We’d just spent an hour with John from the boatyard learning how to handle our hired narrowboat and, crucially, the locks. When he asked “Do you feel ready to go off on your own?” we confidently dismissed him.
However, when he added: “Where are you going?” and I replied cheerfully “Banbury”, he smiled a wry grin. Doubtless he’d seen it all before, because we never did get to Banbury.
It’s only 17 miles by road from Stockton, in Warwickshire, where we jumped aboard Esma Frances at the Kate Boats’ base.
It didn’t become obvious that Banbury was an overly-ambitious destination until we’d headed in that direction. Well, as far as The Folly pub at Napton anyway.
Cheryl Howes, owner of Kate Boats, told me later that the first question novice narrowboaters ask is: “How far can you go?” Those who have done it before appreciate just how long it takes. “It’s difficult to get the message across that you take your time,” she said.
As for our original plans: “Banbury may be a nice run in a week, but hard work over a weekend,” Cheryl said.
I also read later that the fastest way to slow down is to travel by narrowboat. Having spent most of that long weekend sitting at the prow, watching the countryside roll by and waving to other canal traffic, I can concur.
The last time we’d been on a canal boat we ran aground half a mile from the boatyard and had to be rescued by boatyard workers. We’d left one of the windlasses for opening the lock gates on the towpath and had to go back the next day to get it. And we ran out of water. That was probably the worst part. Our two teenage girl crew were mid-shampoo when that happened. This time, with only three of us on the six berth Esma, things were going to be different.
The speed limit on canals is four miles per hour. Several times other boats overtook us, leaving a wake.
We’d been told this was frowned upon, as it erodes the bank.
The only racing we’d done all weekend was trying to beat the boats as we strolled along the towpaths in the evenings. We always won.
Back at base, we looked at the map. We’d only travelled the equivalent of two junctions on the M1. Its Watford Gap services had only ever been a few miles to the east of us, but may as well have been a million miles away.