Choice - July 07

Messing about in Boats

Time slows to a halt when you're chugging along at 2mph on a narrowboat holiday. Norman Wright and photographer Clive Nicholls cast off for a languid weekend on Britain's canals.

WHEREVER A road crosses a canal, there always seems to be a cluster of narrowboats either at permanent moorings with smoke emerging from their chimneys, or else a boat hire centre.

The colourful boats in greens, reds, creams and blues with traditional paint schemes seem to beckon passers-by to abandon their cars and the traffic and try a slower pace of transport afloat.

Narrowboat holidays are extremely popular, and becoming more so. It's easy to see why, since it is possible to cover much of England and foray into Wales.

There are starting points all over the network and, because the canals are essential connecting urban areas, most people are within easy reach of one of those starting points.

Estimates say more than 15,000 narrowboats are permanent homes, ranging from those that are moored and rarely move to couples who retire to a life of exploring the canals and are cruising to new moorings most of the time.

What's it like as a holiday or a retirement project? Choice cast off and headed out into the canal system to find out..

Time really does seem to stand still when you are chugging along at two miles per hour on a narrowboat.

Traffic on the M6 as we passed underneath, and the express train to Glasgow that flashed alongside, provided the speed contrast. Even a couple out for an evening stroll down the towpath overtook us comfortably. When you spend most of your life rushing around the reduction in pace is like braking a supercar.

Perhaps this enforced slow-down is one of the big advantages of a canal holiday, but it takes some getting used to. You can't go any faster. You can't turn round for at least a couple of hours, until you get to a suitable place. You have to wait in line to go through a lock and be patient. The canals operate at their own sweet pace and there's nothing you can do about it.

Mind you, after the first few minutes of learning to manoeuvre your craft, you're glad the pace isn't quicker. With canal holidays becoming more popular as well as more people deciding to retire to an itinerant life travelling Britain's canals permanently, we decided to try life afloat.

Our aquatic adventure began at Stretton-under-Fosse on the North Oxford Canal between Coventry and Rugby on the border of Leicestershire, Warwickshire and Northamptonshire. We picked a weekend trip with Rose Narrowboats, which was an ideal way to sample being a narrowboatman Friday afternoon to Monday morning. We would recommend this before booking a longer holiday.

We arrived at the appointed hour to be introduced to our craft, the 52ft Escapade. After stowing our weekend bags, we sat with a glass of wine on the stern of the Escapade, reflecting on the boat's name and if this was an omen for the trip, and discussing who was to be captain while we waited for our training session

Engineer Gary gave us a thorough briefing from bow to stern, including the engine oil up, pumping the bilges and working the central heating and kitchen equipment.

He covered operating the boat on the canal, steering, passing boats, working locks and mooring. Gary rode along with us for 100 yards, saw we had grasped the rudiments of steering, showed us how to stop and tie up, then we were on our own.

Actually, you aren't really on your own. The briefing really was very thorough and you are given a handbook and the home number and mobile number of on-call engineers whom you can ring at any time. If they can't help you over the phone, they will head out and find you.

It doesn't take long to get the hang of steering, where the bow turns in the opposite direction to the way you push the swan-neck tiller. Using the forward and reverse throttle in conjunction with steering takes experience.

Taking a turn as skipper, however, needs concentration even at three mph. The canal is usually quite narrow and you need to be adjusting your position, and negotiating bridges, bends and oncoming boats most of the time. Wind makes the need for concentration even more important. There are 50-odd feet of boat to act as a sail so you need to steer to accommodate the movement a breeze will cause.

But with growing confidence, which sometimes received a setback, we coped with manoeuvring, didn't hit anything, got through locks and obstacles, and onlu flirted with the reed beds at the far side a couple of times.

Navigating is much easier than on any other travelling holiday. Basically you can go one way... or the other.

At Stretton-under-Fosse we decided to head north, cruising under the M6 and M69 through Anstey and mooring for the night on the outskirts of Coventry at the historic Hawkesbury Junction, also known as The Sutton Stop.

Here we could have dined at the Greyhound pub, but we wanted to try out the Escapade's kitchen. We ate in the saloon with the sun going down over an urban landscape with the camera conveniently placed on a tripod in the bow to capture each stage of the sunset.

With a gas cooker, plenty of cookware and crockery as well as a good fridge, self-catering is perfectly easy. But the towpath pubs are tempting and most of our fellow overnighters were eating there.

The Escapade has two bedrooms separated by a toilet and shower room which is part of the route through the cabin from back to front. The toilet doors, for day use, open out cleverly to enclose the bathroom and ensure privacy from either bedroom.

There was a double bed in one bedroom area and two singles in the other. We were travelling early in the season and it did get chilly in the early hours, so using the central heating would have been better on that first night.

Breakfasting early, we prepared for an early start, but lost our enthusiasm when the light came to reveal just how many other boats were moored around us. We envisaged bumping into several of them as we made our first solo cast-off and waking everyone up. So we waited for a couple of hours and then made the perfect manoeuvre to try our hand at negotiating a lock for the first time.

The Hawkesbury lock is a great one to learn on. It's only a six-inch change in height so it isn't so intimidating as being raised or lowered several feet. But all the actions needed are exactly the same as at any other lock. On the other side of the lock, the North Oxford Canal ends at its junction with the Coventry Canal; from there you can reach many other systems, including the Ashby Canal which runs up through the Bosworth Field battle site and the National Forest - which, pleasingly, has 22 miles of lock-free cruising.

This really is a good idea for narrowboats. You can get to the North of England or head south and visit London and the Thames. There's a whole world waiting for you to explore.

Rules of the road

  • Travel down the middle of the canal until you meet someone coming the other way, then pass them on your right

  • At locks and other places like narrow points or tunnels, you should alternate using the right of way, queuing until it is your turn. Courtesy levels are high

  • One tip: when you tie up, either to a fixed point ashore or one of the metal stakes you will have on board, never tie the knot on the shore end, always tie it on the boat. That way no one can cast you adrift in the night without stepping on to the boat, which would alert you

  • It's a good idea to learn a couple of knots but that isn't a problem once you start tying them every day, you don't have to have been a scout or guide!

  • If you fall in, don't panic and try to avoid swimming. Usually the canal depth is such that you can wade back to the boat or to the towpath. Try to avoid ingesting water as canals are not the cleanest of places. Shower Immediately you get back to the boat to avoid the (unlikely) chance of infections.

    Navigating through nature

  • One of the big advantages of cruising the canals is that you get close to nature. Both wild and domestic creatures seem to accept the barges that ply up and down and ignore the people on board. Herons hung around longer before flapping clumsily to fishing grounds further up the canal.

    We saw swans nesting, scores of charming families of newly hatched ducks, moorhens and coots. There were many of the usual songbirds as well as pheasants, partridges, kestrels and king.fishers.

    All kinds of farm animals were drinking at the canal and there were all sorts and sizes of ship's dogs on display.

    Where to go

  • There are more than 3000 miles of interconnecting canals in Britain so there's a lot to keep you interested if you do try it out for yourself.
    The waterways network goes as far north as York and almost to the Lake District down the South Coast, east to the Norfolk Broads and west to Bath, Bristol and into Wales with the Llangollen Canal.

  • You can also cruise the Forth Clyde Canal in Scotland as well as the glorious Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal in South Wales. 

  • The heartland, though, is in the industrial Midlands and the routes to London. You can travel through countryside and into the heart of cities like Birmingham, Coventry, Leeds, Leicester and Manchester as well as navigate through London. 

  • One of the most popular routes is The Grand Ring, which will take at least three weeks depending on your starting point. This follows the Grand Union Canal south to London and back via the South Oxford Canal via the Thames. 

  • Every boat hire company has routes taking from a couple of days up to a month. 

  • Boats are fitted out like a caravan inside with a high level of comfort, kitchen bathroom and all facilities.

  • There are hundreds of marinas and boat hire centres so contact one near you.