A rare opportunity
For the first time in many many years, we had no one coming to us for Christmas and no expectation that we would be with family or friends elsewhere for Christmas. So, despite the time of year, we took the radical step of hiring a narrow boat for Christmas Week.
We hired the boat from AngloWelsh – one of the larger and well established canal holiday companies. We have used them several times. This time we hired a boat from their Great Haywood base.
The instructions advised us to pick up the boat (so to speak) at around 3pm on the Saturday and return it by about 9am the following Saturday. Loading the car took a while as we needed to take more clothes and food than usual. This was to allow for bad/cold weather and the need to do most of the cooking on board as a lot of places would be closed or booked solid.
Sadly, when we got to the boat yard, they were surprised to see us. The head office had not sent details of our booking through. Oops. Lots of measures in place for the high season when all of the boats are being turned around but winter hirings are not common.
They rallied around and prepared a boat for us very quickly. They asked if we would mind taking out a better boat than the one we had booked on the grounds that it was closer to being ready for use and easier to extract. We had no objection of course.
You are not supposed to drive a boat in the dark but as we did not get underway until nearly 5pm and did not want to spend the night at the boat yard, they turned a blind eye as we took the boat just a short way along the canal heading towards Burton-upon-Trent.
Fortunately, my eldest daughter (now 17, and an excellent boat driver) has unusually good night. vision so it proved relatively easy to get out of the yard and around the corner.
We have often done the Four Counties Ring which takes in the boat yard we were starting from but as the days are shorter in winter and you need a decent sized crew to do the ring in a week, we going to do just a short run and turn around. The people at the yard suggested we head down towards Burton-on-Trent as that was not on the ring and thus unfamiliar to us.
We then found ourselves following the A38 very closely. Frankly, it was not the nicest of routes and we did not want to follow the road for any longer than we had to. Amongst other things, it made finding a nice mooring spot tricky (too noisy).
We made the decision to turn around around at the next opportunity and head up towards Stone.
There are not many places to turn around a 65+ foot boat but we did find one eventually.
On our way down to Burton-upon-Trent, we had stopped for a short time at Fragley Junction to take on water and decided to stay there for a night on the return trip. My brother joined us there.
The following night, Christmas Eve, we headed back up to Great Haywood but moored well away from the boat yard. My brother left us having been only able to spend one day with us.
On Christmas Day, we headed up to Stone and moored just before the first lock in the town for the night.
Boxing Day was taken up going through Stone to find a winding hole (turning point) above the topmost of the four locks the town features. When we got there, we found our canal map book was out of date as the winding hole was know a full boat yard. We headed on an found a new housing estate with a brand new (just large enough) winding hole a mile or so on. It took us all of the morning to get back to where we had started from in the morning.
We pressed on so that we could more just a few miles north of Great Haywood so that our final trip into the boat yard would be short. We did not have to return the boat until 1pm (usually 9am, but because of the delay when we started off and because of the season, they were happy for us to come back later than usual).
As it happened, we were moored up and off the boat on the Saturday morning well before 1pm but it was nice to have the time to spare in case we needed it.
Usually, when we are on holiday, I take on the cooking duties. It gives my better half a break and I enjoy it. Normally, I am working away during the week and am too tired at the weekends to cook.
Although I am a large chap, I seem to have a knack for coping with the small galleys the boats normally have. I have catered for large crews in the past with few difficulties.
Cooking for just four was not a hard task, although logistically challenging at times. We ate off the boat only one the entire holiday and that was just for some hot sandwiches on lunch-time at Fragley Junction (we had stopped to take on water around midday and the nice aroma got to us).
I did not cheat during the week. Everything was freshly cooked initially (I did use stuff left over from one meal as a base for a subsequent meal a couple of times but the food was completely different each day). On Christmas day, I went with a roast beef dinner – I did not trust the oven on the boat to do a turkey meal plus we like beef. It was, according to the rest of my family, a brilliant meal.
By any measure, choosing to take a narrow boat holiday at this time of year is crazy. We could have faced ice and snow, howling gales, freezing rain. Our gamble paid off though (we do not intend to push our luck and try this again): we had NO RAIN, no gales, no ice, no snow. It was very cold at times but the wind was mostly moderate. We were very lucky.
When we first started travelling on the canals, I usually did most of the driving. At four-foot-ten, my wife finds it very difficult to see over the boat well enough to drive safely. If we had our own boat, we would of course be able to provide a small platform to overcome this but this is not practical for hired boats.
On the last couple of trips, my eldest daughter has proved herself particularly adept at driving the boat. In many ways, she is better than me although I still need to step in to get out of certain tricky situations (but these instances are becoming more rare).
Unfortunately, we were all somewhat off colour on this trip – not because of the trip, simply because a lot of bugs have been going around and we have all been heavily exposed. My youngest was the first to fall ill but she also recovered (as she usually does) very quickly and she was able to run on ahead and set locks despite being ill. My eldest daughter drove the boat for the first few days fighting the lurgy as well as she could but finally succumbed.
My brother, who was with us for a day, had a brief spell at driving (he had done it before) but was himself recovering (slowly) from a bug and got too cold. He was able to stand by as a "responsible adult" as my younger daughter took to the helm. In fact, she ended up doing most of the driving at the end of the week as I started to suffer from ill health. What a bunch!
Despite all of us being ill during the trip, overall we enjoyed it a lot. A great break from the usual Christmas experience.
We did break with our boat traditions in one other way one day. On Christmas day, we turned the telly on and watched Doctor Who. Well, its not Christmas without that anymore.