Daily Mirror - March 07

Canal Route Treatment

Relax and let the world go by slowly on a narrowboat by Paul McElroy

TOTALLY knackered? Nerves wrecked? Too worn out even to join the queues of other wacked-out escapees at Luton or Gatwick airports?

What you need is a few days' therapeutic pootling through sublime countryside on the back of a boat so slow you could grow tomatoes in the time it takes to do a 180-degree turn, a floating cottage that slips through the landscape with the elegant grace of a 6Oft swan.

In the breathless silence of Britain's canal system, the gentle putt-putt-putt of the narrow boat's diesel is the only sound above the dripping trees and the occasional mob of hysterical ducks who have learned that a slow boat through Cheshire is good for an impromptu buffet.

Otherwise, you have huge tracts of England to yourself for hours on end. Tracts of England largely unvisited by the car-bound proles who inhabit the rest of the world.

When I visited last autumn most serious boatees had put away their rope-soled plimsolls, shorts and jaunty hats and headed for something brick-built until the spring. Leaving the waterways blissfully empty for landlubbers like me to make prats of ourselves coming to grips with the mysteries of handling a narrow boat.

Actually, the truth is I have never come to grips with those mysteries.Can't do it. It's a left hand/right hand thing, where to make the boat go one way, you push the rudder the other. Much like parking a caravan, which is also something I could never master.

So I leave those things to my wife Vivien who is a dab hand at steering cack-handedly while I bustle about in the snug cabins below making hot chocolate and opening packets of butter shortbread.

My mate Geoff can also steer boats (he should be able to, he owns part of one on the Norfolk Breads) but his wife Linda prefers not to. So while Geoff and Vivien drove the boat and made hearty skippering noises Linda and I became the lock slaves - the grunts whose job it was to operate those baffling bits of Victorian engineering that make the canals work.

Since this was a short three-day hiring there weren't that many to tackle (some of the week-long trips promise as many as 130) but even on this midweek hop there were enough to concentrate the mind.

Some of the runs of locks that eventually raise or lower the level of the canal by as much as l50ft are as inscrutable as a Rubik's Cube, but luckily we were spared any of those this time.

We were on a stretch of the Trent & Mersey canal that starts at a less-than-lovely boatyard in the Potteries close to Stoke on Trent, a length of waterway that even the most ardent bargee would admit is not one of nature's better shop-windows

(Having said that, .it is also home to the China Garden family restaurant which offers a superb carvery dinner for a piddling £6.50. Do yourself a favour and get back early enough at the end of your holiday to have a meal there. Don't do it before you set off- the weight of food inside you will sink your narrow boat.)

If you are a total novice - or total incompetent in my case - the nice people at Black Prince Canal Cruises will take you as far as the first lock and give you some tips on driving the boat. But the truth is that for anyone with a smidgen of hand-eye co-ordination, it's a doddle. And at 3mph, what can go wrong?

The first two or three hours pottering through this sad urban landscape before breaking out into the countryside are actually fascinating if not very pretty as the narrow boat chugs between derelict barge yards, factories and pottery kilns.

There is an immense amount of renovation going on, much of which seems to involve tarting up the towpath before any work starts on the rest of the new development.

Which is a good thing for us canal voyageurs, although getting rid of some of the shopping trolleys that have been dumped into the cut by yobs wouldn't be a bad thing wither.

Anyway, take it from me that lock grunt is a very important part of navigating a narrow boat through the waterways of Britain since there's a lock almost every 400 yards.

It is also damned hard work. It's all very well for the skippers to stand on the deck shouting instructions - some of those ratchety things that release the water into the lock are seriously stiff, especially for a school marm and a tubby sub-editor.

Personally, I'm a lock nerd. I love them, the idea of some Victorian gentleman deciding he wanted his man-made river to run uphill and if that involves building 300 gurgling, gated mechanical monstrosities, then so be it, sirrah!

Or better still the Anderton Hoist, a huge grunting, squealing brute of a contraption that lifts your tons of dripping barge plus crew up 50ft to the next level of canal.

And aqueducts! Yeah. I know the Romans built them first, but they were prissy little things carrying just enough water to flush their toilets. Our aqueducts carried fleets of barges in a sedate line across roads - carrying coal and steel - and from Stoke, crockery - to shore up the Empire.

After the second or third lock, when you finally get to grips with the science of the beast and understand how they work ( close the gate, open the sluice, open the other gate and let the boat in. How challenging can that be?) they become a tiny adventure as do the various hand-operated lift bridges and road barriers.

And I'd like to apologise to the petrol tanker driver who was kept watiing unnecessarily because I couldn't figure out how to raise the barrier. It wasn't my fault - the instructions were obviously by the same people who explain how to assemble Ikea furniture

But that aside, there is no more relaxing holiday than this. At 3ph it is impossible to be tense.

So go on, give yourself a canal break - your nerves deserve it.