Sainsbury's Magazine - June 06

Slow Boat to heaven

Want to sleep well, eat well and lose weight? Then narrow boating's for you, says Sharon Ring . You only need a couple of days to get the hang of it....

Narrow boats are the gypsy caravans of our waterways, plodding along routes that have dispensed inland trade and bonhomie for hundreds of years. Narrow boating has never enjoyed a particularly racy reputation, but when Harrison Ford, Calista Flockhart and kids took a cruise on the Llangollen Canal, it suddenly became cool.

Why narrow boat, not cruiser? It's a question of style. Cruisers are for dashers, with ice tinkling in gin and tonics; narrow boats are for dreamers, with sausages sizzling in frying pans. Narrow boating is a slow, sociable way to enjoy our glorious scenery. But don't get too settled. There's a lot to watch out for, such as locks. Especially locks...

The route
The Rochdale Canal is surrounded by beautiful moorland as well as lots of gritty industrial history, but it does involve going uphill towards the Pennines, towards Manchester. Which means a lot of locks. However, the Rochdale is one of the jewels in a narrow boater's crown, so what the hell! I nominate husband Phil for captain and even find a name for him. Well many, really, but Bligh will do. Our Norfolk terrier, Crumble, is my first best mate.

We pick up our boat, the Warwick, from the marina at Sowerby Bridge. It's about the length of a single-decker bus, but not as wide, and weighs over 10 tons. It sparkles. Someone is touching up the paintwork on the hull where it had been scraped by the previous crew. We won't do anything like that, of course.

Starting off
The Warwick is owned by Shire Cruisers, which provides us with Colin, the man who actually built the boat, to show us the ropes. Bligh talks to him about tillers, windlasses, sumps, props, paddles, mooring knots. And locks. Apparently we're facing a lot of them - 50 at least. But at least starting the engine is easy - there's a big red button to push and the engine starts with a roar. Colin edges us out of the marina towards our first lock. He makes getting in and out appear easy. Then we go through a long, dark tunnel with a clammy roof. In and out of another lock and Colin says farewell. We're on our own. The good news is we've done the tunnel with him. The bad news: we'll have to do it on the way back. Alone.

Life inside
The boat is a delight - hand-built from wood and cosily furnished with all mod cons, plus central heating. It is adorned with bits of polished brass and frilly curtains, and there's a cosy seating area with TV, CD and radio, a well-equipped kitchen with good-size oven and fridge, a large double bed at the stern, and a bathroom with a proper shower and efficient loo. For someone who loves neat, like me, this is heaven. Bligh will just have to watch where he puts his charts.

Stormy weather
Fairytale over. Our first solo lock is looming and Bligh takes charge. He hands me the tiller - a sort of long stick on the back of the boat. Whichever way you want to go, you pull the stick the other, he explains. Then leaps on to the bank crying, 'Don't forget to throw me the ropes'. It's like steering a heavily laden shopping trolley with extra-wonky wheels. It just won't go where I want. Bligh is screaming from the bank again. What did he ask me not to forget? The bank is getting further away. First mate Crumble is under the table, quaking. The Warwick is in mid-canal sort of sideways on to the bank. Truth is, I just can't steer. It'll be the brig for me.
Then there are the locks. Big heavy gates worked by stone-age mechanisms spouting out lots of rushing water. Things to unwind, things that get stuck, ropes to throw, tying and untying to do both back and front. Getting in and out takes about 40 minutes and there's over 20 different things to remember. That's 40 minutes of frantic activity plus much recrimination. Do I not know my left from my right, asks Bligh? What is a windlass? It's a heavy metal four-pronged tool for winding and unwinding lock gates. Not a pretty sight but it might look nice in the back of Bligh's head.

Mutinous dogs
Crumble and I are not in the Captain's good logs. I can't steer and have trouble remembering what I'm supposed to be doing. Crumble doesn't like his waterwings, er, lifejacket. We've still got five locks to negotiate and it's four hours before we tie up for the night. We've gone four miles. But there's a nice pub nearby where we negotiate terms: Bligh steers up to the lock, clambers off and helps me work the gates, clambers back on, steers in, then does it all again to get out. Sounds a bit one-sided to Bligh.

Calm waters
As learning curves go, two days on a narrow boat gets you half-circle. After that, things slot into place. And it's worth the wait. The slower you steer, the easier it is to control. The bigger the task, the calmer you get. By the time we reach Hebden Bridge, the sightseers on the bridge actually applaud our dexterity. We'd already spent a couple of nights moored in heavenly countryside, next to a buttercup meadow and hedges bursting with blossom, and days tootling alongside herons and a kingfisher at four mph tops.

Hebden Bridge provides cheese and pies from the Sunday farmer's market, a decent takeaway, and beer at £2 a pint. Canal folk are a friendly, resourceful and very laid-back lot. Just make sure you close the locks properly and don't beach their boats. At Todmorden we meet a lady who helps us turn the Warwick right round for the first time and in a very tight spot, too. Thanks, Estelle Brown, Our Lady of the Turning Point.

Homeward bound
In one balmy week in June we negotiated 50 locks over 25 miles but felt like we'd discovered the Northwest Passage. We slept well, rose early, ate heartily, and lost weight. Even the tunnel outside Sowerby Bridge on the way back was a doddle. Just one 'oops'. That paintbrush had to come out back at the marina. Bligh, I explained, just couldn't steer.

Back for more?
'Did it start in divorce and end in romance?' asked an old hand on our return. Relate should have a marriage counsellor on standby at the trickier locks - if teamwork's not your thing, then forget it. And tying up at night with only a frilly curtain separating you from the late-night strollers on the towpath can be a bit spooky. But this was the best fun we thought we could have in a boat, and a life-enhancing experience, too.