Towpath Talk editor Janet Richardson recently enjoyed a four-night family break on a Drifters boat, hired from our Stockton base. Here’s what Janet had to say about her ‘Far from the madding crowd’ multi-generational narrowboat holiday:
Day 1 – from Stockton to Napton Junction (3 miles, 3 locks)
In these days of staycations, families have taken to the British countryside for all sorts of different experiences.
We decided to take a three-generation narrowboat break – myself, my son-in-law and two grandsons.
So on August Bank Holiday Monday 2021, we arrived at Drifters operator Kate Boats’ Stockton base in Warwickshire. Instructions had been emailed to us prior to arrival, so we knew what sort of procedures to expect.
There were already three cars ahead of us on the roadway down to the boatyard, but we were soon greeted by Mandy and shown where to park.
We quickly shipped all our luggage onto our floating home for the next four days – the 58ft Caroline Mary. Then we let the boys – Oliver 13 and Lewis 10 – explore inside, while Neil and I did the boat handover and tuition with Andrew from Kate Boats.
After a brief introduction, he gave us a checklist of everything to be aware of, such as location of the gas bottles, mooring pins, windlasses and electrical equipment. He then gave us time to find everything and prepare any questions.
Andrew then showed us the daily checks and how to access the weed hatch if necessary. He checked we had previous experience of going through locks before winding the boat for us so we were facing in the right direction. He then accompanied us through the first bridge, where we dropped him off on the towpath.
We were then on our own with 58ft of narrowboat to steer – being sure to remain on tick-over when passing moored boats.
As we went through the three locks at Calcutt, I was very grateful to two female crew members from Eliana who reminded me how to operate the paddles.
We followed Eliana down to Napton Junction where they turned right to head south down the Oxford Canal, while we went left towards Braunston.
After a cheery wave goodbye, we started to look for a suitable spot to moor along the towpath, and soon found an ideal spot about 50 yards below a moored widebeam.
Preparing for our first night afloat, we soon became aware of what we had forgotten to bring! Neil and boys hadn’t got any towels, but I had bought a bath towel and a hand towel – something we were going to have to share! We also didn’t have much food as we had been anticipating eating at a pub, so we ended up with a scratch meal of sausage rolls and pot noodles. At least I had brought a bottle of wine to wash it down!
Having had a pleasant evening playing a board game, and then watching a movie we prepared to settle down for the night. Neil and Lewis occupied the two single bunks in the fore-end, Oliver the converted dinette in the middle and I slept on a single bunk in the saloon.
Away from any street lighting, it seemed very dark but very quiet – a restful end to a busy first day.
Day 2 – Napton Junction to Braunston Marina (5 miles, 0 locks)
It was lovely waking up in compete quiet – no traffic noise or the usual buzz from people going about their daily business.
Our first ‘visitors’ were a family of swans – cob, pen and four cygnets almost as big as their parents, but still with most of their ‘ugly duckling’ plumage. The boys wanted to give them some bread but I explained it wasn’t good for them, and we could try to pick up some duck feed somewhere along the route.
With no time constraints and just a leisurely cruise up to Braunston ahead, we enjoyed a breakfast which Neil conjured up from the contents of the fridge – bacon, egg, beans, tomatoes and bread – almost a full English! Then we got underway.
The first point to show us exactly where we were on the map in the Nicholson’s ‘Birmingham & Heart of England’ guide, was the fairly sharp right-hand bend under Nimrod Bridge No 108, followed by a left-hander.
We were cruising through some lovely countryside, with cattle and sheep grazing and the only traffic we were aware of was going under the A475 at Bridge No 107. We passed the village of Lower Shuckburgh on the right, and then cruised along a straighter stretch of canal towards Flecknoe.
Some of the older oncoming boats we passed had the great ‘chug chug’ noise. We discovered later there had been a Russell Newbery Register gathering at Braunston over the Bank Holiday weekend.
There was another sequence of bends before the canal straightened up again after Bridge No 100. We knew then that we were approaching ‘civilisation’ as there were more moored boats, and the landmark spire of All Saints’ Church showed us we were nearing the historic canal village of Braunston.
I had been invited by Tim Coghlan to moor for the night at Braunston Marina so we could catch up on the latest news and features for Towpath Talk. As we turned in under its famous Horseley Iron Bridge, we were met by Tim and directed to a pontoon.
Neil and the boys walked up into the village to visit the butcher’s and supermarket to stock up on supplies. We then enjoyed a relaxing afternoon – taking the opportunity to pop into Tradline Ropes and Fenders and we also saw the bags of coal ready for loading on to Raymond and Sculptor for the annual Narrow Boat Trust Coal Run.
It was soon time to walk along the towpath up to Lock 3 of the Braunston flight as I had booked a table at the Admiral Nelson. We enjoyed a very tasty evening meal and walked back to our boat as dusk fell on the second day of our trip.
Day 3 – Braunston to the village of Napton on the Hill (6 miles, 0 locks)
After a leisurely breakfast, the boys went up the hill into the village for more supplies, while we prepared to head off on the next leg of our cruise.
After some manoeuvring between the moored boats along the pontoon, we were under the bridge and on our way to the Braunston Turn.
We decided not to try and push on further north up the Oxford Canal, which would put us under pressure when it was time to turn back. So we turned left back the way we had come, and headed back towards Napton Junction.
We had been following another boat most of the way and they pulled in for a stop along a beautiful stretch of countryside just after Bridge 103. The boys were getting hungry so we decided to do likewise a little further along.
It was beautiful; all you could see was the rolling countryside to the east with fields of grazing sheep and cattle. Apart from the occasional boat coming past, there was no sound or sign of human life!
Much to Oliver’s delight, having bought a bag of duck feed from the dispenser at the lock beside the Admiral Nelson the previous evening, the family of three swans we had passed preening their feathers on the towpath swam into view.
The parents and well-grown cygnet stopped for a snack before heading on their way. Then the boys and I went for a walk along the towpath, while our skipper had a power nap!
We were soon under way again and instead of turning right at Napton Junction, carried on up the Oxford Canal, aiming to wind before the Napton Flight and find a mooring for the night.
Having spotted some space along the moorings before Bridge 111, we decided to take advantage of the winding hole there. It proved quite a challenge with our 58ft boat getting its fore-end stuck in the silt, and the stern almost jammed up against the towpath. Neil had to use the boat pole to push us back.
Luckily a lovely couple from a moored narrowboat we had just passed came to our rescue with instructions from the bank. This enabled us to complete the manoeuvre while a couple of boats behind us pulled in to wait.
They then helped us to moor just in front of their narrowboat Moondancer. The next morning they went on their way before we had chance to thank them again for their friendliness and help.
Opposite our mooring was a large stubble field with lots of ducks and geese feeding. We also watched what we thought was either a kestrel or a sparrowhawk hovering over the field, and swooping down for its prey several times.
As darkness fell we could see the lights from the village across the field and car headlights on the road leading up to it.
Day 4 – Napton on the Hill back to Stockton (4 miles, 3 locks)
As we prepared to set off on our return journey, another Kate Boats narrowboat Kate Elizabeth came past. I asked them if they were heading towards Stockton and asked if we could share the locks.
We turned left back onto the Grand Union Canal at Napton junction. Then cruised up to the Calcutt Locks where the Kate Elizabeth was waiting for a boat coming up the top lock. We pulled in behind. The occupants were also three generations of a family – grandparents, parents and two children from Gloucester. They had decided on a week’s holiday boating after a planned trip to Florida had been cancelled.
We stopped at lunchtime and took a walk, then decided to head back to Kate Boat’s base for our last night, so we were handy for the check-in the following morning.
We were lucky to get a space at the front of the moorings, and as the sun showed itself for the first time during the week we went across to the pub for a welcome drink in the garden and booked a table for an evening meal.
Day 5 – back home
It was early to rise ready to return the boat by 9.30am. We had the bedding stripped and placed in the laundry bag provided and all our bags packed by 7am. So we pulled over to a vacant space and transported all our luggage to the car.
It wasn’t too long before Mandy arrived and said they were expecting 14 boats in with 11 to go out – so a busy day ahead.
We said our goodbyes and headed home reflecting on what had been a most enjoyable break. Lewis said he liked stopping in a different place every night, while Oliver also said the travelling was the best bit. They had both also enjoyed seeing the wildlife – especially the ducks and swans.
The best part for Neil was steering the narrowboat, although he said he could do with a bit more practice at reversing. And me – the friendliness of everyone we came across, whether seasoned boaters or fellow holidaymakers, and the feeling of being far from the madding crowd.