CRUISING ALONG THE CANALS WITH EMMA SOUTHERTON
What is the easiest way to get from London to Birmingham? These days it is only a stone’s throw, but try navigating 228 miles of winding canal at a top speed of 4mph! If you worked on the canals in the late 1700s for transporting goods like building materials and fragile pottery, it was all about long-haul economy class travel. Life on the waterways is a little bit different these days, and blissfully preferable to the commuter route. Our boatyard was based in the picture-postcard village of Stretton under Fosse in the Warwickshire countryside and it is here that I head with my family to embark upon Escapade, our six-birth vessel and home for the next few days. It is painted bright green and red outside and spotlessly clean inside. On board, there is loads of information about canals and the route and there are fresh flowers and a bottle of wine, too. You can even have the galley stocked up with food and drink if you order in advance. Marvellous, I muse, now how do you drive this thing? The last time I did this was with a bunch of giggly mates when I was still at school, but luckily one of the guys from the boatyard comes along with us for the first few hundred yards while we get the hang of the steering and soon we are cruising along. We allocate the roles of captain and skipper quite agreeably, but the galley slave seems to be spending far too much time pretending to be David Essex in The River, complete with red neckerchief When we finally get a glass in our hands and settle in to our rhythm we really begin to relax and absorb our enyironment: the serenity, the abundant countryside surrounding the canal, the warm afternoon sunlight dancing on the water.
We are heading south on the North Oxford Canal and the aim is to get to Napton-on-the-Hill and back in three days. Should be a piece of cake, and it is not long before we are navigating Newbold Tunnel. It is a quarter of a mile long and over 180 years old, built when the canal was shortened in the 1 820s. The improvements to the canal were undertaken to combat a proposal made in 1827 for a new canal that would bypass the Oxford Canal, potentially rendering it redundant. Very quickly plans were drawn up and the old route was shortened by 11 miles, using embankments and aqueducts. The new canal never came to fruition and the Oxford survived. We pass by several narrow turnings in the canal, evidence of the earlier, more meandering route, and a quick exploration in the surrounding thicket reveals the location of the original tunnel, though nowadays it is bricked up and only used by a resident bat population. Luckily for us novices the new tunnel is wide enough for two boats to pass side by side, but in the end it is such a quiet afternoon that we do not meet any boats coming the other way. After the tunnel, I find myself in charge of the tiller, which is funny because there is a dark cloud looming in the sky and the others have all gone inside for a cup of tea so, trying to keep the boat going in a straight line, I reach down to open the doors and shout to be heard above the chug of the engine:
"Please could someone bring me a waterproof?" I pull on my cagoule and over-trousers as quickly as is humanly possible while steering a 52-foot boat, and put up the big golf umbrella just as the sky turns black. The heavens open, the wind picks up and the umbrella turns immediately inside out. I am alone on the deck of this brightly painted boat, drifting along a grey canal which is being hammered by raindrops the size of golf balls against a backdrop of vivid green hedgerows and a sky like a sheet of steel punctuated by lightning exclamation marks. Anyone who says that travelling by canal is sedate or boring probably has not tried it! Within 10 minutes the sky is clear again, but my trainers are dripping wet so I am releived from duty to get dry while we skirt around Rugby before stopping for the night at the village of Hillmorton.
We moor in the mellow evening sunshine just below Hillmorton Locks, remembering to pump the bilge, before heading to the Lock Stop Bistro for a dinner of fish and chips. It is a good job we remembered to take a torch with us because, although it is a starry night, it is pretty dark outside and, leaving after one or two glasses of ale, you really want to see the edge of the towpath as you walk back to the boat! We are woken bright and early in the morning by the sun flooding in through the windows and the first barges of the day drifting past, causing a backwash to lap against the sides of our boat. We have a leisurely breakfast watching ducks and swans splash around in the water, and shower in the cleverly compact bathroom on board before checking the oil and clearing the rudder of any debris before we embark on our first challenge of the day: we have to navigate before we can go any further. Two of us grab the keys and race ahead of the boat to get the first lock ready for the boat to go in. We are lucky it is early in the morning and there is no-one about to watch, but it is our first attempt and by lock number two we are pros and soon cruising on to Braunston in the pretty Northamptonshire countryside. We pull in on the edge of the village to fill our tank at the water supply, then continue around a sharp right-hand bend where the Oxford Canal meets with the Grand Union, mooring up for lunch and a wander around Braunston.
The village is geared towards canal life with a marina and a boat-yard and pretty stone cottages clustered at the top of the hill, but we do not linger too long as we have another five miles to cover this afternoon before we reach Napton-on-the-Hill. It is an isolated route, not going near any major roads and surrounded by idyllic rural landscape that is mainly populated by moorhens bobbing about in the reeds at the edges of the canal. So we spend a relaxing afternoon’s drifting and arrive at Napton.on-the-Hill just in time to watch the sky turning a dusky pink behind the silhouette of the windmill.
We turn the boat around before we reach the locks so it is facing in the right direction for our journey back tomorrow, and enjoy sundowners on the deck as we watch the lambs frolicking in the fields beside the water. I grew up in this part of the world and have rarely felt so in touch with the landscape as I have over the few days I spent on the canal. The slow pace allows you to see things you never noticed before and the experience has given me a renewed sense of delight in my old neighbourhood. As we head back to Stretton over the next few days the wind starts to pick up, so not only does steering the boat become harder but we find ourselves having to navigate our way around fallen trees across the canal and a rusty old barge that has drifted across the water leaving us only just enough width for the boat to get through. But by now we are old hands at this narrow-boating lark, and we are so relaxed that nothing can faze us.
In fact, we have enjoyed our trip so much that after delivering the boat back to the boatyard, we drive straight to Stoke Bruerne to visit the Waterways Museum. Once in the car, we head off through the village. "Slow down a bit," I say, "you’re going too fast." I glance at the speedometer and it reads 15mph. I think it’s going to take some time to slot back into the 21st century.