Through quiet fields of half-grown wheat, along green corridors where trees kiss across the canal, and past villages where garden lawns reach down to the water’s edge. My idyllic canal boat holiday in Britain was off to a great start!
On the towpath the wild flowers were in full bloom, with child-high cow parsley and man-high hemlock fringing the views to fields of bright rapeseed and flocks of rare-breed sheep.
The Northamptonshire mornings were dead calm and a little misty. Rabbits nibbled the grass while ducks went diving for breakfast.
Spending a canal boat holiday on one of Britain’s many brightly painted narrow boats is to enter a unique and watery world of colourful characters.
Just to be clear, a canal boat holiday does not involve roughing it. Our craft had two double bedrooms with ensuite bathrooms and a cute galley kitchen and living area. Red and green paint with shiny brass fittings complete the look.
The boys got all ‘performance’ about it, discussing “top speed” and whether more ballast would improve the handling. But really, chugging along at five miles per hour there is not much to do on a canal boat holiday but enjoy the view and observe fellow boaties.
Britain’s canals were important players during the Industrial Revolution – used for fast carriage of large volumes of raw materials and manufactured goods before the railway and before the roads had been made useful for transportation.
Variations in elevation are dealt with by locks – a chamber in which the water level can be raised or lowered, carrying the boat with it. Getting through a lock involves opening or closing gates, steering the boat into the chamber and waiting for the water level to take you up or down.
There is a whole community out there of people messing about in boats. Clearly we were newbie weekenders on a canal boat holiday who were primarily there to provide amusement for old sea dogs. The seriously long-termers have picket fences, petunias and garden gnomes at their private moorings.
We were firmly put in our place by a died-in-the-wool narrow-boater when we came to our first lock. Yes, after five or six hours of gentle cruising it was time for action. The Buckby Flight has seven locks and rises over 19 metres to the Braunston Summit.
I had been quietly hoping the boys would do most of the job but with the old-timer directing them ashore I found myself in sole charge at the tiller.
Initially I thought the old fellow with his rough blue little boat must be cursing at having to ascend the seven-lock flight with such rank amateurs.
But I think he enjoyed the temporary company and he soon had our team trotting up and down the towpath, opening and shutting these incredible pieces of Victorian invention. He did look a bit upset when water gushing through the lock gates gave his crop of dill on the roof an unwelcome drenching.
What do people do on a canal boat holiday? There are readers, drinkers, anglers and knitters. Sunbathers, gardeners, visitors of art galleries and potteries.
Of course one of the best things about being in the English countryside is the English country pub and there were no lack of pub gardens to sit in. As a welcome reward at the top of the Buckby flight is a very nice canalside pub and a flock of gongoozlers. What’s a gongoozler? It’s the name for people who watch canal activity and they certainly enjoyed our efforts navigating through the lock.
Apparently some serious gongoozlers always carry a lock key just in case a boater needs help but fortunately we made a fair job of it. At the New Inn we tucked into large dishes of cod and chips washed down by cold pints of Addlestone’s.
Our next challenge was Braunston Tunnel, which was built in 1796 and is 2,042 yards (1,867m) of pitch blackness. The unexpected kink in the tunnel gave us a start and a scrape for the thankfully robust narrow boat.
The kink is the result in a mistake in direction by two different contractors when the tunnel was being built. This mistake that must have caused serious bother for boatmen in the old days. There is no towpath through the tunnel so prior to motorisation getting the canal boat through would have involved “legging”. This was when two men lay on a plank across the bow and propelled the boat forward with their feet against the wall of the tunnel.
We didn’t have to do any legging but we were all relieved to reach the end after 20 minutes in the dark! At last we emerged and arrived at the Braunston Junction marina – the crossroads of the Grand Union and Oxford canals. Right into the middle of the annual Historic Boat Rally (at the end of June) with hundreds of boats jostling for space in the canal.
Braunston has Georgian and Victorian buildings and the elegant white and black Thomas Telford cast iron bridge makes for a grand entrance to the marina.
We needed that entrance because we had to turn around. It felt a little like walking into a local pub where everyone turns around and stares as you enter the door. Fortunately they not only stared but offered advice and we eventually managed the manoeuvre.
Authentic working boats, lovingly preserved, take pride of place in the grand parade. There is live music, beer tents, craft displays, Morris dancing and tunnel legging demonstrations.
Britain’s canal network went into decline from the mid-19th century once the railways and later road vehicles came into play. But happily for us, leisure boating has become popular and many of the canals have been restored or even saved. A canal boat holiday is a wonderfully eccentric and relaxing way to see Britain.
By Natasha von Geldern
I booked my canal boat holiday with UK Boat Hire, members of DRIFTERS, a consortium of holiday boat companies who have bases throughout the UK.
Have you ever been on a canal boat holiday? Did you like it?