Could you navigate a 45-foot-long, 11-ton boat through this bridge opening? Our author shares his steep learning curve during a week of self-guided cruising on England’s Trent & Mersey Canal.
Story by Richard Blackburn Photos by Jan Blackburn
It was early morning. To the left, the English countryside was hazed with mist; green fields, inquisitive cattle and an old farm house beside a mirror-like pond. To the right, a wooded hill rose up to an ancient church almost hidden by a stand of ancient oak trees. As I switched off the motor of the Wallis Ali Baba to fully appreciate the beauty of the scene, church bells began to chime. Could there be a better way to start the day on an English canal? My wife, Jan, and I had hired a four-berth narrow boat for a week on the Trent & Mersey Canal, picking up our vessel at Sawley Marina near Long Eaton. Walking through the boat from back to front, first there was a small deck with the tiller and a horseshoe-shaped bench for enjoying the view while under way. Down a few stairs and you entered the L-shape lounge which doubled as a dining area and tripled as a second double bed. Then there was an adequate kitchen, a bathroom with shower and, at the very front, the king-size bedroom.
Washing up the dishes is easy compared with navigating a narrow boat!
Before we left the marina on our seven-day exploration, we received instructions on the types of apparatus used to operate lock gates. We had the workings of the boat itself explained and a full set of instructions was left for us. After we loaded into the boat the gear and the groceries we’d bought at Long Eaton, a marina staff member came with us for a half hour practice run, then we headed off on our own into the exciting world of Britain’s historic canals.
Cruising through a stretch of forest is a beautiful, peaceful experience.
There are about 3,000 kilometers of navigable canals in the UK. Most were built to carry freight cheaply during the Industrial Revolution, others were built much earlier by the Romans. These wonderful feats of engineering meander through quiet meadows, push through busy towns or climb slowly over hills, as they crisscross a huge area of England and Wales. As waterways, they vary greatly; from the peaceful Llangollen Canal which follows the contours around the hills of North Wales, to the busy Grand Union Canal which starts in the River Thames. Some only carry the occasional recreational boat but others are serious industrial thoroughfares with large commercial craft using them.
Some canals have only a few locks; in fact the Lancaster Canal doesn’t have one lock on its 73 km length. Compare this to ‘heartbreak hill’, where the Trent & Mersey Canal climbs through 26 locks in 11 km, or the ‘stairway to heaven’ where there are 21 locks in less than 3 km on the Grand Union Canal!
There are other amazing features along the English canals, like the towering aqueducts on the Llangollen canal and the Falkirk Wheel, an incredible rotating boat lift in Scotland. On most canals you have to operate the manual locks yourself and sometimes this is quite a feat of strength, but on others, like the Thames and Severn canals, staff operates the locks for you.
Narrow boating is also popular around Stratford-upon-Avon. VisitEngland
We travelled upstream, crossing the wide River Trent before coming upon the first lock of 22 that we negotiated each way of our journey. Jan opened the downstream gate for me to maneuver the boat in, with only centimeters of free space each side. When I had the boat safely docked, Jan closed the gates behind me and open the ‘paddles’ to allow water in until the boat had risen to the level of the canal beyond. Jan, leaning against the arm of one of the top gates, felt a bump as the water levels equalized. She then woman-handled the two upstream gates as they opened against the full height of the water. I puttered out and waited for her to close the gates before we were on the way again, often waving our thanks to the others who had helped.
Wallis Ali Baba is 45 feet long and 7 feet wide, barely squeezing into the narrower locks.
Some people hire narrow boats; some own them and travel around the UK with family, pets and all!
Puttering along at 8 mph maximum, everyone walking their dog or cycling along the tow path smiled and returned our cheery greeting. Other boaties waved and passed on any warnings of congestion – we came across a lot of this one Bank Holiday weekend – or danger, like the time a tree fell across the canal right in front of a bridge.
We spotted a herd of English Longhorns, the most abundant cattle in medieval times, but now very rare.
Narrow boats are – you’ve guessed it – narrow. Ours was the normal width of just over seven feet or two meters. This is necessary because most bridges are hardly wider than that. On the second day approaching Bridge 36, I nearly had a heart attack. I thought we’d missed a necessary turn, and never thought we’d make it through the space available. Holding my breath, the boat slipped through with less than two cm/one inch of free space each side! I didn’t have any real trouble handling the boat. At places the canal was quite narrow and we even found boats moored two deep. Other places, the trees overhanging the water, picturesque as they were, reduced the visibility and made passing other boats quite difficult. But nobody was in a hurry and we often joked with the other travelers about these minor problems.
If you see a few narrow boats parked together, it’s often because there’s a good pub nearby.
We enjoyed every day of our week, even the three days it rained – all part of the adventure, as was picking blackberries in the hedgerows. The canal wound through some beautiful countryside and it was so peaceful tied up to the bank at night. Sometimes we spent hours travelling through unspoiled forest and often there was a popular pub to visit for lunch or dinner. Some areas were built up, while others had only villages. Willington, population 3,000, had a number of shops, post office, two churches and three pubs, one with a prize-winning house brew. With thousands of volunteers reclaiming miles of derelict canals a year for the use of an estimated 30,000 narrow boats, the best way to help keep this vintage mode of transport alive is to use it. Now that we’ve got the hang of it, we’re already talking about encouraging those volunteers by doing another cruise on a different one of Britain’s waterways.
After enjoying your boat ride, you and your family could relax in some family holiday parks that this majestic country has to offer.
There are numerous narrow boat rental companies in the UK. The website, www.ukboathire.com, contains detailed maps of the canals and loads of helpful detail on all aspects of such a holiday. Here is another useful site which lists all the rental companies with websites and email addresses.
We hired our boat from Hire a Canalboat, Sawley Marina. We were very impressed with our floating accommodation but it would have been a bit crowded for four, even if two had been children. Costs vary with season from about £600 (approx. US$950) to £1,000 (approx. US$1,600) for the week but there are often ‘specials’, so do shop around. The price includes fuel for the boat, cooking gas, towels, bed linen and safe parking for your car. Marinas often have good restaurants and nearby towns offer pre-trip supermarket shopping and large laundromats.
For further visitor information about travel in England, see www.visitengland.org.
Above: A very low bridge where the author had to duck!
Richard Blackburn is a Queensland, Australia-based author mainly writing young adult historical fiction set in medieval England. Richard has also published short stories in three anthologies and travel articles in Australian and international publications. Richard is a keen scuba diver, recently purchasing an underwater camera to record favorite dive sites in Fiji where he and his wife are regular visitors. www.richardblackburn.com.au.