The British canals. People of my generation are likely to remember them as stagnant and unpleasant backwaters in the industrial and derelict part of town. Images of Victorian factories and submerged supermarket trundlers are the types of picture that spring to mind.
Today it would be more accurate for the word canal to conjure pictures of boats drifting slowly through the England that you’ve seen in old Agatha Christie films. It ought to be in black and white but the reality is in full on Technicolor.
We’ve been traveling to the UK for years to visit friends and family and more recently our children who are living there. Each time we have commented on how much busier and more expensive everything has become. Frankly the country has changed dramatically since the 60’s and 70’s and not at for the better.
A few years ago we drove around Scotland. The East coast was everything we had hoped but once we hit the western tourist route it was like we had moved into a Scottish World theme park. At that point we decided that unless we were seriously prepared to get off the beaten track then it would be better to go to other countries.
At this point we were very lucky, a friend had a small narrow boat (seven foot wide to fit through the locks) and generously offered to lend it to us. I’m afraid our first reaction was rather negative, we’d rather been brought up with canals as being something rather sad and more likely to have views of the rear of factories and narrow escapes with submerged supermarket trollies. After some convincing we decided to give it a go.
Our first experience was the Oxford Canal which is the most surprising and rural waterway. Apart from the boat being somewhat unsuitable it was a fabulous adventure with antique locks and incidents with other remnants of the British industrial past, quaint pubs, traditional country villages, meeting with a huge cross section of both British and foreign people and an overwhelming sense of being privileged to visit an England that has otherwise disappeared.
Since then we have travelled on several other rivers and canals in the South of England and found them a mixed bag but with a bit of care you can have the most enjoyable and memorable of holidays.
Pitfalls to watch for, and there are quite a few but they are really easily avoided:
1. Don’t be talked into too small a boat or too many people. Just because the brochure says it will sleep eight doesn't mean you will be comfortable. Stick with four or five and get a boat of an adequate size with enough toilets (one per couple) for the trip. No way do you want to plan on people sleeping in the lounge.
Remember that the double beds and bunks are also narrow and there is generally precious little storage space.
2. Make sure the toilet is a ‘pump out’, if not avoid!
3. Go for at least a week to 10 days. Less is a waste but more, two to three weeks is far, far better. you will meet any number of people who have sold up and gone to live on one, perhaps only for the summer.
4. Remember the boat is a place to explore from so allow time to go visit the local towns and villages, bicycles are ideal for this. Many make the mistake of motoring all the time to meet a self imposed schedule, plan to travel a short distance each day (4-5 hours is lots) and leave places to visit on the return.
5. Plan your overnight stops away from the towns, take a barbeque (seldom provided by the narrowboat hire companies) for dinners on the towpath after a pint or two at the local pub, in the summer with the long evenings it’s just magic. You will also want your night stops to be well away from the rail and motorway networks, the noise is hard to credit.
6. Industrial Britain still exists but has fallen on very hard times, if you want to see third world style poverty close up and first hand this is it. Derelict factories, tenement housing, drug dealing, stone throwing youths, booby traps for the unwary, these places have got it all. For your first outing make sure you plan on a route avoiding the decaying city centres and stick to the countryside.
Frankly although we were pleased to have see it, our experience with Birmingham and it’s environs we would like to keep to the one time only.
7. A copy of the Good Pub Guide is recommended.
8. Take a flag or something to indicate your nationality, you’ll be appalled how few recognise the New Zealand flag, next time it’s the silver fern for us.
We have hired several boats from Howard and Liz at Napton Narrowboats and can highly recommend them. Sure it’s expensive but where else can you travel for two weeks, with accommodation included on a single tank of gas and it’s all included in the rental!