It’s amaz­ing what there is to see by boat

Canal Boat - - Me & My Boats -

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’

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