Yorkshire Post - March 07

Life in the slow lane

FANCY messing about in a narrow boat? Alexandra Wood embarked on an inland nautical adventure

View from the bridge at Hebden Bridge over the Rochdale Canal.Sinking down into the country's deepest lockpit, the last vision we have before sliding between the gaping gates of the Tuel Tunnel is the whiskery features of Uncle Nasty.

One of the great characters of the Rochdale Canal, "Uncle Nasty" is the lockkeeper, who gets an eyeful of the "chesticle" ladies on board the many canal boats plying this monumental route. It's he who has to put what he calls the "arrogant and effluent" in their places when they are playing up.

But mostly they are like us obedient and just pleased to have made it back home without sinking the boat. For the past four days we'd been climbing the Pennines in a superb new canal boat from Sowerby Bridge-based Shire Cruisers miserably failing to get anywhere near the summit lock 32 on the Rochdale Canal.

At first, the idea of getting anywhere in a boat 56ft long seemed an impossibility with just a skipper, my long-suffering partner, one crew member, myself with a cricked back, and a hysterical dog.

The Rochdale Canal is said by narrow boat devotees to be one of the most stunning in the country, as it marches first across open countryside, then the hills close in tighter and tighter in a dank embrace. On average there are three locks a mile.

I didn't realise at the beginning that that meant a lot of work.

The night before we set off, I watched the DVD supplied by the company, slightly concerned at the idea of catching a boat on the cill and sinking it and wondering what on earth "gate paddles" were.

From talking to other first-timers those fears are common.

However, the staff of Shire Cruisers try to put you at ease with half an hour's instruction and one of their friendly employees guides you through the first three locks. Then you are on your own.

We trailed another couple for the first afternoon and watched them running aground on a shelving bank, then sheering off and blocking the canal. But it didn't matter as we were all going at the same pace, or rather slower than the many dogwalkers on the canal path. An elderly cyclist in startling lycra kept reappearing to ask us whether we've seen the heron or to tell us helpfully, "Just 17 more locks to go!"

The first night, two locks on our own under the belt and feeling slightly braver, we moored up at Brearley Lock, with playing fields on one side, flanked by hills, to have a cheap but filling meal at the Grove Inn.

We crept into Hebden Bridge on Sunday, past the hippy barges with their sitting buddhas, crystals and varnished driftwood. There are loads of visitors and no one minds helping if you don't mind the many eyes burning into you as you try to look nonchalant with a great clunking windlass in your hand.

A man out with his young daughter on the back of his bike lends a hand, as does a chap who says he spends a lot of time on the Leeds-Liverpool Canal and two young lads with cans of cider, who are well impressed with our huge boat.

And it is impressive, with its light and airy ash interior, choice of double beds, two smart new bathrooms with push buttons, shower and bath, comfortable galley, TV, DVD and CD sound system, with perfect acoustics for music to cruise to.

A strange mixture of Goths shouldering artworks and skinny 40-somethings on mud-spattered mountain bikes criss-cross the canal. The farmers' market is small but eclectic Italian chocolate vying for attention alongside the smoked trout and wild mallard, which we pick up to roast back on the boat later on, after a drink at Stubbing Wharf.

That's the beauty of a canal holiday that you can moor pretty well where you like alongside the towpath.

We are making steady but slow progress, even better when a helpful passerby points out that we are in a narrow boat and only need to open one side of the gates. Later we walk up by Callis Lock and the encampment there, past a chief with a big rasta hairdo and three kids soaking in a hot tub with steam rising into the air. People have been growing stuff in front of their boats beans, tomatoes, artichokes but everything is running wild at the end of the season.

In the morning, we turn the boat in a 70ft turning circle nudging back and forth in the weeds, before trekking up Burnt Acre Woods by lock 13 to catch a vision of Stoodley Pike in the distance. The rain lashes down as we get to the sheep-studded moortops and a battered farmhouse with ancient windows, and a bedraggled mare backing her withers against a stone wall is straight out of Wuthering Heights. Up above the canal, you can marvel at how little you've travelled, and at the same time appreciate just how densely wooded the valley bottoms are before they become stone-walled farmland higher up and then the khaki-coloured moors. The industrial heartland is centred round the canal, itself tight up against the road, the railway line and the river.

On our final push back we can afford to take it easy. The dog is exhausted after a prolonged bout of cabin fever and snoozing in the warm sunlight. We can watch two other nervous couples coming through their first sets of lockgates and reflect on how a couple of days' cruising makes you feel like an expert.

The sun shines down turning what was dark and dripping into lush shades of green, and lighting the canal ahead with a silvery trail.

You hear the noise of traffic distinctly and marvel at its speed, truly relaxed.