There we were, hurtling down the canal at a breathtaking speed of … 2 miles per hour! At 69’ long and 6’9” wide, there is a reason our vessel is called a narrowboat.
Great Britain is criss-crossed with a network of canals that were originally built to transport freight on long, narrow barges. The barges were pulled by horses walking along the towpath that runs beside every canal. As steam-driven freight trains replaced the barges, the canals fell into disrepair. In recent years the canals have been restored to their former glory for recreational use. Today, travelling the canals in long, narrow boats has become a favourite holiday get-away.
This type of holiday adventure has been on our bucket list for many years, so we finally decided to give it a try. As a result, a sunny afternoon in early October found Susan and me, along with friends Rick and Linda, at the Festival Park Marina in Stoke-on-Trent, in northern England, going through an orientation aboard our floating home for the next 10 days. The boat had 3 bedrooms, two bathrooms (one with a shower), a galley and a dining area. There was plenty of room for storage. It would be plenty comfortable for four of us! After the briefing and stowing away of clothing and provisions, we set off for a short motor to our stop for the evening.
Our journey to Westport Lake on the Trent and Mersey Canal, where we tied up for the first night, provided a good “shakedown cruise”. After thirty plus years of sailing, I had a fair amount of experience steering boats with limited manoeuverability. However, steering the 69-foot-long, steel-hulled, vessel still took a little getting used to. It was slow to respond, so you had to anticipate course changes and start your turns early. As well, you had to get used to tiller steering where you push the tiller the opposite direction to the way you want to turn. Then, to keep things fun, you need to avoid running into other narrowboats traveling the opposite direction down a very narrow canal. All things considered though, it didn’t take too long to get used to the steering. Rick and I took turns handling the tiller at the rear of the boat.
On our first full day on the canals, we would encounter two features: a tunnel and a lock. And it wasn’t to be just any tunnel. At 2.5 km (1.5 mi) long, the Harecastle Tunnel is the longest in Britain. While the towpath through the tunnel was removed some years ago, the tunnel is still only slightly wider than a single boat. Consequently, the tunnel allows for one-way travel only. Alternating direction of traffic through the tunnel is controlled by tunnel-keepers at each end.
We set off early and arrived at the tunnel about 15 minutes later. After stopping for a safety briefing, we proceeded directly into the tunnel. The tunnel is pitch black inside and we had been told to turn every light in the boat as well as the headlight so we could see where we were going. In addition, I wore a headlamp which became essential as the ceiling of the tunnel got lower and lower. By the middle of the tunnel the headroom was so low that we had to crouch down with our heads barely above the top of the boat. Rick and I switched off on the helm part way through so that we could both experience steering through the tunnel. With only a couple of bumps against the side, after about an hour we emerged from the other end.
We continued along the Trent and Mersey Canal for a short distance further until we made a sharp left turn onto the Macclesfield Canal. The canal soon took a 90 degree turn to the right and passed over top of the Trent and Mersey Canal via an aqueduct. We soon came to our first lock. At only about a foot change in elevation, the lock was a fairly simple one to learn the routine.
Locks are amazingly simple devices for handling changes in elevation on a canal or river. Gates at each end of the lock control the flow of water into or out of the lock. With both gates closed, opening paddles on the “uphill” side of the lock allows water to flow in and fill the lock. With the “uphill” paddles closed and the “downhill” paddles opened, water flows out of the lock thereby emptying it. The lock stops filling or emptying when the water level in the lock matches the water level on the high side or the low side of the canal respectively. With a boat in the lock, filling the lock lifts it to the higher elevation if going upstream, or lowers it to the lower level if traveling downstream.
We quickly learned that the operation of the locks was quite simple although cranking up the paddles or opening the gates (by way of pushing a long beam attached to the gate) sometimes took a bit of oomph.
The following day our newfound “lock handling” skills were put to the test with the Bosley Locks, a series (or “flight”) of 12 locks. These are the only locks on the Macclesfield Canal and took about 2.5 to 3 hours to get through.
As we continued along the canal, a boater travelling in the opposite direction advised us that the canal would be closing for an indefinite period in a couple of days time at Bollington, a little way further north, in order to make repairs to the canal. Our plan had been to travel to the end of the Macclesfield Canal then turn onto the Peak Forrest Canal. Once we reached the end of the Peak Forest Canal, we would reverse direction and return to Stoke-on-Trent the same way. Naturally this news meant that our plans would have to change. In the end, our revised route took us a bit further on the Macclesfield before turning around and returning, through the Bosley Locks, to the Trent and Mersey Canal. After once more transiting the Harecastle Tunnel, we continued past Stoke-on-Trent.
We continued along the Trent and Mersey Canal through Barlaston, Meaford, Stone and Weston. Just past Weston we turned around and reversed our route back to Festival Park Marina.
The Trent and Mersey Canal had more sets of locks than the Macclesfield Canal so progress was a bit slower. But at a maximum allowable speed on the canals of 4 mph, you don’t get anywhere quickly. And we weren’t in any hurry. Our only deadline was the day we had to return our boat. So we were able to just sit back and enjoy the incredible scenery, the frequent rain, and the warm cozy pubs along the way.
In days gone by, pubs were an integral part of the canal system. They provided food, drink and lodging to the boatmen and their families as well as stabling for the horses that pulled the barges. Today the pubs alongside the canals provide great food and fine ales to boaters although the stabling of horses is no longer necessary. On most days we generally ate one meal in a pub with, typically breakfast and lunch eaten on board. And I have to say we enjoyed some wonderful pub fare on our trip!
Our 10-day narrowboating adventure was, in a word, fantastic! We would definitely do it again. You don’t see huge amounts of the country on such a trip, but it’s a great way to leisurely pass by beautiful countryside and historic villages. This trip involved a lot of doubling back. The distance from one extreme of our route to the other was about 40 miles so our total journey was only about 80 miles. Another time I would be inclined to do a more circular route involving several interconnecting canals.