Ever since reading a mystery novel in which the victim lives on a narrow boat, I’ve wanted to tour the English countryside in one. This year, I convinced an old college friend to join me and off we went.
The canals of England date mostly to the 18th century. They were originally used to transport goods like coal and salt. Today they are part of Britain’s inland waterways and used mostly for pleasure. Narrow boats are designed for the canals. They are typically just seven feet wide and range from 48 to 70 feet long.
We rented a boat from Anderton Marina in Cheshire through my time share.
When we checked in at Anderton, they gave us a booklet with routes and points of interest along the way, as well as some brief instructions on how to run the boat. An octogenarian with dry wit named Archie showed us the most important valve on the boat (the propane valve), the most important rope (the center rope) and the daily maintenance we would need to do. Every day, we needed to grease the propeller shaft and make sure the propeller wasn’t fouled (and clean it if it was) and top off the water tanks.
He took us out on the canal to make sure we could steer. He was very nonchalant about two clueless middle aged American women taking a boat for a week and that was actually reassuring. When handing us the life jackets, he said, “We have to give you these, but if you fall in, stand up and walk to the side.” The canals are only about three or four feet deep. I wouldn’t want to fall in though, because ick. When we asked about what knots we should use to tie up at night, he said, “Whatever you can untie in the morning.” After about 15-20 minutes of steering instruction, he pointed us north, gave us a pub recommendation, and sent us on our way.
Our rental was one of the small ones, just 48′ long, and sleeps four – two in the bedroom and two on the pullout couch. It was quite cozy.
The kitchen had a little refrigerator, stove and even a microwave. It did not have a coffee pot or toaster.
It did have egg cups.
When you drive the boat, you stand at the rear and steer using a rudder. This means if you want the front to go left, you push right and vice versa, much like a sailboat. But, the sailboats I’ve been on are small and respond quickly. This…doesn’t. The boat is long and slow. Here’s what it looks like while you are driving.
Narrow boats go slowly. The speed limit on the canals is 4 mph, but you are not supposed to create a wake as it could damage the canals. In addition, you are supposed to drop to idle speed when passing moored boats. As a result, people walking their dogs, or pushing strollers along the tow path, routinely passed us. This lets you look around and enjoy the scenery.
We saw lots of ducks, swans and herons.
There were daffodils everywhere.
The point of a canal vacation is to cruise along, then tie up near a point of interest and walk in to see what there is to see, or visit a pub. Along the route we took, there really wasn’t that much to see. In a way, that was the point for me. I wanted to see the English countryside and this was it. Little towns with a pub or two.
We did stop near Massey Hall which is a country house with tours, a gorgeous garden, and a deer park.
We stopped at the Keckwick Science and Innovation Center in order to walk up to Daresbury – the home of Lewis Carroll. The Science and Innovation Center was nerd central. It had a building named “Electron Hall” and a Van De Graaf accelerator. The accelerator looked like an air traffic control tower. When we first saw it, we thought we were approaching an airport.
The booklet claimed there was a Lewis Carroll Center in Daresbury.
That turned out to be a corner of a church shop. But, the village was cute with a Tudor style pub, a Mad Hatter Cottage and a Dormouse Tea Shop.
We were definitely in horse country. Walking to Daresbury, there were horse crossings. One button at walking height and one well above my head.
In the town of Sale, we came across the worst named restaurant ever.
We later found out it’s a chain. Tells you all you need to know about British cuisine.
Along our route, we needed to go through tunnels. Because the tunnels are too narrow for boats to pass, the longer ones restrict entry to specific times. For example, the third tunnel we did restricts northbound entry to 10 minutes starting at the top of the hour. The tunnels are not straight and we were not good at steering.
Good thing I got that damage waiver.
Locks are another feature of the canals. Our route had only one, right before the third tunnel that only allowed entry for ten minutes. We ran into a traffic jam. After we cleared the lock, we had to wait to enter the tunnel. Someone else was coming through the lock behind us.
While we waited, five boats came out of the tunnel.
Since the boat behind us was still in the lock, there was nowhere for them to go. It was a little hairy for a while, but we managed without running into any other boats.
I had wanted to go during the summer, but now I’m really glad that we went in March, despite the cold.
On Saturday and Sunday there was a lot more traffic on the canal, which was a little stressful, especially when there were boats moored on both sides.
I suspect the canals stink in the summer and it would be much harder to find a mooring. As you can see in the photo, even on a weeknight in March, there a lot of boats tied up in the desirable places. Out of the week we had the boat, we were only able to tie up at mooring rings twice. The rest of the time we used the mooring pins. I also think routes with more locks would see long waits or traffic jams like the one we encountered. That wouldn’t be much fun.
This was a truly relaxing vacation. I got to see parts of England I wouldn’t have otherwise and from a different perspective. There was no Internet, no TV, and I ignored my phone. Instead, I got to read and draw in the evenings, as well as catch up with my friend. If I lived in England, I’d do it again.