasn't ideal. Back inside, the boat was warm and welcoming thanks to the central heating. The boats are homely and have everything you would need for your stay.

Ours was a six-berth boat and had one double bed, two small singles and another double when you converted it from the dining room table. The bathroom was very small and basic, but the shower was adequate and there were flushing toilets which would have needed emptying if we had stayed on the boat any longer.

Next morning at sunrise we were up and ready to set off, watching the world wake up as we slowly cruised south along the river and tucked into our bacon sandwiches rustled up in the galley.

The locks are usually manned in the day, so these were reasonably simple but we did need all hands on deck to steer into the lock. Narrow boating isn't for the faint hearted — if there weren't four of us I think the mooring and the locks would have been hard work. But the relaxing in between locks made it all worthwhile. We stopped for lunch in the town of Abingdon for a quick walk and to pick up a few supplies. But we didn't stop for long as we were eager to be aboard. If we were there for the week we would have made the most of our ports of call and explored for longer. We spent the afternoon relaxing on deck and marvelling at the magnificent waterside houses in Dorchester-on-Thames.

Saturday evening we moored up in Sutton Courtenay for a quick nap to compensate for our early rise and then we found a nice country pub with a real fire, beer garden and a television for the rugby where we settled for the night. The guide map not only had every lock marked out, but also showed the mooring points along the river as well as where the pubs and restaurants were so we could plan out our route.

Another early start on Sunday, we passed many other narrow boaters and many more rowers from Oxford University. An incredible amount of migrating geese passed us overhead as we steamed upstream. We had intended to make our way back on the Oxford Canal but we didn't turn off in time and the river was too narrow for a three-point turn here so unfortunately we missed out.

We stopped for lunch in Sandford in the autumn sunshine and appreciated just sitting back and watching the world go by.

Our last night was spent just round the corner from the Anglo Welsh base. The mooring point was full so we settled for somewhere a bit further downstream. Unfortunately this meant that we were a bit off the path and ended up a bit dirty after trudging through a muddy field to the inn. As we returned our boat first thing on the Monday morning, we were all disappointed that the holiday was over and wished we could have stayed all week. I had never anticipated how much fun and relaxing it would be. I couldn't have returned home~ more refreshed and longing to go back than- if I had jetted away to the Mediterranean — although my tan would probably have been better. One thing is for sure, we are narrow boating converts now and will definitely be doing it again.

FIVE THINGS to do narrow boating from Oxford

ABSOLUTELY nothing but relax. along the river, take in the beautiful scenery and enjoy a slower pace of life. Head along the Upper Thames in a couple of days to Lechlade, a typical Cotswold town and a totally relaxing option for the stressed.

The centre of Oxford is only three hours cruising south of the base, where you can soak up the atmosphere of this historic city. Stop for a show, visit one of the ancient buildings or museums, take the children ice skating, shop till you drop or have a night out in the heart of the city

MOOR in Abingdon and pay a visit to Abingdon Abbey, formerly a Benedictine monasteiy, it was founded in 675 in honour of the Virgin Mary. There is also an abbey worth a visit in the village of Dorchester-on-Thames which has some impressive waterside houses.

SPEND the days riding the river and the nights at the waterside pubs. Each mooring spot is close to-a host of delightful pubs in walking' distance which serve hearty meals and real ales, We recommend the family-friendly King's Arms by Sandford Lock.

STOP in Wallingford, which has the feel of a typical old market town and is where Midsomer Murders was filmed. There is a 17th-Century town hall, three ancient churches, a museum, theatre, steam railway and ‘public parks.