I first discovered the canals in a childhood fantasy story called Wind in the Willows. It was recorded on cassette tape. The story was so beautifully produced with a narration so convincing that 40 years later, I still have the image of the washer woman telling Toad off about his dishwashing skills. However, of course, being only 3 or 4, I had no clue that canals actually existed…until I arrived in Britain early 2016. Now being able to bring that fantasy story to life, I have acquired quite a special connection with the canals.
Britain is home to some 2000 miles of canals that link Liverpool with Leeds and Manchester to Birmingham all the way down to London. Dug solely by hand some 200 years ago, canals were the veins of the industrial revolution, connecting historic market and mining towns to major cities, providing essential transportation of coal, food and textiles to the people. Once a smouldering cesspit of industry and smog, canals are now a green, peaceful space for everyone to enjoy.
The demise of the canals is mostly blamed on invention of the steam engine and thus the railways. Much of the network has fallen into a state of disrepair or been filled in over the years, as more efficient methods of transport replaced them. However, there are a number of well established community and support groups who are actively seeking to restore much of the canal network around Britain.
As more and more people choose to cruise or live on the waterways, there is a need for increased space, so these revitalisation programs are vital for the continued use and enjoyment of the canals. Additionally, there are hundreds of volunteer groups scattered across the network that assist in keeping the canals and towpaths clean.
An article I was reading recently in Canal Boat magazine hinted at the possibility of narrowboats again being used for transportation of goods on the canal system. They are able to carry 5 times more cargo than a semi–trailer and are cheaper to operate than rail. That said, the only limitation is time, with 4mph maximum allowed speed. Guess we’ll wait an see. Right now, they’re used mainly for leisure. Read the article here
For my 43rd birthday this year, my partner and I hired a narrowboat.
We set out from a town called Preston Brook, about 30 minutes drive from our house, and headed towards Manchester along the Bridgewater canal. This canal, stretching over 40 miles took just 2 years to construct and opened in 1761. It was considered to be the first “true” canal in Britain, requiring an aqueduct be constructed to cross the River Irwell, also a first of it’s kind. It connects Runcorn and Leigh to Manchester and is completely lock free, meaning it was constructed all at one level.
We spent our first night in Sale, enjoying some ale at the canal-side pub, the Kings Ransom before heading to Whetherspoons for dinner…and more ale! The following morning at dawn, we cruised into the Castlefield Basin (Manchester) for a full English breakfast including black pudding (my favourite) and to top up the water tank, before heading back down south. We stopped at Lymm for a canal-side lunch and some ale before continuing our journey south.
We passed our original hire location, continuing down to the Trent and Mersey canal via 3 tunnels, one of which is just over 1 kilometre long. I must admit, going through my first tunnel was a bit nerve-racking initially, but quite exciting and eventually a chore, once the novelty wore off.
Before diesel engines, how did narrowboats go through tunnels?
Once we entered the Trent & Mersey, the landscape changed and I instantly felt like I was cruising a Lord of the Rings film set. It was truly magical! When you’re this close to nature, traveling at less than 4mph, you have no choice but to slow down.
We cruised down to Anderton, where the famous boat lift is. It first opened in 1875 to take narrowboats up and down to the River Weaver using a hydraulic lift, which is still in operation today. We cruised further down south to Middlewich before we turned around and head back up north, staying another night somewhere quiet along the towpath.
This is what I woke up to the next day…
At just 45ft long, Bunbury Mill, was a small and compact narrowboat which had all the facilities on board one would expect for a weekend away. Narrowboats are typically 6’10” wide, hence how it got it’s name. However, the microwave didn’t work and we struggled to get the central heating on when we needed it which was a nuisance. Lucky we still had relatively warm weather. As for the shower, well, that was a disaster. I had to squeeze myself into the small cubicle to have a very uncomfortable 2 min shower…with a pump making ghastly gulping noises to flush the grey waste water over the side of the boat.
Note: You’re only allowed to empty grey water from showers, basins and laundry into the canal. Black water must be disposed of on land only.
One evening at around 10pm, when we were both drifting off to sleep, a noise starts – it’s the bloody bilge pump. Despite shutting down all power on the boat, the pump continued it’s racket resulting in me having to make a phone call to the tour company. Eventually, we managed to switch it off…. with the prod of a mop handle.
But then, at 1.30am, the central heating decides to kick in with a whirring type noise that woke us up. It became so hot inside that it was unbearable to sleep, so we opened all the windows. These incidents made me realise how dependent one is on systems on a boat and how, when they don’t work as expected can be excruciatingly frustrating.
The hire company
Being summer, it was a challenge to find a hire boat that wasn’t already booked as it’s a very busy time on the waterways. We found a gap in one company’s schedule which happened to coincide with my birthday, so we booked it. It cost £484 for 4 nights mid-week including fuel and VAT, which I thought was quite good value. It gave us enough time to explore the canal network and relax a little.
We used a company called Claymoore Canal Holidays. They were cheap and cheerful. Not a great quality of boat, but enough to enjoy the experience of cruising the canals.
Travel tip: Take an extra roll of toilet paper. I picked up this tip before I embarked which was lucky because there was only half a roll on board anyway. An extension cord is handy if you want to charge or use your devices in places other than the supplied power points which are often located in inconvenient places.
My next step
Given my busy lifestyle, I’ve decided the best way forward is to buy my own narrowboat for weekends away and holidays. I had thought about purchasing a share in a boat but given the often high entry price of the actual share plus the high yearly maintenance cost, I thought it better to own my own outright. Over a few years, I will have paid off the balance of a loan used to finance the purchase of my own boat and of course, the boat will be mine.
There are quite a few costs to consider when owning a boat of course, and it’s not free but it’s a damn way cheaper to see historic Britain than if I was to pay for hotel accommodation and train fares every time I want to go away, as most of the towns I plan to visit are connected by a canal. It just may take a little longer to get there, but then, part of the charm of owning a narrowboat is you get to view the beautiful scenery along the way.