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
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