Big Issue - July 2011

Water way to go

The scenery’s lovely, the people are friendly, the pace
of life leisurely. Just be prepared for a little hard work
if you’re to make the best of a holiday on the canals of
the north, says Femke Colborne

Birds singing in the trees, the rustle of wild animals nesting in dead leaves on the bank, the gentle slosh of water against the side of the boat, the crunch of metal against concrete and the muffled sound of smashing crockery.

Holidaying in a canal boat can be a great way to see some of the UK’s most beautiful scenery, stopping off at pubs and villages along the way. But make no mistake – you have to keep your wits about you.

Yorkshire and the North West are home to some of the UK’s most famous canals, and a number of routes in the region have been restored in recent years. These include the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, which runs for 20 miles between Huddersfield and Ashton under Lyne, and the Rochdale Canal.

The number of people volunteering for British Waterways, which looks after the UK’s canal network, has increased by 67 per cent over the past year, and with British Waterways set to take on charitable status from 2012, this upward curve looks likely to continue.

The most popular routes in the north include the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, the longest in the UK, and the South Pennine Ring, a circular route that includes The scenery’s lovely, the people are friendly, the pace of life leisurely. Just be prepared for a little hard work if you’re to make the best of a holiday on the canals of the north, says Femke Colborne

198 locks and the longest canal tunnel in Britain. Further south, the Trent and Mersey and Caldon canals form a popular route in the Stoke area, and the Shropshire Ring is another favourite circular route.

You don’t need any experience or training to hire a canal boat, and most hire firms will provide a friendly staff member to give you a lesson and guide you through your first set of locks. Steering is by means of a tiller at the back of the boat, which unfortunately means you have to steer in the opposite direction from where you want to go – but more on that later. The locks are straightforward to operate and a rope on the boat helps with mooring.

Hire boats generally sleep between two and eight people and come complete with beds, an inside dining area, a hot shower and a fully equipped kitchen with a fridge and gas cooker. You will be provided with a map of your route, marked with locks, water points, mooring points, pubs and places where the canal is wide enough to turn the boat
around. The toilet needs emptying and the water tank filling once every couple of days, and there are various other jobs to do along the way such as bailing the front hatch, changing the gas canister, checking the propeller and, of course, cooking and cleaning.

Kate Riley, a 25-year-old violinist from south Manchester, went on a canal boat holiday for the first time earlier this year. “I had expected it to be more laid back,” she says. “There was quite a lot of work involved, what with all the locks and finding mooring places, and actually physically stopping the boat is quite hard work too.”

Riley and her husband travelled with two friends from Macclesfield to Poynton and back, a 10-mile route that took them four days to cover. “A few times we stopped at a pub that was completely in the middle of nowhere, the kind of place you would normally have to drive to get to, so it was really nice that everyone could have a drink because there was no designated driver,” she says. On the canal, it is customary to wave and say hello to fellow boaters and passing joggers, walkers and cyclists. Particularly at busy times such as the school holidays, there are often queues for the locks, and people get chatting while they are waiting. Most people are very friendly, willing to answer questions and help show novices the ropes, although there is always the odd draconian old-timer waiting to
pounce on your every wrong move.

“There was a really nice sense of camaraderie, not just between the people on the boat but with people walking their dogs, joggers and walkers. Everyone would say hello or stop and talk to you,” says Riley. The only people who weren’t so friendly were the fishers, because they had to keep moving out of the way for boats to go past.”

There are a number of unwritten rules in the canal community worth knowing about. The majority of vessels are not hire boats, but privately owned by people who take great pride in them – and God help you if you ever come anywhere near to looking as though you might dent the side of their precious vessel. Another big no-no is speeding. Although there is no official speed limit on the open water, it is considered polite to slow down when you are driving past moored boats so that you don’t make waves.

Boating can be a slow process. With a top speed of about five miles an hour and bridges and locks to negotiate, it is hard to cover more than about 10 miles in a day – and no matter how precisely you plan your route, it always takes longer than you expect. You may also sometimes find that by the time you get to the spot you had planned to moor the boat, there is no space left and you have to find somewhere else. “Don’t put pressure on yourself to cover too much ground,” says Ingrid Benyounes, a 56-year-old primary school teacher from Hale who bought a canal boat with her partner a year ago. “There can be holdups, particularly at holiday times when a lot of people hire boats, and it can take a while to get through the locks. You can’t be in a hurry.”

Over the past year, Benyounes and her partner have explored a number of popular local waterways, including the Shropshire Union Canal and the Bridgewater Canal, a privately owned route that stretches between Runcorn and Leigh. “I like being out in the fresh air and I have always liked walking along canals,” she says. “My partner was retiring so we decided to get a boat. We were a bit bored of going abroad, with all the hold-ups at the airport.”
Bad weather can literally put a real dampener on canal holidays. “It is a bit miserable to stand there with the rain absolutely pouring down your neck,” says Benyounes. “If the weather is really bad we sometimes just stay where we are for the day. It can be quite nice just sitting in the boat in the rain.”

There are also plenty of other things that can go wrong. Some of the bridges and locks are extremely narrow, and, particularly if the canal is crowded, there is plenty of potential for slow-motion crockerysmashing crashes. If it is windy, steering can be pretty challenging – and the first thing you do when you start to panic, of course, is to automatically steer in the opposite direction. It is also advisable to bring a change of clothes. Hopping on and off to do the locks, standing on the exposed back of the boat to steer– there is plenty of potential for a soaking.

However, canal boat holidays are generally very relaxing and a great way to see some of the region’s most beautiful countryside – and with many routes going straight through city centres, they can also be a chance to see the familiar from a different perspective. Just make sure you bring playing cards and a good book. “I really enjoyed the length of time we did it for, but I don’t think I’d have wanted to do it for much longer,” says Riley. “I’d run out of things to
do – it is nice to have that slow pace of life for a while but not too long.”

Most hire firms will provide a friendly staff member to give you a lesson

Route finder

Leeds and Liverpool Canal
Via its connection with the Aire and Calder Canal, it offers a coastto- coast route including landmarks such as the Bingley Five Rise Locks (one of the Seven Wonders of the Waterways) and the Burnley Embankment, which carries the canal 60ft above the town.

South Pennine Ring
A circular canal route that is 70 miles long and has a total of 198 locks. Takes in the whole of the Huddersfield Broad Canal, Huddersfield Narrow Canal and Ashton Canal, most of the Rochdale Canal and part of the Calder and Hebble Navigation. Has probably the most dramatic upland scenery anywhere on the canal system. Includes aqueducts and sections of river navigation. Also includes the famous Standedge Tunnel - the longest canal tunnel in Britain.

Bridgewater Canal
Runs from Leigh to Runcorn. Opened in 1761, it is often considered to be Britain’s first canal. Forms part of the Cheshire Ring.

Cheshire Ring
A 97-mile circular route including the Trent and Mersey Canal, Maccclesfield Canal, Bridgewater Canal and others. Includes 92 locks and passes directly through Manchester city centre as well as offering stunning views of the Peak District and the Cheshire Plain. It also passes the Anderton Boat Lift near Northwich, a 50ft vertical
link between the River Weaver and the Trent and Mersey Canal.

Rochdale Canal
Runs for 33 miles between the centre of Manchester and Sowerby Bridge. Part of the Cheshire Ring and South Pennine Ring. Reopened in 2002 after restoration.