Take a break from the rigours of the road when you are enjoying your Great British Road Trip.
Catch a canal boat.
Having nearly fallen into irrecoverable decay, the canals of Britain are enjoying a renaissance, thanks mostly to the indomitable efforts of volunteers who repair, rebuild and resurrect these great industrial and commercial highways.
So now you, dear traveller, can enjoy one of life’s quieter pleasures.
There’s something almost unworldly in this insanely fast-moving world about toddling along at walking pace through the beautiful British countryside aboard a narrow boat. It has been described as “the fastest way to slow down”. How true.
The British canal system was first established in the 18th century as a way of hauling freight around the country. For the owners, crews and families of the canal boats it was a hard and even dangerous life. The advent of railways, roads and trucks spelled a near-death experience for canals and the narrow boats that plied them.
Now, in a back to the future world, there are hundreds of miles of canals to be explored.
But how? That is the question.
The Lady Driver and I (I am but the humble servant navigator – she’s a better driver, I’m a better navigator.) decided that we would like to experience canal cruising. Now, I’ve done a bit of “messing about in boats”, as Ratty said in Wind In The Willows, but the idea of steering 60 or 80 feet of boat along narrow waterways, through tunnels and locks was more than this brave heart would seriously contemplate.
A little communion with Prof. Google and I found the perfect answer. Jameson.
Yes, it is a famous Irish whisky, of which I have been known to enjoy more than just a passing – though thankfully not a passing out – acquaintance.
But this Jameson had more of an association with water than I would prefer in my favourite tipple.
It’s a 60ft narrow boat. Once you have had a look around you’ll realise why they call them “narrow”. In this world a boat with a 10ft beam is a “wide” boat.
The owners, Ben and Chris Bench, have come up with the perfect solution for scaredy cats like me. A skippered narrowboat.
They take control of the craft during the day while you sit in regal splendour on the front deck (assuming the British weather is playing along). You can stop for lunch at one of the canal-side pubs, enjoy a backyard view of rural English life before mooring up at around 4pm.
They then head home to Long Itchington (yes, that really is its name), leaving you to enjoy canal life on your Pat. (Cockney rhyming slang. Pat. Pat Malone. Own. Right? Got it? Good! Please try to keep up).
You can wander up to the village and have a look around, do dinner in one of the local pubs before bunking in for the night.
Next morning, around 10, they’ll arrive and you are off on another day of hectic (not!!) cruising.
You’ll also learn a new word: Gongoozler. It refers to people who enjoy watching canal boats as they glide along the liquid veins of Britain. We even had an excellent breakfast at The Gongoozlers’ Rest, a specially fitted-out restaurant boat in Braunston,
The same said Lady Driver developed a whole new interest in bridges and tunnels . . . of which there are quite a few. Camped out on the fore-deck, map on lap, she followed our course and became quite an “expert” (not!!) in such matters.
Then there was the matter of locks. These are a devilishly clever way of moving a canal, which is sort of like a very slow river, from down to up, or conversely from up to down. Even the English countryside, which is generally as flat as a pancake, has contours which meant that there had to be a way of allowing a boat to either gain altitude, or lose it.
Let’s not get into the technology. Suffice it to say that it involves a certain amount of light (sometimes not so) work moving lock gates, which hold back the water, and lifting or lowering “sluices” which flood or empty the lock.
On the first day this work was done by the ever willing Chris, while Ben maintained his lofty role of skipper, steering the vessel in and out of these narrow structures. On the second day we were giving the poor woman a hand, and by the end of our three day cruise I considered myself to be at least a Qualified Lock Master Third Class. Or not.
What spending three days with Jameson did mean, however, was that next time I might be tempted to go for the second canal boating option: Hiring a boat.
There are literally dozens of boat hire companies, covering the whole of Britain. Just ask Prof Google and you’ll be presented with a smorgasbord of holidays afloat.
For a quick guide to the cruising options go to a Telegraph article which gives some excellent cruising routes. They include the Llangollen Canal which crosses Telford’s famous aqueduct, the Pontcysyllte, which soars 126ft above the River Dee.
But if several days cruising can’t be fitted into your time-tight schedule (Silly you! Get a life!) there are several London-based short canal cruises. The one we took started at Camden Market – an attraction of itself – and cruised past multi-billionaires’ London houses, through Regents Park Zoo to Little Venice and back.
It even included a passage through Camden lock.
So, get out of your car, get off your feet and take a trip back in time aboard a gentle lady of the lock.