Put off boat­ing by the cold weather? Don’t be as this story shows you can bag a bar­gain and have a spe­cial trip at a much qui­eter time


Don’t be put off hir­ing a boat at this time of year – you could get a bar­gain and it’s lovely and quiet

The nights are long, days grey and of­ten sun­less, rain car­ries tiny droplets of ice and the cold seems to creep into ev­ery gap and open­ing. The last thing many peo­ple are think­ing of is hir­ing a canal boat for the week. And that is ex­actly the rea­son we thought it would be the per­fect time.

Hav­ing taken a cou­ple of week-long hol­i­days with fam­ily in the height of sum­mer, my part­ner, Mo, and I were keen to sam­ple the life again. In win­ter there are spe­cial deals to be had if you’re happy to ar­range some­thing just a few days be­fore the hol­i­day. An evening on the phone and we had set­tled up with Nor­bury Wharf, on the Shrop­shire Union Canal, to take Phoenix, a four-berth lux­ury nar­row­boat with a solid fuel stove, for a very rea­son­able dis­count. We packed for win­ter con­di­tions, tak­ing hot wa­ter bot­tles, fleece blan­kets and our thick­est jack­ets, hats and socks. The list of food in­cluded plenty of cans of soup and sup­plies for hot drinks. Keen to use the fire, we also took a bag of coal, sticks and fire­lighters.

Ap­proach­ing Nor­bury Junc­tion and the wharf we were al­ready be­ing pre­pared for the week of calm that lay ahead. A sin­gle track coun­try lane led us from the main road, punc­tu­ated by large, old red brick houses. Sud­denly you ar­rive, fac­ing the canal dock, boats lined up against the side with their pretty painted doors open and the sound of idling en­gines.

There is no hurry on the canal, es­pe­cially dur­ing win­ter. That at­mos­phere sur­rounds you from the mo­ment you ar­rive at the dock to col­lect your boat. Of course, I was eager to

‘As the min­utes passed we could al­most feel our heart­beats slow­ing down to match the tran­quil­lity of the world we now in­hab­ited’

board, to load our bags, to set the ket­tle on the stove, for our hol­i­day to be un­der­way but it was ob­vi­ous this is no place for rush­ing.

We bought a Canal Com­pan­ion guide for the Four Coun­ties Ring, full of the es­sen­tial in­for­ma­tion re­quired to plan a trip on the wa­ter. Once loaded up and the car safely parked for the week, we were shown the ropes, lit­er­ally, and asked if we’d like as­sis­tance to depart. Pre­fer­ring to re­gain our skills on a straight, we opted for help out of the yard.

The first thing we re­gret­ted was not tak­ing sun­glasses. Chug­ging slowly out of the wharf and into the af­ter­noon sun­shine, we were blinded by its bril­liant re­flec­tion on the still wa­ter ahead. Within min­utes we were on our own, Mo pulling the brim of his hat low over his eyes to gain some vis­i­bil­ity. We aimed to go just as far as the Hart­ley Arms at Wheaton As­ton, en­joy­ing the lock-free sec­tion to gaze at the views as they slid past and re­mind our­selves of the gen­tle touch re­quired to keep the boat steadily push­ing for­ward down the deeper mid­dle part of the canal.

As the min­utes passed we could al­most feel our heart­beats slow­ing down to match the tran­quil­lity and calm of the world we now in­hab­ited. The sound of the gen­tly lap­ping wa­ter. The in­quis­i­tive quack­ing of pass­ing ducks. Work and all our cares trick­led away with the gur­gling wa­ter. The short, cold im­mer­sion in Cow­ley Tun­nel was like a gate­way be­tween our usual life and this week of care­free si­lence.

Un­der the trees of Cham­ber­lain’s Covert, a bright blue king­fisher darted along­side us for a stretch, eye­ing the wa­ter in­tently and fi­nally drop­ping like a stone into the murky swell, ap­pear­ing a sec­ond later with a fish trapped in his beak. His lin­ger­ing on the branch, so close as to al­most touch as we passed, felt like a thank you.

We moored up out­side the Hart­ley Arms and set about light­ing the fire.

Phoenix has gas-fired cen­tral heat­ing which was keep­ing it very com­fort­able but we both knew that such a lux­ury would soon mean the pur­chase of an­other gas bot­tle if we used it con­tin­u­ously, so once the fire was lit, off went the heat­ing.

The stove pro­vided am­ple heat for the size of the boat and kept us toasty all night. In keep­ing with our re­laxed hol­i­day at­ti­tude, we opted for din­ner at the pub. When we ar­rived it was packed but the land­lord made us a new ta­ble as if noth­ing was too much trou­ble.

The next day pro­vided an­other re­lax­ing and prac­ti­cally lock-free ride up the ‘pound’, tak­ing a left at Auther­ley Junc­tion, on through the nar­rows at Pen­de­ford Rockin’ and end­ing up at Gai­ley Lock with its dis­tinc­tive red brick round­house.

It felt as if the canals were our own. We only saw five other boats mov­ing about and one of those was the coal man

do­ing his de­liv­er­ies. Mo’s driv­ing skills had quickly re­turned and he was now the undis­puted Cap­tain of our ves­sel, deftly slip­ping un­der im­pos­si­bly tight look­ing bridges and eas­ily hold­ing a straight line against the wa­ter’s flow. We mar­velled at the ex­pert brick­work arches as we slid through, not­ing the deep grooves on the rounded cast iron corner pro­tec­tors, where the ropes of thou­sands of pass­ing horse-drawn barges have worn their mark in his­tory.

As a re­minder of life con­tin­u­ing with­out us, the M6 runs for a short time ad­ja­cent to the canal, pass­ing over just af­ter Penkridge. When we first saw the mo­tor­way, the traf­fic was at a stand­still; lor­ries and cars sta­tion­ary on the tar­mac. We laughed to our­selves that the boat was mov­ing faster than them and won­dered how many times we have been hurtling along that stretch of road, obliv­i­ous to the peace­ful world just a field’s dis­tance away.

The week con­tin­ued in a sim­i­lar fash­ion, the won­der of the au­tumn sights of the canal keep­ing us en­ter­tained and oc­cu­pied. Tix­all Wide and the evoca­tive Tix­all Gatehouse and farm had us imag­ing days gone by, when es­tate own­ers were so wealthy and in­flu­en­tial that the canal builders were re­quired to al­ter their plans to en­sure the view from Tix­all Hall was not ‘ru­ined’. In 1771, Tix­all Wide was de­signed to turn the canal into a lake and the beauty of this spot as you round the corner quite takes your breath away.

Re-built in 1555, and again in 1785, Tix­all Hall it­self is long gone al­though, in­trigu­ingly, there doesn’t seem to be any well known rea­son for its de­mo­li­tion in 1927. The eye-catch­ing gatehouse re­mains and, al­most out of sight of the wa­ter, the coach houses, built in 1785 and trans­formed into homes in the 1970s.

By Tues­day we had reached Hay­wood Junc­tion and de­cided to turn around here and spend the morn­ing ex­plor­ing Great Hay­wood. Just across the lit­tle bridge from the canal is the Shug­bor­ough Hall and County Mu­seum. The tea­room at Hay­wood lock serves hot meals at very rea­son­able price. Af­ter our mooch about the town, we re­turned to Tix­all Wide for lunch and to en­joy the view for a sec­ond time, no less im­pres­sive on the re­turn jour­ney. We con­tin­ued to Ac­ton Trus­sell to stop for the night out­side The Moat House ho­tel.

At first we were a bit dis­ap­pointed to have to re­turn the same way we’d come in­stead of hav­ing time to travel the whole way around the Four Coun­ties Ring, but, in fact, the Cap­tain has a 90° view when at the helm, for­ward and to the right and, there­fore, the op­po­site view on the re­turn.

We hop-scotched the places we’d al­ready vis­ited on foot to take in other places we’d passed by the first time round. We stopped at Penkridge again for the Wed­nes­day market and loaded up with freshly made cakes and some steak and ale pies.

I found some thick ther­mal socks and a pair of work­man’s gloves with fleecy lin­ing. In the in­creas­ingly cold tem­per­a­tures, I had so far been liv­ing in the only thick­est pair of socks I had. It was a de­light to pull on a fresh new pair of equal cosi­ness. Most of the towns along the canal are an­cient and

pic­turesque and

worth the short walk from the canal­side to look around. Coven’s treat is Coven Farm, a beau­ti­ful tim­ber-framed house with 1600 painted on the side of the old barn build­ings.

Bre­wood, with its sig­na­ture red sand­stone church and im­pres­sively tall spire, is packed full of lovely old, un­usual prop­er­ties, in­clud­ing Speed­well Cas­tle, not re­ally a cas­tle but a Gothic fan­tasy built in the 1780s, ap­par­ently af­ter a win on a horse with the same name. Ev­ery street is a pho­tog­ra­pher’s dream, a squeeze for cars to pass each other and packed with the sort of homes the Na­tional Trust would wel­come on its books.

The bit­terly cold air made it no sur­prise when a sprin­kling of snow ap­peared on Fri­day morn­ing. We had been spared the amount ex­pe­ri­enced by ar­eas very close by but un­less the sun­shine fell di­rectly on the snow, it showed no sign of melt­ing. The canal’s ro­man­tic ap­peal in­creased in the frosty air, with smoke from the fires trail­ing lazily up­wards, ac­cen­tu­ated by the morn­ing sun.

The at­trac­tive Stret­ton Aqueduct took us over the A5, or­nate iron rail­ings and round stone pil­lars pre­sent­ing an in­con­gru­ous sight sur­rounded now by agri­cul­tural land. Be­fore long we were back at Cow­ley Tun­nel, the ap­proach look­ing quite Juras­sic, cov­ered with ferns, moss, trail­ing plants and one spiky bram­ble ten­ta­cle hang­ing at face height in the en­trance as if wait­ing to strike.

TV re­cep­tion any­where on the canal is in­fu­ri­at­ingly patchy. Most nights we were de­nied our usual fare of re­al­ity TV or stand-up com­edy. I had come pre­pared and sank into my mag­a­zines and books, brought with this even­tu­al­ity in mind.

Even with our lim­ited bud­get, we still had enough for a few meals out and I was keen to find out the story be­hind The Boat Inn at Gnos­all, men­tioned in Stu­art Fisher’s Canal­sofBri­tain as ‘the haunted Boat Inn which is lo­cated in for­mer sta­bles and has a curved wall’. On ar­rival at the pub there was the said curved wall but none of the sin­is­ter vibe I had been hop­ing for. In­stead the at­mos­phere was warm and wel­com­ing un­der a low, oak beamed ceil­ing, dec­o­rated with a most im­pres­sive col­lec­tion of Toby Jugs.

Wak­ing up on the last morn­ing, the boats, trees and tow­path had been painted with glit­ter­ing crys­tals of ice. The ropes were al­most too frozen to pull out the knots but worked free af­ter a bit of vig­or­ous per­sua­sion. We were the only boat mov­ing, as it had been for most of the week. With the ris­ing sun on our backs we made the five miles back to Nor­bury as slowly as we could, breath­ing in the crisp air, soak­ing up the view, lis­ten­ing to the crack­ing ice, savour­ing ev­ery mo­ment and know­ing, al­though it would be our last day afloat for a while, that we would def­i­nitely re­turn.

Back home, the rooms of our house seem point­lessly large and chilly. I long for my minia­ture wa­ter­borne dwelling. I have no doubt it won’t be long be­fore we again lis­ten to our hearts and swap walls for a hull.

‘We were spared the amount ar­eas close by ex­pe­ri­enced but, un­less the sun fell di­rectly on the snow, it showed no sign of melt­ing’

Dressed for the cooler weather

Tal­bot’s Wharf through the front doors

And Cai came too

Tix­all Lock and bridge Where are all the boats?

A dust­ing of ice at High Onn and, be­low, Speed­well Cas­tle

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