Daily Mail Weekend
You couldn't accuse us of not laying it on with a trowel. One wimpish mother and her 14-year-old daughter, with no boating experience or a Popeye muscle between us, on a boating trip. 'There won't be any strong men to help us open the locks,' I said repeatedly to the lady who worked for Alvechurch Waterway Holidays. 'It's just us. Will we manage?' They could not have done more to reassure us. Our copy of the Boater's Handbook, which arrived with our booking confirmation and some alarming drawings of knots we needed to know how to tie (even my ex-Brownie daughter didn't have the necessary skills), was accompanied by a brochure which made it clear that the most inexperienced of sailors needn't worry, as the staff would ensure that everything is explained. We would also be given practical instruction on boat handling, before we were left to drift away on our own to the hidden beauty spots on the Grand Union Canal. Admittedly, when we arrived at Gayton Marina, near Northampton, and the jolly Alvechurch lady played us a video showing how to open the seven locks separating us from our destination, we were rather distracted by the sight of the 65ft boat, painted a cheery red and green, that would be our home for the next three nights. And anyway, Alvechurch's Stuart would be coming on board for the first half-hour, to ensure we knew how everything worked. But no one warned me how hard it would be. The first shock came with the bed. While the kitchen was brilliantly equipped, and the two bathrooms well-designed, there was one Three-quarter size 'double' bed (mine) all cosy and duveted, but Tilly, my daughter, had the choice of sleeping on a narrow single bed (think Dormobile) or us transforming the dining table into another double bed.'Double bed, please,' she said, unsurprisingly. 'In that case,' I was told, 'you simply unscrew all the legs off the dining table, take the top off, then screw smaller legs on before folding out the dinette seat' - and hey presto: after just one hour's intensive manual labour, you have a double bed. Stuart showed us a few other bits of kit, started the engine for us. and then disappeared down the towpath. We quickly disappeared, too, swallowed up by the Blisworth tunnel, which is very dark, very narrow and very long - at 9,l70 ft it is one of the longest navigable tunnels in England. To get through it in one piece, you have to switch on the boat's headlamp, try not to touch the sides, and pray a boat doesn't come the other way. Most people take about 20 to 30 minutes to get through this tunnel; with us it was nearer 50. When we emerged, night had already fallen, and I managed to bump into a boat already tethered behind us. In terror, I tried to go forward and ended up bumping the boat in front - which, in turn, nudged into the one in front of that. It had been a pretty disastrous start, so we tied up and escaped to the nearest pub for dinner. By this time, it was so late that it was only serving dessert. We had three each.
On the very last, perilously tight corner, we performed an impeccable five-point turn. 'Piece of cake,' we shouted to an astonished Stuart as we disembarked.