Evening Gazette Middlesborough
JIM JELLY went off in the rain for a holiday on the water with his family. But the boating bug got him, and now
AT THE end of one of the warmest summers of recent years, I set off on holiday... and it rained. Just typical of my luck, especially as I was heading for the canals to try my hand at navigating a narrowboat. But the only bad luck about it was the weather, and the whole family were quickly looking on the sunny side of life as we left our North Wales base to head into Shropshire. A boating holiday was always something which had appealed to me, but with two young children, I had always shied away from letting them get so close to the water. However, now that they have reached the grand old ages of 15 and 12, we decided that this year would be the time to head for the water. So, full of enthusiasm, we headed for North Wales to collect our narrowboat Holidays. Even the rain did nothing to dampen this enthusiasm, after all, we had all made sure that we had brought waterproof clothing. Once we arrived at the Marina, we took our luggage on board our boat - named Gemma - took delivery of the food which we had ordered and which was brought to the boat for us by the boatyard staff and then settled down while we were shown everything about the boat. This included not just the actual mechanical workings of Gemma, but even included instructions on how the cooker, CD player and shower all operated.
With what seemed like hundreds of boats shoe-horned into the Marina and with a tight turn to get out on to the canal, we were able to marvel at how easy it all was as our driver eased us into the Llangollen Canal. Rather than travel into Llangollen, we had decided to head south into Shropshire. As our driver handed over the tiller and leapt ashore, I was left to sail on my own serene way.That was the theory, at least. In the event, I lasted about 30 yards before I managed to run aground. Believe me, steering a 60-foot narrowboat is nowhere near as easy as the driver made it look. The rules of the canal are simple. Steer along the centre and move to the right to pass oncoming traffic. The reason for steering down the centre soon becomes apparent -canals tend to the V-shaped rather than U-shaped and when you venture too close to the edge you get stuck. The procedure for getting unstuck is relatively simple, too - in theory. All you do is reverse, then move back into forward gear and steer to the centre. That's the theory, anyway. In the event, I had to get out the pole - a huge piece of wood which seems to weigh a ton - and push us back into deeper water. Zig-zagging down the canal, we then came to a quarter-mile long tunnel, followed immediately by an aqueduct which provided spectacular views over the valley, but whose narrowness did nothing to boost my by-now battered confidence. When we finally pulled in to settle down for our first night aboard the Gemma, I was very nearly a nervous wreck. To be honest, I really wasn't looking forward to setting off again the next morning, but canal boats have to keep running to provide the electricity for the rest of the day. So, with the rain still coming down, we finally pulled away from the mooring and headed down towards the next series of challenges - I knew from the map that there were locks ahead. But something miraculous started to happen. Suddenly, the boat was travelling in a relatively straight line and it was starting to respond to my instructions on the tiller. Even the rain eased back to showers. From then on, I started to realise just what the attraction of boating was. That's not to say that I stopped grounding the boat totally, but my new-found control and confidence meant that I was far more relaxed and able to enjoy the journey.And then when I managed to start passing under bridges without bouncing off the sides, I was able to relax totally and enjoy the experience.
Even when we reached the locks, they proved to be far easier to manage than I had imagined - although, to be fair, we did get some expert help from other boaters who were only too happy to give us the benefit of their experience. Restricted to a top speed along the canals of just 4mph, the journey through Shropshire became totally soothing. Sitting at the back of the Gemma and working the tiller and the throttle meant that I had time to enjoy some of the spectacular countryside we were passing through. When the rain stopped and the sun came out, it was exhilarating to stand or sit at the tiller and watch the wildlife as we passed. I probably saw as many kingfishers in one week as I have seen in the rest of my life, while not a day went by without seeing herons fishing on the canal side. And there were squirrels everywhere, some of them even running along the towpath and outrunning the boat. Once I got over my initial terrors, I enjoyed this holiday even more than I might have imagined. You need to be relatively fit, especially when you are pushing the boat off the side or when you are hauling on ropes to moor for the night, but the rest of the time, you are able to relax. You can stop whenever you want, either to visit a nearby town or village or to visit one of the many canal-side pubs which all seem to serve top-class food and good drinks and don't worry in the slightest if you are not "suitably" dressed for a meal out.
The big question is, would I do it again?
At the end of the first day, I was all ready to flee, but taking the week as a whole, the answer is a resounding 'yes'.