Liverpool Daily Post - Jan 06

It makes you proud to be British

MIKE CHAPPLE and his narrowboat crew enjoy breathtaking scenery at a sedate pace

TO BE a bargee, you need to know your onions. For a start, there are the commandments of waterway etiquette that must be adhered to.

Take for instance the fifth commandment: Thou shalt not go travelling down the canal at 10 mph - the barge equivalent of light speed - leaving your moored-up compatriots swamped and shaking their fists with rage as you disappear over the the horizon howling with laughter.

Then there's the technicalities of handling the tiller. This is an often therapeutic and even relaxing task that does, however, require maintaining a state of constant vigilance to avoid the sound of screams and breaking crockery in the downstairs cabin after failing to negotiate that tricky S-bend.

It's also a good idea to pick your crew wisely - it oniy takes one whinger or malingerer to literally rock the boat.

Thankfully, we had a ship-shape and sprightly crew all ready to muck in when required for our short but nonetheless entertaining three-day jaunt down the Trent and Mersey Canal.

There was Our Kev, our mutual friends, Tony and Nige, and Our Kev's son and my 10 year-old-nephew, The Chimp, excited about his first barge adventure.

We arrived at Alvechurch's Anderton boatyard in the heart of the picturesque Cheshire countryside early on a sunny Friday afternoon, demob happy from work and ready to roll.

Yours truly is something of a veteran of Big Lads' Barge Trips or, as they are more appropriately called, Booze Cruises. The object of these sojourns is to work hard chuntering down the canal during the day and find a good ale house to pull up by to quaff a pint or five during the evening. In between, you get to see some of the finest countryside and wildlife that this country has to offer.

Sometimes, it's so breathtakingly beautiful it makes you feel almost illogically proud to be British.

I challenge anyone anywhere in the world to come up with something as marvellous as watching a kingfisher bouncing like a ball of green and blue light through the wisps of early morning mist as your vessel cuts quietly through the tree-shaded water.

Such sights have a tendency to materialise on narrowboat trips and, when they do, they remain with you forever.

This trip was to come up with a few little highlights of its own.

The first came on the Friday evening after setting a brisk pace from Anderton under the very capable hands of novice tiller boy Tony who, fuelled by cups of tea and cigs from the galley, took to the job like a duck to water - which is a good job because, despite lavish experience of narrow-boating, I still retain the steering capacity of your average Kamikaze pilot.

WE HAD passed through a somewhat surreal hinterland in which the lush countryside was occasionally pock marked by abandoned evidence of the salt industry before arriving early evening at the 250-year-old Broken Cross pub languishing mere feet from the canalside in the village of Rudheath. After sampling a nosebag at the pub, we took a foray into the village. But after a couple of beers in the local workingmen's club - - Alan Whicker eat your heart out -- we decided to return to our six berther and save money by breaking into the modest alcohol supply brought along by Our Kev comprising 24 cans of Stella, one crate of bottled Bass and a bottle of Jamesons.

Oh and a can of Diet Coke for the Chimp.

And sitting at the prow of the boat nursing our supplies, the first aforementioned highlihtg finally made its appearance- a simply stunning full moon rising slowly above the expanse of the Cheshire Plain to frame it in silver. Breathtaking.

Next morning, while the others decided to take in the delights of the serene Dane Valley on the water, I decide to leap to the bank and make a walk out of it. It was a good nine miles to our destination of Middlewich but, with the sun beating down and with no locks to open, I set off at a steady marching pace with breathtaking countryside on either side.

The lush silence was only occasionally broken by The Chimp gleefully squawking: "We're going to beat you Uncle Mike!" until Nige took to the tiller and immediately jackknifed the boat into the side of the cut, putting paid to the nephew's ambitions.

We finally hit the outskirts of Middlewich early Saturday afternoon and moored up at another highlight, the Newton Brewery Inn. This proved to be an inspired choice with its excellent selection of cask ale which we supped on the tree-filled lawn sloping down to the canal's edge. We then went on a reconnoitre of the town which our book, The Canal Companion, had rather snootily dismissed.

Our party on the other hand were duly impressed with the town's burgeoning population of two of life's essentials, pubs and Balti houses. In fact, Middlewich seemed to have more Baltis this side of Bangalor and we were spoiled for choice later. Afterwards, we adjourned to the Newton for last orders before meandering back to the barge for deep sleep and volcanic snores all round.

We woke the next morning to a third highlight -- a full English breakfast cooked using the more than ample facilities of the vessel's kitchen.

There's nothing finer on a warm Sunday morning than perusing the papers while chomping on an al fresco plate of rashers, Cumberlands and eggs washed down with a strong cup of rosy lee to set you up for the day.

Suitably fuelled and with The Chimp nestled in his speck at the prow contentedly reading one of his vampire books, we motored back to the boatyard in time to hand over our craft before deadline.

Indeed the shortness of the break was the only drawback of the whole trip. But, as a tasterfor more, it was perfect - and livers allowed, we resolved to embark upon a far longer campaign for next year.