Canal boating has been a life-long dream of mine. (Well, ever since I learned it was a thing about two months ago!). We were hiking in Llangollen, Wales, alongside a canal, when we spotted long, narrow boats that were like RVs but on water. Holy crap, did I want in!
Apparently the U.K. has around 2,200 miles of canals, most of which were built during the Industrial Revolution for the purpose of transporting goods like coal. Many were built with a towpath alongside so that horses could pull the cargo. During the 19th century many were abandoned, as railroads became a more popular means of transport. Today the canals are mostly used for recreation.
We had no idea what we were doing, or how to do it, but we were in England with some extra time, so we knew we had to try. Canal boats are the definition of slow travel, with a maximum speed of about 4 mph. So although you can navigate throughout much of England and Wales using the canal system, it takes a long time to get anywhere. We therefore had to choose the canal wisely. Because we were in the Birmingham area, wanted a quiet holiday in the countryside, and preferred not to navigate locks to keep things simple, we chose the Ashby Canal.
Unfortunately it was last minute, and no boats were available. Hubby called a rental company just in case, and it was our lucky day….. Literally at that moment a rather large couple with four large dogs had rented a rather small boat (okay they’re ALL small, but this one was one of the smallest). Since they couldn’t fit on the boat, it was ours. Jackpot!
The morning we picked up the boat, we were shown the basics: How to turn it on and off. How to turn (boat steering is counter intuitive, turning the opposite way they’re steered). How to work the hot water. How to work the heat (apparently if you turn on the heat but forget to press a certain button, the boat will blow up!). How to turn on the stove. How to moor. Thankfully the boat held enough water to last us the week, and the wastewater tank was large enough that, unless we had major gastrointestinal distress, we didn’t need to mess with dumping it. Easy enough.
And we were off!
Canal boats are less than seven feet wide (thus the term narrowboat), and the canals themselves aren’t much wider than the boat in some places, like under bridges and on aqueducts. As a result, Hubby hit the sides a few times the first day, but at 4mph and in a steel frame it doesn’t cause much damage.
But what to do when you meet another boat coming your way? The Brits already have a system in place for these situations, as many of their country roads are only one lane wide. The person closest to the one-lane road has the right-of-way. And fortunately, Brits are also very polite, especially when they realize you really don’t know what you’re doing! (But yes, Hubby also hit a few boats.)
After a while he figured it out and got quite good at it. Time for me to have a beer and relax on the front!
And then came the pirates. I kid you not. We heard them before we saw them, as they were singing/shouting sea shanties at the top of their lungs. After turning the corner we saw their narrowboat, positioned to take up the entire width of the canal so that no one could pass. There must have been two dozen men, dressed as pirates (again, not making this up), swinging beer in the air and singing. I shrunk into the cabin, as we had recently been to parts of the world where there are actual real pirates. As Hubby maneuvered our boat in an attempt to get by, I peeked out of the curtains at the sober (designated?) driver at the rear. He must’ve seen my worried expression, and asked if I was okay. Oh, the Brits and their stag and hen parties. Next thing I knew the groom-to-be, totally shit-faced, was passing us beers. All was good.
At the end of the first day it was time to moor, so we found a quiet, wooded spot, and Hubby drove close to the canal edge for me to jump off with the rope. I pulled with all my might to get the boat close to the edge, but it was too shallow. We were going to have to find another place to moor. Unfortunately, Hubby couldn’t get close enough to the edge again for me to get back on the barge, so I found myself walking next to the boat for over a half mile until I could successfully jump back on. Lesson learned!
The next few days were wonderful. Quiet. Relaxing. Our biggest problem came when we needed to hit a grocery store, and the closest one was over a mile from the canal. So we had to walk, carrying a week’s worth of food and beer, in the hot sun. Oh, and the night a hungry swan held me hostage inside the cabin.
About five days in, friends of ours joined us for a night on the boat. We ate, and drank, and played games. We were in such a beautiful part of the English countryside that a hike seemed like the perfect pre-dinner activity. We moored and walked along the canal for a while, and crossed a pedestrian bridge to follow the path into the forest. But then the path disappeared. It was dusk, and the forest was nearly impenetrable, with a thick, thorny understory. It felt a little Blair Witch. We absolutely couldn’t find a path, and it was getting dark. Hubby picked the worst day to wear shorts. I forged ahead of the pack to see what I could find, eventually finding a break in the trees leading to the canal. I could see our boat! Of course it was still about a half mile ahead, and on the other side of the canal. I yelled to Hubby and friends, but they were too far back to hear me.
And then I saw it…. A boat was heading our way! I jumped at the chance, yelling and waving like a mad woman to the lovely elderly couple enjoying their quiet time on the canal. The driver seemed surprised to see me, but headed my way nonetheless. I explained our predicament, and got a good chuckle in response. What else did I expect? When Hubby and friends finally arrived we all jumped on our saviors’ boat, and a few minutes later we were relieved to be dropped off at our boat. Crisis averted. Time for a beer.
The rest of our time on the canal was uneventful, in a good way. Life moved more slowly. Simply. Peacefully. The boat rocked us to sleep at night and the sun woke us up in the morning. We enjoyed the outdoors, finding interesting hikes and drinking beer on the deck. Everything we needed was on the boat, moving at 4mph through the English countryside.
The morning we returned the boat I was disappointed, not ready for it to be over. But it was definitely time to dump the wastewater, if you know what I mean….