We finished off September with an excellent holiday on the canal. Navigating the canals of the UK on a narrow boat has long been my favourite holiday, first instilled in me by a couple of teachers at my secondary school who were married and lived on the banks of a canal and who were daft enough to take a group of teenagers onto a boat for a week each year. I went several years running. After the first year, we took two boats and had boys and girls along (great fun) and one year, one of the boats was a Butty (no engine), which made for an interesting challenge. Our honeymoon was on a narrow boat as well!
Canal holidays are not cheap. It cost nearly £1500 to rent the boat, a 65’ (I would have prefered a longer boat, but we booked late). We could have bought cheap flights and plenty of half-catered accommodation in popular tourist spots for that, but it is not our thing. I have always found the canal holidays to be the most relaxing breaks of all.
As a fully qualified Nerd, it is surprising that I am happy to spend hours driving a boat, operating locks, and generally pottering around.
Fortunately, the rest of my family are really into it as well. In fact, my daughters, who, frankly, I though would not be interested in such a family holiday just before they head off to university life, were very keen on the idea and pushed me to book.
Originally, we were taking another couple with us, to spread the work-load and we were hoping our daughters could persuade their boyfriends to join us. We though the extra people could make a small contribution towards the hire cost (say £100 each). Unfortunately, we got the booking date messed up. I booked from a Friday to a Friday to, I thought, accommodate the additional couple (who could only join us for four days) but they thought it would be for the following Bank Holiday weekend. Oops. The boyfriends could not see any appeal of being stuck on a boat for a week (with the parents of the girlfriends).
We wanted the extra bodies as we had decided to do The Four Counties ring: 110 miles, about 55 hours cruising, 94 locks going through Shropshire, Staffordshire, Cheshire and the West Midlands. We have done it before, once with 10 teenage girls! Generally, it takes a week and you need to be averaging 8 hours a day. Max speed for a boat is 4mph and, for route planning purposes, you talk about lock-miles as it takes roughly as much time to get through a lock as it does to travel a mile. Flights of locks can be a lot quicker or slower depending on how busy the flights are and how good your crew is. There is also the 3000 yard Harecastle tunnel on the route, which has convoy navigation one way alternating traffic and set opening hours.
As we had plenty of spare capacity, we thought it would be a good idea to see if Lucy’s parents would be able to join us at all. Although well into the OAP stage of life, they are both very active and like a challenge. They had taken their family on a canal holiday when their kids were young, and all had thoroughly enjoyed it, but they had never done it a second time although had always intended to at some point. Owing to other commitments (they are even busier in retirement than there ever were before), they were only able to join us for a few days (Sunday – Wednesday). This meant we had to agree pick-up and drop-off points. They left their car at our home, and got a taxi we had booked to take them to a nearby canal junction that we aimed to meet them at on the Sunday. We also arranged with my brother to pick them up Tuesday evening (location roughly agreed) which later switched to Wednesday morning.
The day before we went off on holiday, Alexandra received her A level results, and did not get into her preferred university. She went through clearing and accepted a place at Hull. Whilst the start date was just a few weeks ago, Lucy and I decided that it would be good to visit Hull and they happened to have an open day (for clearing students) on the last day of our holiday, so we decided to return our boat a day early.
So, we took on the Four Counties ring, with a crew of just four plus two OAPs joining us for a couple of days, with some specific times and locations to hit for pick-up and drop-off our our guests, and a day shorted than recommended. Gulp! Good job we had done this many times.
The boat was hired from AngloWelsh – company we have used several times – and we started from their Great Haywood base in Staffordshire.
For the first time, we decided not to take dogs with us, and booked them into kennels. Our older dog Tag has been travelling with us for many years on canal holidays and loves them and behaves brilliantly; our last holiday had our second dog, Kich, along as well for the first time and he was just too excitable and was a PITA. We did not want to separate them, so we thought it best to send both of them to doggie-lockup for a while.
We picked the boat up Friday afternoon and headed out quickly clock-wise as we had to get to Norbury Junction for the Sunday. We only went for a few hours and moored up outside of Stafford and wandered off for a meal in a steakhouse. We do not go to the pub much on our canal holidays (others choose to do a bit of a pub crawl) or eat out anywhere else. I generally do nearly all of the main meals, and this was no exception. That first night though, we were all pretty tired, me from work and travelling back from Swansea the day before and the others from the experience of working through the University clearance process. Norbury was not far away anyway, so we were not under time pressure particularly (although we would be later, having to make up for the relatively slow start).
Peter and Pam met us at Norbury junction on time. We were about 10 minutes late, which is unusually good time keeping on the canal. They had been a little early and had enjoy light refreshments at a canal side shop and tea room.
It turned out that both of them really wanted to work hard, and Peter took to the boat driving with ease. That meant we had four drivers, with Peter, myself, Zoë” and Alexandra all happy to do it for as long as required. On the last few holdays, Zoë” did most of the driving whereas I had used to do most of this when the kids were too young. Lucy never liked the driving and had not done any for years. I think it was probably a height thing as she is a good car driver. Both of our daughters are a good deal taller than their mother.
The canals were short of water, and pretty shallow in places so at times the driving was tricky. You had to stay in mid-channel to avoid grounding, and when passing other boats coming the other way, you chose your passing places carefully. There are some stretches that are very narrow and can only take one boat anyway, and you have to do some nifty maneuvers to position long boats in tight passing places (and hire boats never feature the bow thrusters that many private boats have to make some maneuvers a lot easier). With the water shallow, there were also some stretches that boats can normally pass each other easily on but not this year. At one such point just after getting through the flight of locks in Market Drayton, Peter had to reverse the boat mid-channel for a while and hit something low in the water that we would have normally floated over, and this damaged the rudder.
It was a Sunday afternoon, and we had to moor up and wait for help which arrived around 10am the following morning. Fortunately, the rudder had only been knocked out of the “cup” it rests in. Apparently, this boat’s cup was rather shallow and the rudder had been knocked out of place a few times. Usually, it was easy for someone experienced to pop the rudder back into place, every now and then, it was tricky. Naturally, we suffered a tricky moment.
We set off late morning on Monday, now with time really against us. Good job the days were still reasonably long. We did some calculations and realised we would have to keep the pace up, not stop for breaks (eat at the tiller, or in shifts) and drive the boat for long hours with an early start on Tuesday morning. We also had to make sure we got the Harecastle Tunnel by mid-afternoon when the last convey left on Wednesday.
Pam, who, like my wife, is a very short woman, struggled somewhat in the few jobs she did in the galley (kitchen). She could not understand how I, at 6’2” and very wide could cope extraordinarily well. Neither do it, but I do and always have. In a space I could not cope with in a house, I feel absolutely fine and produce some, even if I do say so myself, excellent and pretty complex meals.
Most of the time though Pam wanted to be off boat working the locks. I also enjoy working the locks so was often on the side. There were times though when I had to stay on board in case the boat ran aground in the ponds (water between locks in a flight of locks) as it really needs two people then to free a boat (one to drive, one to push off, perhaps with a pole. or to rock the boat) How those people who navigate the canals on their own or just in couples cope so well, I have no idea.
There were a few locks where crews from other boats were clearly mystified to see me standing by a gate not helping the short old woman who was clearly straining with all her might to open a gate. They must have thought I was forcing her to do the work. In fact, Pam insisted that she did some gates without any brute-force help from me. Funny.
A couple of the locks around Stoke-on-Trent had padlocks on them to reduce vandalism (opening paddles at both ends, so water runs through the levels). Keys were provided on the boats, but it was a hassle that cost us time. Shame.
We made great time and were able to moor just a couple of locks and a short run from the Tunnel on Tuesday evening so we could go through first thing in the morning.
No one else was ahead of us when we reached the tunnel, which was due to open at 8am. The tunnel officials decide which side goes through first, and we were told there had been someone moored the other side the night before, so they would go through first, and we would go through at 9am. We settled down to some breakfast. Then, just as I started to eat my egg-and-beans on toast, we were told there had been a change of plan, and we would be going through first.
Zoë” the best driver, especially when accuracy and delicacy are required, started us off as the entrance was a bit tricky (water low, and started from the wrong angle) and then Alexandra took over and navigated us through the tunnel with her Grandfather at her side, and the rest of us at the front with my Mother-in-Law less than impressed by my singing and general noise making. There were a few boats in convoy behind us, but going much more slowly.
Peter and Pam had originally planned to leave us on Tuesday evening, but they were enjoying themselves so much and so wanted to experience the tunnel, that new arrangements were made. I got a little frustrated with my brother though, who seemed to have a different view of how far we could get to the rest of us. We arrived at the drop-off point rather later than planned (15 minutes out, maybe). Again, pretty good for the canal. Our guests had worked very hard, fitted in without any problems and were clearly very sad to have to leave us. Peter subsequently hand-made from scrap wood some excellent models of the narrow boat for girls and one of his other grandchildren. The rudders looked more sound the one he had knocked from its cup on our hire boat.
We did a quick shop after our guests had left, and got underway again. For the first time, the weather turned sour and there was a very very heavy downpour. We were soaked. We moored for an earlier night.
The boat was due for return before 9am on Friday morning. We turned up at the boat yard on Thursday morning and Zoë” backed us into the yard brilliantly with no help from the yard crew, one of whom asked how far we had got and was astounded when we said we had completed the ring and were returning the boat a day early. He was even more stunned when he realised we were the boat that had been delayed with rudder problems.
It was a great holiday, a brilliant break, and a wonderful family experience. I know Peter and Pam were impressed with how well we worked together as a family. I was impressed by how fit and healthy they were and how hard they worked. I doubt we will have another family holiday like this. But who knows.
I have my brother to thank for planting the idea of this holiday though. Having not been on the canal for a few years, he surprised me with a birthday treat of a day on the canal for Lucy and me with him and his girlfriend (and lots of other people on the same tour) through the Dudley tunnel. I enjoyed it so much, I started talking about having a holiday on the canal again. Well done that man.