The Star - April 07

Cast off your cares on a canal holiday

by Keith Ward

THERE is something wonderfully relaxing about canal boat holidays.

There you sit, tiller in hand, engine purring gently to propel you at a speed limit of a steady four miles an hour, through the very heart of the countryside- field, forest and pasture - with birdsong and the gurgle of water your musical escort.

Sheep and cattle raise their heads to stare. Tiny ducklings from a brood in the water ahead of us scurry after their mother. A heron soars from the bank at our approach, wheels around and settles 50 yards ahead to take another look.

The serene atmosphere seems to exert a civilising effect, too, on everyone you come into contact with.

Some might call it a drop-out mentality. Men do tend to wear beards and the women wear smiles. Removed from the stress, pressure and rush of the normal working day in town or city, civility is the watchword of the canal community.

Patience, often lost these days, re-emerges as a virtue.

To pass other craft, parked or moving, you flick the throttle back to little more than half-speed, out of safety and consideration, so as not to create a wash to set their boats bobbing in the water. There is ample time for passing the time of day and giving a cheery wave or having a chat.

As well as other boaters, that also applies to hikers on the canal path - a few hearties among them even striding out enough to overtake us.

Only one boater in our three day cruise broke the code, urging us gruffly to move up the queue waiting to enter a lock. That briefly raised our awareness of being relatively novice sailors, fearful of doing something wrong.

After all, first time out, standing at the stern of a 60-foot craft, even moving at less than walking pace can be a bit daunting. Steering the boat in the direction you want with the tiller is the first hurdle. Under bridges or in locks, there is barely room either side, narrow as your boat is, so it takes judgement to manoeuvre and the first few times a little bump or two brings no shame. Entering a lock, you also need a sensitive hand on the throttle to blip reverse and come gently to a stop. But you get into the way of it surprisingly quickly.

The captain at the helm needs a non-mutinous crew, willing to leap in and out of the boat to tie mooring ropes, operate locks and raised bridges and to take on fresh water from taps provided at intervals along the canal banks.

Adults and children alike seem to enjoy these tasks.

After the admitted trauma of our first canal cruising family holiday a few years ago, my wife and I this time took with us friends who are experienced at narrow boats, which was an assurance as well as a deterrent to arguments over who had dome what wrong to get us marooned on a sandbank.

It's as well to be good friends - space is tight across a narrow boat, although its 60-ft length in the case of our good ship Ingemar, a Derwent Class craft from the Viking Afloat fleet carrying a four-start rating from the English Tourism Council, stretched to two double bedrooms and an optional third, two cloak/bath rooms, a well-fitted galley, dining area, small decks for sitting out, in stern and bow, and clever storage and room dividers throughout.

Anyone used to caravans will feel at home on a narrow boat. Other than fresh water, all other resources on the boat — gas, electricity, diesel, sewage tanks — are designed to last for at least one week.

In a long weekend we set off at 4pm on a Friday from Whitchurch, Shropshire, along the L]angollen Canal, a branch of the Shropshire Union.

Negotiating two tunnels, a couple of locks, an aqueduct and several level crossing bridges which had to be raised, we made it over the Welsh border at Chirk before returning in time for Monday morning.

According to our dog-eared copy of Nicholson's Real Ale Guide to the Waterways, the Llangollen Canal's spectacular scenery varied architecture and rural course have made it “the most popular of all our cruising waterways”.

It adds: “Unfortunately the rural course of the canal which makes it so attractive means that there are very few pubs along the way”

But they are there, worry not, they are there.