She Magazine - June 07

Canal-boat weekend

by Alastair McKenzie

A single dad drags his 11-year-old son away from the games console and onto the Grand Union Canal

Canal boat holidays have become trendy again and the waterways of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland are teeming with new life.

The reason is partly because we are all taking more short breaks and so are prepared to invest some of our precious holiday time in the UK, and partly because, concerned about the environmental cost of flying and faced with the grisly reality of airports, people are taking a fresh look at what domestic holidays have to offer... me included!

This holiday would be a chance for my son, Joe, to experience some things he's never done before and get some fresh countryside air. What's more, the UK's extensive network of canals means you can choose somewhere that suits you - so no long car journeys!

For us, living in north London, that made the Grand Union Canal a good option and we booked a six-berth narrowboat for three nights from Alvechurch Boating Holidays at their Gayton Marina close to the M1 just outside Northampton.

Planning the trip

This gave us a near perfect cruise plan. A couple of hours gentle motoring on the first evening without anything complicated to tackle, like a lock; overnight in the village of Stoke Bruerne with its multiple canal side pubs and restaurants; a Saturday morning visit to the canal museum in Stoke Bruerne before tackling the first flight of locks and a leisurely cruise down to Great Linford on the outskirts of Milton Keynes; finally, Sunday would be spent retracing our steps (as experts by then) back to Gayton. On the way we would motor 15 miles through eight locks, the second longest canal tunnel in the UK, and across two aqueducts - one over a river and the other over a dual carriageway.

The arrival process was easy. When we booked, Alvechurch sent us booklets covering boat and lock handling, the itinerary, the route, what to bring, what to wear, and what to expect. So we were well prepared before we started.

There was parking space to leave the car after we'd unloaded it, and staff ready to show us over the boat and its equipment. It may seem like there's quite a lot of information to take in - on engines, toilets, showers, heating, cooking, etc - but with several of you listening, anything you missed will probably be remembered by one of your family.

Safety first

Joe can swim quite well, but I wanted him to be safe in and around the swirling waters of locks so I asked if they had lifejackets for kids and was told they do, they are free and they would fit him up with one there and then.

We correctly anticipated what the weather would be like - scorching - and that, with plenty of canal bank pubs, we would only need food supplies for breakfast. So it didn't take long to get onboard, get our briefing, and get away.

Boat tips

Boat handling was not an issue for us - I've skippered large yachts around much of Europe & the Mediterranean and grew up sailing - but it can be quite daunting for first timers. The trick is to take your time. Be slow. Be prepared. Don't be rushed into anything, and, if you do get it wrong (everybody does once in a while, even the experts), as long as you go wrong slowly you are unlikely to do any real harm!

I should have remembered that when we dived into the two-mile long, pitch black, Blisworth tunnel only to discover the headlamp wasn't working (it was working, but the folded back saloon door was covering it), we hadn't got any torches handy and we didn't have any waterproofs ready for the occasional downpour from the tunnel ceiling.

Still, we had plenty of time to sort ourselves out. At three knots it took us 43 minutes to reach the other end. For Joe it was a real adventure in a real dungeon and he loved it.

The best bits ...

He also enjoyed working the locks; pushing the beam to open the gates, using the handles ('keys') to turn the ratchet that opens the sluices to let the water in. Once he'd learned how it worked, he could 'own' that process.

He liked it when we moored up for lunch in a quiet stretch of the canal with no other boats in sight and empty fields around us, and ran timed races along the towpath to the nearest bridge and back. I can't remember who won. I know I didn't …

He liked counting the bridges (they are numbered) to our next destination and especially ducking under them. He developed what he called his 'Matrix Moment' when he would stand on the cabin roof as we approached a low bridge and lean back in a Keanu Reeves limbo as we passed under - a little nerve-wracking for observers.

Canal-boat bonding

Locks are not just brilliantly simple pieces of marine engineering technology; they are a pretty clever piece of social engineering too. They force boats and their crews together on a regular basis. In the first lock, skippers at the helm exchange greetings and the crews divvy up the lock-working chores. Kids eye each other up as they turn handles and push beams.

Then it's all over and off you go on your separate ways…. until the next lock, where you meet up again and start bonding a little more.

At the fourth lock, you are exchanging names, and gathering snippets about where your travelling companions come from, what they do, etc.

By the seventh lock you are old friends and have a detailed knowledge of their full family history for four generations! However your children are still a little wary because they've discovered they support different football teams! (Of course, it can work the other way too. You really don't want to offend anyone on the canal because the chances are you'll keep running into them time & time again.)

It was in one of these pairings, somewhere around the fifth lock, that I discovered my fellow skipper was a senior airport manager.

'Go abroad? No way!', he said. 'I don't need to spend any more of my life in an airport. This is the perfect holiday for us.'