Sunday Times - May 06

Give that narrow boat a wide berth

There are many pleasures to be had on a canal, but Anna Burnside finds that being at the helm is not always one of them.



Sailing a canal boat, I assured myself as I reversed the Astra into a narrow parking space, cannot be any harder than driving a car. In fact, I decided, it would be easier. Like driving an automatic. The weekend would purr by at 4mph, with me as a beatific skipper in T-shirt and sun hat, steering us one-handed along the Union Canal. The sun would shine, the birds would sing and the children would sit quietly absorbing bucolic views.

Oh dear. Peering through the drizzle at a 60ft boat that refuses to stay in a straight line for more than a minute, the only clear fact is that sailing a barge is not as easy as it looks. Especially in the rain. With two children who want to run along the roof in their socks. When we are in a horrible 2,070ft tunnel. With another boat coming in the opposite direction.

But once we got the hang of it — or, in my case, persuaded the first mate to take over — canal boat cruising was as enjoyable as I had fondly imagined.

From the outside, the Mistle Thrush looks like a relic from the Georgian era. But beneath her flowery metal shutters, she hides all the comforts of the 21st century. There are two toilets, two showers, central heating, a television and a DVD player. Once we shut the doors on the business end of the boat, with its tiller, bilge pump and creepy weed trap, we could have been in a luxurious floating caravan.

Scotland's canals are undergoing something of a renaissance. During the industrial revolution they carried coal and lime to the factories of Edinburgh and Glasgow. By the 1960s, they were good only for abandoning shopping trolleys.

By the mid-1990s, however, it became clear that, far from being stagnating litter traps, canals could attract bars, restaurants, housing developments and foolish women with overinflated opinions of their sailing abilities. Thanks to the Millennium Link, a £84.5m programme of renovation and rebuilding that culminated in the opening of the Falkirk Wheel in 2002, it is possible to sail from Glasgow to Edinburgh on the Forth and Clyde and Union canals once more. Unfortunately for us, not in a weekend.

We collected Mistle Thrush, and Hamish, her long-suffering guardian, in the shadow of the Falkirk Wheel. Getting through the wheel, the three surrounding locks and the short tunnel below the Antonine Wall would be the first stage of our journey.

And even with an expert to, literally, show me the ropes, I could hardly appreciate the feat of engineering that was swinging our boat from one canal to the other, or enjoy the view of the Campsies, for fretting about how I was going to do this on my own. Steering, stopping, starting again. By the time we had finished the twists, turns, tunnels and tying up, I was getting the vapours. We got round the corner and moored for the night.

Eight-year-old Nina and her friend Lunan, 10, were greatly taken with canal life. It took them about 15 minutes to turn on all the appliances, fill every corner with weapons and shoes and feel completely at home.

Next morning I breathed a sigh of relief when Lunan's mother, Gael, took over the tiller. The kids, however, were long-faced. “What happened to the bangs?” they asked plaintively as Gael deftly executed a three-point turn while drinking a cup of tea. “We were enjoying them.”

As we tied up in Linlithgow, demonstrating what I thought was a masterful use of the reverse gear to slow down, we were really getting the hang of it. The evening slid past in a whirl of guacamole, chenin blanc, Doctor Who and, once the kids were tucked up in their berths, a DVD of In Her Shoes. When it finished, bed was six paces away.

There is no such thing as a round trip on this canal, so Sunday was spent retracing Saturday's steps. This was no hardship. With Gael at the helm, I could appreciate everything from the views — the Avon aqueduct, Grangemouth oil refinery at dusk, the back of Polmont prison — to a proud mother duck with her four babies bobbing behind. I thoroughly enjoyed every non-skippering moment of my canal trip. Just don't ask me to steer anything longer than an Astra.