Set sail and drift away from the stresses of life

Joins his ex­tended fam­ily on a week-long trip along the canals in a nar­row­boat

Macclesfield Express - - TRAVEL -

I WAS stand­ing on a tow­path look­ing at our new home for the week and feel­ing ap­pre­hen­sive.

As my re­main­ing foot left solid ground and cau­tiously stepped on board a 65ft, six-berth nar­row boat, called The Ellesmere Nav­i­ga­tor, I won­dered had I bit­ten off more than I could chew?

I strug­gle to park my car on my street. This ves­sel was as long as my street.

Thank­fully my ‘crew’ (fam­ily) was there for sup­port.

This was my first hol­i­day with my brothers and sis­ters for many years.

It was a great chance to spend time with them. To see if blood re­ally is thicker than wa­ter.

Would we drive each other mad? Maybe one of us would get cabin fever and walk the plank.

But back to that boat that is rock­ing gen­tly in the wa­ter as we hold on to what­ever we can get a grip on in this un­fa­mil­iar en­vi­ron­ment.

I have ques­tions and, thank­fully, there is some­one on board with an­swers. Where are the brakes? “The boats don’t have brakes,” said for­mer RAF para­medic Greg, the owner of Mid­dlewich Nar­row­boats. “Put the en­gine in re­verse to stop.”

“Move the tiller right if you want to go left, move it left if you want to go right.” It was all a bit con­fus­ing.

My ex­cited six-year-old niece Francesca, who was jump­ing up and down on the deck, sud­denly went still. A con­cerned look flashed across her face, as she asked: “Would the boat sink?”

“None of my boats have sunk so far,” said Greg.

My older sis­ter, Lucy, a Lon­don li­brar­ian, poked her head through a hatch to ask Greg how to switch on the ra­di­a­tors. My younger sis­ter, Sylvia, a teacher from North Lon­don, was keep­ing a close eye on Francesca and in­sist­ing she wears a life­jacket.

We would be com­fort­able, the boat had two bath­rooms and a kitchen din­ing room with TV/DVD player. It came with all the mod cons.

The boat feels like a ho­tel with clean bed­ding, a pile of tow­els and a bag of toi­letries pro­vided for each pas­sen­ger. Maybe my feel­ings of ap­pre­hen­sion about this trip were mag­ni­fied by a loom­ing land­mark on my own hori­zon as I made my own jour­ney me­an­der­ing through middle age, rather than any con­cerns about this cruise through middle Eng­land.

My 50th birth­day was days away and, if I’m hon­est, 50 sounds old be­cause it is old. You qual­ify for Saga hol­i­days.

A trip on the Nav­i­ga­tor might help me find my bear­ings.

There would be days of calm, but would there be any choppy wa­ters ahead?

Look­ing back, the years had flown by at an ac­cel­er­at­ing rate.

I needed to slow things down. We wouldn’t be go­ing any­where fast with a speed limit of 4mph on the canals.

Dur­ing the next few days we ex­plored some of the 200 miles of wa­ter­ways that make up the Four Coun­ties Ring.

The stretch of canal be­tween Mid­dlewich and Bar­bridge is a lovely in­tro­duc­tion to the hol­i­day. The coun­try­side is un­spoilt, free from de­vel­op­ment. We are only a few miles away from city life and civil­i­sa­tion but it feels a world away.

We headed for the Llan­gollen Canal with the aim of vis­it­ing the Pont­cy­syllte Aqueduct, a World Her­itage Site, known as the ‘stream in the sky’. There are 18 piers 126ft high and 19 arches, each with a 45ft span.

But we had to change our plans when we stopped off at Wren­bury Ma­rina to re­stock on sup­plies and re­fill the 200 litre wa­ter tank.

Some of the locks were closed for re­pairs and we had to rechart our route, which we did over a cooked break­fast in the The Dusty Miller pub.

We had plenty of crashes, drove the boat into bushes and once my older brother, An­drew, from Brix­ton, man­aged to pro­voke the most tem­per­ate look­ing man into a fit of canal rage.

An­drew took his hand off the tiller for a minute to text one of his pals. He spends more time on so­cial me­dia than my 12-year-old daugh­ter, Mia. And she’s on it all the time.

“STOP! STOP! STOP” the owner of the boat was shout­ing, his face con­tort­ing into a most un­tran­quil-like shape as The Nav­i­ga­tor con­tin­ued its in­evitable course to­wards the side of his boat.

An­drew put the en­gine full throt­tle into re­verse. It was too late.

“In­com­ing,” bel­lowed the un­happy chap­pie sec­onds be­fore the crash.

Thank­fully, the boats are built to with­stand some heavy­weight col­li­sions and his an­gry faces soon re­turned to a calm­ness to match the still wa­ters.

The canals and locks date back to the 18th cen­tury. Funny to think that was the cut­ting edge tech­nol­ogy of the day. Locks are used to go up or go down.

We worked as a team to get through them: Two on board, two on the tow­path. We were ex­hausted af­ter our boat ‘climbed’ up a flight of locks called the Ban­bury Stair­case.

There’s some re­lief when the huge wooden doors of the locks open and you con­tinue your jour­ney.

Most days, one or two of us would hop off the boat to have a walk or bike ride along the tow­path.

Lucy said she had not slept so well in years. “I thought it would be re­lax­ing and it was, but in a dif­fer­ent way than I ex­pected. It’s ac­tu­ally one of the most ac­tive hol­i­days I’ve had,” she said.

“You are inevitably out­doors most of the day – watch­ing the scenery float­ing by from the front of the barge or walk­ing along the banks with bursts of ac­tiv­ity at each lock.

“You think you will be on top of each other but some­how each area feels sep­a­rate, with clos­ing doors be­tween the bed­rooms.”

Francesca was in­spired to write po­etry about her time on board. “The barge is silent as it qui­etly slides through the wa­ter, bushes brush­ing against the win­dow, Left, right, you rock.”

For some, the canals rep­re­sent a time when peo­ple were a lit­tle friend­lier, when the world seemed a warmer place.

Mark, a re­tired HGV driver who was en­joy­ing a break with his wife Georgina on his boat, Far­ley’s Choice, was moored up near Ch­ester.

He said: “We love it. Ev­ery­one says hello to one an­other. It’s how the world should be.”

My own view is that a canal boat trip is all about be­ing con­nected:

● To a past, where life was much slower and sim­pler.

● To the present, as you have to fo­cus on the jour­ney.

● To the peo­ple, you are with as you are never alone.

But one thing’s for sure it’s not a great place to be con­nected to the in­ter­net.

As we re­turned to the boat­yard I felt sad that our jour­ney was com­ing to an end.

It seemed a long time ago since we set out on this trip.

We had only av­er­aged about 15 miles a day, not far at all. But I felt we had come a long way.

We had be­come closer as a fam­ily and had a lot of laugh­ter and fun.

We glided along the fi­nal stretch. We went through the last locks with­out a hitch.

We moored the boat up ef­fort­lessly and tied her up se­curely.

Tonight, we would have our first night’s sleep in a week on dry land.

For some rea­son the thought al­most brought a tear to my eye.

●● Nar­row­boats are per­fect for bring fam­ily and friends to­gether, above. Lawrence’s niece Francesca, right, keeps a firm hand on the Nav­i­ga­tor’s tiller

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