Wokingham Times - April 07

Let life slowly pass by

FIONA HANNON takes a narrowboat cruise along the Shropshire Union Canal.

PUT put put put put it this way, it's hard to be stressed at four miles an hour.

Chugging along at walking speed forces even the most avid stress bunny to chill out and enjoy the view. And what views – some of our country's most beautiful waterways, close up and slow enough to catch every detail. You can even hop off the boat when the canal narrows for a bridge, walk along to the next one, and wait for the boat to catch up. Have you ever walked or cycled a familiar route you usually drive – like the way to work – and noticed loads of things for the first time?

Travelling on a narrowboat is like that. There's time to enjoy a raucous rookery high in the trees; a hare loping across a field; clouds forming, gathering and melting as you glide underneath.

One thing you won't have time for is boredom. There are bridges at least every couple of hundred yards, with surely less than a foot's clearance on either side. These must be approached s-l-o-w-l-y – dropping down from four miles an hour to as low as you can go. Each bridge called for utmost attention as we inched forwards. Then ease through and emerge triumphant, feeling like the captain of the QM2 navigating the Panama Canal.

In our too-brief voyage, from fourish Friday night until nineish Sunday morning (one of our party had to get back early), we travelled about 12 miles upstream from where we picked up our 63-foot boat, Sir Belin.

The equivalent of around 15 minutes in a car, then, from which we would have barely seen the countryside blur past. We could have travelled further, of course – four miles an hour is still 40 miles a day if you put your back into it. But we were happy spending a few hours chugging to a country pub and mooring up. The bridges are numbered, so with our much-thumbed Pearson's Canal Companion to hand, we knew how far it was to the next bridge and if there were any locks or turning points. More importantly, the book is also an excellent guide to nearby villages and pubs, whether or not they serve a decent local brew and food, and the location of the nearest mini-market for replenishing the on-board stocks of red wine.

The books also give interesting history notes on the building of the canals and the surrounding area – including the bridges. One bridge, described as being haunted by a ‘black, monkey-like creature' since a boatman was killed there is the 19th Century, was approached with even more than the usual caution. Even in 12 miles, the scenery changed. Through deep, shadowy cuttings lined with fishermen; across wide fields dotted with farmhouses; through deep-green woods where branches brush across the top of the boat; and along the top of a rise, with land falling away on either side and hills hazy in the distance. Shortly after picking up the boat, we went over an aqueduct – not as high as the one in the picture, but it was fun to sail over a road as the people passing below in cars beeped and waved.

Oh, and for those fearing locks, don't. We negotiated only one, and were uneasy beforehand, the lock symbol looming on the map with an air of ‘here there be peril'. Thankfully, the two brothers who went through just before us saw my companion and I dithering on the banks and stayed to show us the ropes. It's actually very simple and the routine makes you feel like a ‘proper sailor'. We knew they were brothers, because your fellow narrowboaters are hugely gregarious.

Each passing party gives and receives a cheery wave, greeting and maybe a comment on the weather. Any problem – from trouble starting the engine to negotiating a threepoint turn – and helpful and knowledgeable‘river people' will instantly appear. Before we boarded we had feared the people who live on their boats all year round must get terribly narked with stupid townies who clog up the waterways in nice weather and create careless washes which rock their boats. But if they do think that, they hide it extremely well.

After just a couple of hours, though, we were starting to feel more confident about handling our vessel. There is, after all, only one control – the tiller. This is a long stick, waist high, at the back (sorry, stern), which the helmsperson uses to control the rudder.

To steer left, move the tiller to the right. To go left, move it to the right. If this doesn't make sense, hold a pen in front of you by the middle and move the end facing you to the left – and watch the front go to the right. There is a forward, neutral and reverse gear and that's about it, but we found constant fine adjustment is needed to keep on a straight line. Go into a reverie and you will soon find yourself ploughing towards the bank. At four miles an hour, this is disaster in slo-mo – even with a 12- tonne boat – and there is usually time to get back on an even keel.

But with boats sometimes lining the canal on either side, some occupied, you need your wits about you. We must confess to a couple of minor bumps, and a moderate one, but with no harm done. Because of their simple controls, there isn't much that can go wrong on a narrowboat. A friendly and very knowledgeable chap had given us a thorough briefing before we took control of Sir Belin. We learned how to read the gauges, work the controls (and the heads), and what all the switches did. In case we forgot anything, there was a thick folder on everything from how to turn on the central heating to canal etiquette (‘smile!'). The Sir Belin is one of Countrywide Cruiser's biggest boats, 70ft long, and with six to eight berths. There is a double bedroom, four bunks, and the dining table also converts into a double bed.

It was very roomy and comfortable, with two toilets, a shower with lashings of hot water, a decent-sized kitchen with full-sized cooker and fridge and a living area. Central heating radiators, like those at home, keep the boat warm as toast.

Sir Belin was incredibly well turned-out. Surely it was a woman's touch I detected in the sweet-scented sheets, the plentiful loo roll and wellequipped galley, with everything from egg cups to kitchen paper and place mats. No panicking about forgetting a corkscrew!

Despite the 18th century pace, the time sped and we were soon beckoned back to the 20th Century. But what a boat-iful way to while away the time