Floating along England’s picturesque canals has intoxicating appeal for Tom Adair.
Floating along canals can be exhilarating, relaxing and good therapy.
EVER tried to walk on water? My kids used to think I could. So where were they now to lead the applause? There was only my wife to ooh and aah as I stood at water level, gliding at 6.5 kilometres per hour atop the ripples of the Warwick to Long Itchington stretch of England’s Grand Union Canal. We were living our dream.
I stood at the tiller of our 18-metre narrow boat, Edna Marie, named after the mother-in-law of the owner, with Bobbie slaving on the towpath, wrenching open the tonne-weight lock gates, hauling the levers, resetting the paddles. How I love all that mumbo jumbo. Bobbie ached. It didn’t seem fair.
“Well that’s what happens,” admonished Cheryl, the feisty owner of Kate Boats, when three days later the Edna Marie was returned miraculously undamaged to her berth at Warwick Basin. “The men do the steering, and what do the women do? The donkey work. Nothing new.”
Cheryl was right. In 70 hours seeing umpteen boats, we only once saw a woman steering. And she was smiling, as if transported into a world of parallel bliss.
Go on, admit it: you too have imagined yourself in a similar state of grace: those endless stretches of long summer days with their cloudless skies, the song of bluebirds on the wing, and the end-of-day promise of a mooring alongside a pretty village pub, where they serve great steaks washed down with real ale or a glass of red.
It had started so well. Cheryl had whisked us through the checklist: Edna Marie was, by any stretch of imagination, better equipped than the Titanic.
She had a radio, two TVs, a fridge, a comfy double bed (plus two extra singles), central heating, a flushing loo and a walk-in shower, plus a kitchen good enough to rustle up cordon bleu grub (who needed the microwave?). Admittedly, she was lacking a set of crystal chandeliers and a resident band. But she wouldn’t gurgle us down the plug-hole.
The reason was simple: canals are shallow. The boats are flat bottomed There’s nowhere to sink to.
All I had to do each night was pump the bilges, tighten the grease valve and lash Edna firmly to the towpath. Every morning I checked the oil, started the engine, and we were off!
Being rookies we took it slowly (6.5 km/h is the normal limit). Cheryl met us at Radford Bottom beside our first lock to show Bobbie the ropes. It seemed a doddle. I guided Edna into the lock, scraping her side, and Bobbie opened the farther gates to Cheryl’s approval, wound them closed, then hopped aboard. We travelled five kilometres in just under two hours.
Leamington Spa came and went, giving way to sloping, gently wooded fields. Well-mannered cows ignored our passing, and there, on the calm, pellucid water, flotillas of mallards with their chicks came darting and squawking.
It all seemed idyllic, until a walker from the towpath yelled a warning. “There’s a barge ahead – and it’s stuck.” He shrugged his shoulders. Ten minutes later we saw what he meant. The boat had drifted, then jammed, side-on across the canal. I cut the engine. We moored for the night not far from a bridge that marked the Fosse Way, one of England’s tracts of old Roman road.
At 7am we were sharply awakened by a narrow boat chugging past. The obstruction was cleared. Now the big challenge – the Bascote Staircase, a sequence of steeply rising locks – was our task for the day.
There is something surreal about floating uphill. You’re defying nature. One hundred years ago the barges that trawled these canals formed a vital link in Britain’s network of transportation. Today’s swish narrow boats, fitted out with every comfort, carry a lighter freight of dreams. We rose through the locks and Bobbie, bent double with the effort, cried with joy at the sight of a pub not far ahead. A welcome oasis. But was it a mirage?
The Two Boats Inn had tables and parasols, and steak pie that tasted like sirloin braised in rich beer, with a flaky top and crumbly sides and a mound of chips. My kind of mirage.
Huddles of boaters sat around chatting, comparing notes. You could hear their relish, telling stories, their greatest journeys, circum-navigating Warwickshire or canalling south through France on some summer’s idyll.
Then the rain came. It just got heavier, chased by a vicious swirling wind.
We moored near the pub and spent the night there, convinced the rain would be gone by morning. The pretty village of Long Itchington, five minutes walk away, had a shop and a village pond. The rain slashed patterns across its surface. It made me feel worse as I carried provisions back to the boat. We opened a bottle of Aussie red, tuned into Neighbours on the telly, and fell asleep.
For much of the rest of the trip we were soused. There were compensations. The following night at the prosperous village of Radford Semele, we enjoyed a sumptuous feast at the White Lion pub. Close by was the medieval parish church of St Nicholas, near a reconstructed Jacobean mansion, Radford Hall.
We felt enfolded here in the history and fields of deepest Warwickshire, England’s green heart. And over steaks and succulent scallops at the White Lion we tried our boat-talk on Phyllis and Jim, who had boated everywhere it seemed.
“It gets under your skin,” said Jim. “Phyl swears I’ve got canal juice in my bloodstream. We’re even thinking of flogging the house and buying a boat for seventy grand!”
With a tinge of regret, the following morning, (beneath a briefly clear blue sky), we traded in the Edna Marie for our battered Toyota, driving away from the Kate Boats car park, away from the lovely sylvan silence and nearness to nature you rarely experience anywhere else, as we had on this trip.
The world of tourist-thronged Stratford-upon-Avon, just 20 minutes away, belonged to a different planet.
In any word-association test the name Stratford is twinned with Shakespeare. We did all the things you’re supposed to do.
Our bed for two nights was at Cymbeline Guest House (named after one of the Bard’s later plays). We strolled to his birthplace (the No. 1 hotspot), thence to New Place, where he bought his retirement house, and onward to Holy Trinity, the church by the River Avon where Shakespeare is buried and where a bust created just seven years after his death takes pride of place.
On the next afternoon we stormed Mary Arden’s House at Wilmcote, outside town, where Shakespeare’s mother had grown up. Like all the other venues, it was frequented by reverent fans.
By the time we arrived at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage where Shakespeare had courted his future bride, I was speaking in couplets. I couldn’t wait to see a play.
* Shakespeare country is two hours’ drive from London, less by train from Marylebone Station with Chiltern Railways. http://www.chilternrailways.co.uk
* For narrow boating, Kate Boats, Nelson Lane, Warwick. http://www.kateboats.co.uk
* A wide range of hotel and B&B options. Book through South Warwickshire Tourism: http://www.shakespeare-country.co.uk or call in at any local tourist office.
* Eat at Cafe Pasta in Sheep Street; the Dirty Duck pub/restaurant is in Southern Lane; The Garrick in High Street, one of the oldest inns in England; the Bell Inn at nearby Welford-on-Avon.
* Visit at any time of year. High summer tends to be crowded and winter, wet.
* Visit the Shakespeare houses and gardens in Stratford and nearby villages: http://www.shakespeare.org.uk; Warwick Castle has a full calendar of events from jousting and falconry to concerts: http://www.warwick-castle.com; Enjoy a play at the RSC: www.rsc.org.uk