We like a bit of adventure boating...
Imet some old journalistic mates for lunch recently. None of them had much of a clue about canals so I found myself doing an impromptu selling job.
Once we’d got past the first question – it’s always the first question in winter time – “aren’t you cold on a boat?” I realised that trying to explain my enthusiasm for narrowboating was making me think harder about exactly why I did enjoy it so much. (Sometimes when you’re happy doing something you’re too busy enjoying yourself to think precisely why you are getting you the buzz you feel.)
Like all of you, I love the travelling, the misty mornings, the pubs, the scenery, the sunsets, the chats at locks and all of that. But what I really enjoy is that canal boating is a kind of gentle adventure.
And, from time to time, there’s a frisson of excitement, a hint of risk, a bit of physical struggle. At the time it doesn’t always seem terribly enjoyable. When we were being pushed backwards up the tidal Great Ouse by the incoming stream after I misjudged my turn into Salter’s Lode, I was downright scared but now it’s a good story to recount over a pint.
It doesn’t have to be quite so extreme either. When you helm a boat with a 3ft draught around the system, as we do, there are plenty of occasions when you experience quite enough mini-adventures to keep anyone short of a Yup, the phone went in the Thames... a tow on the Nene, and inside Gosty Tunnel adrenalin sports enthusiast content.
We had our fair share when we tackled the Llangollen. Britain’s most popular canal is ‘officially’ a shallow one, an excuse the Canal & River Trust can always fall back on if a deep boat like ours gets into trouble. All the same, working boats have made it all the way so we weren’t too worried.
We had reached halfway without problems then I had to man-haul the boat through the (fortunately short) Ellesmere Tunnel as the going was so sticky. After a few more sticky stretches we met one that was pure Superglue and ground to terminal stop. I phoned CRT who said: “It’s been raining a lot so we ran off an inch of water into the reservoir”. Hmm. An inch? More like four of them I reckon.
So we gave up – the first time we’ve ever retreated in the face of a canal enemy. But even the retreat was a bit Napoléon and Moscow: we had to reverse for nearly a mile before we found a spot to turn round.
We trudged back through the silt like Napoléon’s beaten troops and into the Ellesmere Tunnel once more. Where we got hopelessly and completely stuck once more at the exit. It’s is known to be a shallow spot and, therefore, has never been dredged. Mass pulling on ropes by passers-by failed to shift us and only when another boat managed to squeeze past us – with more pulling and shoving – could he finally drag us free.
A couple of miles later we suddenly ground to a halt again in the middle of a wide, open stretch of canal. Yards from the bank. With no-one about. Eventually three or four hefty types arrived, hauled on ropes and finally we were away again – until we ground to a halt once more in mid-stream. By now it was dark so we stayed stuck, had dinner and drowned our sorrows.
It’s always been this way. Our first ever trip in our old boat Star set the tone. That saw us boating through snow and frozen canals on a tight schedule to beat the closures. As the ice closed in around us and the snow deepened we crunched on, scrambled across frozen locks and leapt on to snow covered banks. Quite, quite mad.
And if it’s not extremes of weather, it’s extremes of waterway, from crossing The Wash to the infamously slow, tight Gosty Hill Tunnel where it takes an hour to do a mile. Fun? Not always but certainly challenging, adventurous, and, ultimately, memorable. Not everyone’s cup of tea but that’s our sort of boating.
‘We ground to a halt again mid-stream. By now it was dark so we stayed stuck, had dinner and drowned our sorrows’