It’s amazing what there is to see by boat
We were chatting with friends the other day about places to go for a weekend away. They’re a well travelled couple and had plenty of ideas. They thought Edinburgh a good choice for us; we haven’t been there for many years and our friends gave it rave reviews.
In response I suggested Birmingham for them. The new library, the shops, the canals, the Jewellery Quarter and, not least, the curry. It’s one of our favourite cities. But it’s one they’ve never contemplated visiting. And if it hadn’t been for boating, I doubt I would have got any further than the Balti Triangle in the evening after a day at the NEC.
Boating takes you to towns and cities that few people would trouble to visit by car. Those places that are merely names on a map or a motorway signpost as they drive between cities or tourist hotspots: Stourbridge, Lincoln, Gloucester, Burnley. And in through the back door, too, past scrappy factories and cheek-by-jowl houses in a way old trains can replicate.
And when you investigate on Wikipaedia or at the local tourist office, you find all sorts of strange aspects of these quiet towns. Few places are as dull underneath as they might appear on the surface. This is England, after all, where followers of Miss Marple will know that every little village has its secrets. We were moored up not long back in a town that had a pyramid, a public school that was actually a shopping mall, its own hydro-electric plant…. and the Garden of Eden. No, not a Greek restaurant, the real Garden. Allegedly.
It is a town I had never visited before, possibly not even passed through in a car, and certainly one I would never have planned to visit had I not arrived here on a boat. It was Bedford, the town at the end of the line for anyone cruising up the Great Ouse.
Bedford’s pyramid is the Oasis swimming pool and anyone who has boated this way will have seen it from the river. The public school is the old Bedford Modern School, now the frontage for the town’s shopping mall, which we found when out shopping and the hydro-electric plant I came upon when walking the dog in the town’s riverside park. I won’t spoil the tale of the Garden of Eden for you: the weirdness of the story of Mrs Mabel Barltrop and her commune makes Monty Python’s Life ofBrian seem like a Panorama documentary.
I’d been round and round the many roundabouts of Milton Keynes by car a great many times but never explored the now not so new town itself until we moored by the glorious Campbell Park and discovered a wealth of walks, things to see and even a ‘tree cathedral’.
Way oop north in charming little Ripon, at the north western extremity of the system, we met the Ripon Hornblower as he blew the nightly curfew and entertained the little crowd (many of us boaters) with his tales. And in the town of Walsall, we visited the fabulous modern art gallery. Now tell me, who but a boater would think of a day out in Walsall? Even the most apparently charmless places can have their moments.
The wonderfully old fashioned country town of Devizes on the Kennet & Avon I doubt I would have troubled to leave the M4 to visit had I been in a car, but its fine buildings, massive market and air of a town where life runs at a more tranquil pace now have a special place in my memories.
England’s towns and cities are at the heart of its history with their very different backgrounds in agriculture, engineering, coal, manufacturing and trade. Travelling the canals through Sheffield, Bristol, Nottingham, Liverpool, Manchester and the like, I think I have learned more about our country than I ever did at school.
And though I’m quite happy to take a diversion by rail up to Edinburgh, I shall be more than content to resume my boating exploration when I get back again.
‘Who but a boater would think of a day out in Walsall? Even the most apparently charmless places can have their moments’