Narrow boat holidays in Shakespeare Country
There is something deeply satisfying in cruising, very slowly, through the English countryside following ancient routes that were once the main arteries of communication. Hugh Taylor, Moira McCrossan, Bill Rintoul and Irene Stakounis explore The Grand Union and Stratford and Avon Canals on board a boat called Jim.
We’re old hands at this canal cruising lark and this time we are booked on a boat called Jim, which we picked up from Kate Boats at their base on The Grand Union Canal on the outskirts of Warwick. There are several cruising options available including the Warwickshire Ring but on this trip we planned to head up the Grand Union to Kingswood Junction, then south on the Stratford Canal with the hope of getting tickets for The Royal Shakespeare Theatre.
The company needs several hours, to pump out, clean and re-fuel boats so pick up is in the afternoon. Before you set off there’s a thorough induction and training, as well as reassurances that help is always available at the end of a phone. By three o’clock we’re on our way. A short cruise and two locks later, we moor opposite a rather nice looking pub called The Cape of Good Hope, where we enjoy an excellent meal and some music before getting an early night ready for a fresh start in the morning.
The next section of canal will take us about four hours of hard graft as we work our way up the 21 chambers of the Hatton Locks. In two miles the canal rises by 148 feet. It’s not the biggest flight of locks; that honour goes to Tardebigge with 30 chambers, but it’s still hard work.
However the locks on the Grand Union are large enough to take several boats at a time and we were soon sharing the locks and the work with two other small boats. Our w
ee flotilla moved up the flight with less effort than expected and a whole lot of good-natured banter. One of the great pleasures of canal cruising is the people you meet.
At Kingswood we negotiated some tight turns and narrow bridges into the Stratford and Avon Canal, where the lock chambers only accommodate one boat at a time but the gates are easier to operate.
Another two hours saw us through nine locks and tied up opposite the Fleur de Lys in time for dinner.
It was a beautiful evening so we dined on the patio. The Inn had been recommended by many boaters we’d met on the way and it matched its reputation.
The next day was wet, wet, wet. Although we looked like drowned rats, we were dry under our waterproof gear and persevered through twenty-four locks to reach Stratford Basin. We passed through some truly lovely countryside including the last remnants of the old Forest of Arden, green and misty and sparkling in the rain. We also crossed over the Edstone Aqueduct, which at 475 feet is the longest in England.
By the time we berthed in Stratford the sun had come out and we walked the short distance to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre to get seats for the following evening’s performance of Julius Caesar. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays there is a decent discount for seniors. We dined on board that evening and were up early in the morning with a full day to explore Stratford. That night we booked a pre-theatre meal at The Dirty Duck, just along from the theatre. Although the premises and the service were excellent, the food was a terrible disappointment. We had four different meals and they were all a bit dry and overcooked.
The performance of Julius Caesar made up for it. Performed by an all black cast, in an African political context, with African accents and modern weapons, it reminded us of how Shakespeare reflects the human condition in different places and ages. We recognised many of the faces from TV programmes like The Bill, Holby City and Dr Who. The actors were on stage as the audience gathered and the band was playing Afro Caribbean music, creating an air of excited expectation. After the show the music continued in the bar. This amazing and exhilarating performance was the highlight of our entire trip.
Heading north the next day in brilliant weather we meandered along the canal, enjoying the birdsong, wild flowers and meadows. We stopped for lunch at Wilmcote, which has a great general store selling home baked bread and cakes. The main attraction here is Mary Arden’s House, part of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and a working Tudor Farm. It’s possible to visit this from Stratford as part of the City Tours bus route.
We moored for the night at Wooten Wawen, near The Navigation, a decent inn serving excellent food. In the village nearby is the oldest Saxon Church in the county. Yew Tree Farm, on the edge of the village, has had its steading converted into a little shopping complex. There’s a farm shop selling bread, delicious pies and sausage rolls, a café, a super little bookshop run by a real enthusiast, a wool shop, craft shop, antiques shop, a collection of unique garden furniture made from reclaimed timber, a hairdresser and a bridal shop. We lingered happily here for an hour or two and as a result it was lunchtime before we got moving.
We still planned to get back onto the Grand Union and down to the top of Hatton Locks before mooring and were making great progress until we reached lock 26 on the Lapworth Locks. Then disaster struck. We managed in, shut the gate then found the paddle was jammed open and there was no way to fill and get out of the lock. So we phoned British Waterways, whose engineers turned up within the hour.
After much investigation and discussion in the pouring rain, they discovered that a rubber seal had come adrift and the lock would have to be drained to replace the seal. We were resigned to being stuck for the night, until Barry and John, the two Waterways guys, with great ingenuity and a modicum of brute force, succeeded in closing the paddle. Although they were both soaking wet they got the other two waiting boats through the lock as well. Well done guys!
Thanks to Barry and John we were able to get Jim safely back to Kate Boats for 9am on Saturday morning. It had been a wonderful week with lots of exercise and plenty of fresh air and even the rain did not dampen our spirits. Next up we’re looking at having a go at the Black Country Ring.