We rented an English narrowboat for a week long canal run in August. Here are the day by day highlights:
We flew to Manchester Airport and spent the night with friends who live in Holmes Chapel. One of the ways to know that we are in England is that there are towns called Holmes Chapel. Also, everyone not only drives on the wrong side of the road but the driver’s seat is on the wrong side of the car. Every time we walked up to the passenger door, it would turn out to be the driver’s side instead. Its very confusing.
Our friends took us to a local farm market that had high quality produce, snacks, and meat. They also opened up their pantry for all the stuff we might use only a tablespoon or two or three in the course of the week. Then they drove us out to Wrenbury Mill, one of the ABC boat rental locations.
We had a 2:30 p.m. appointment to go over the boat and get our driving lesson. The boat is essentially an elongated skinny motor home on water. We rented one of the shorter versions at 50’. A queen size bed in the front sleeping area, a bathroom with a shower in the middle, a dinette that breaks down into a second bed and then the kitchn area aka the galley. We had a small space in front of the boat where one of us could sit and watch the world go by and a small space in back to stand and steer the craft.
Beloved grew up on a few boats his father owned so he caught on quick to the nature of the beast. If you want to go left, push the rudder to the right. Use the center of the boat as the guide for steering. His skill won him the reward of doing most of the piloting. I got better after a few days and took some of the shifts but mostly in the wider, easy spaces. He also did all the rope work. I cooked. This wasn’t about gender stereotypes as much as it was skill sets. It was great to see other women also piloting boats along the way. Traditionally its been men on the rudder and women heading for the locks.
There are about three ways to tie up the boat at night or whenever. Sometimes there are iron or steel posts and sometimes there are iron rings. And sometimes, we used what looked like an overgrown paper clip that hooked over the bracing rail on the side of the canal. The whole process went like this.
1. Aim front of boat toward side of canal
2. Bash front of boat into the side of the canal
3. Boat turns and scraps along the side of the canal while the person who is not driving steps off the boat with the holding line in hand.
4. For a few moments the boat bobbles around in whatever direction it thinks it should go, the boat driver uses forward and reverse to convince the boat it should stay close the shore, and the person on the shore tugs at the boat so it will not only remain close to the shore but also remain parallel alongside said shore. Profanity may or may not be a part of this process.
5. Eventually the boat stabilizes and then one person ties the boat up at the stern and the bow with all kinds of fancy hitches and knots. The other person stays on the boat monitoring the situation as the engine is still running and who knows what could happen.
6. Everyone inspects the ropes and declares it good. The engine is turned off, the steering pole is secured within the living area, and the gin and tonic is applied although sometimes one passenger demanded some time for a run before commencing the drinky poo hour. The other passenger would usually sigh and pull out her book until the delay could be rectified.
Our first full day started with me sitting in the open bow with a cup of coffee, some slices of an amazing English treat call Soreen, and a few pages of a book that I could only stick with when I was in England, (but I love the book). Beloved’s day started with a run. We are very different people beloved and I. Very different.
While we had already confronted and passed three locks on Saturday, Sunday morning was bringing us three more in quick succession and then an extended encounter with a Staircase lock.
Locks are cool. Also a little bit scary. Locks exist to move boats from one level of water to another. Canals are not normal, natural channels of waterthat shape the land they flow across. Canals are unnatural, man made slashes into the landscape that occasionally have to go up hill which is where locks come in. Essentially the canal becomes a box with a gate in front and a gate in back. As we confront our first set of locks we want to go uphill. Therefore the water in the box has to be at the same level as our lower side of the lock so we can enter. Click Here for my version of how to use a canal lock.
Much of the time, there are other boats approaching the lock so the lock opening process is streamlined by having folks from more then one boat working both sides of the lock. We also visit, pass along news about what might be upstream or down, or else someone gets excited about meeting an actually American. Our accent stood out on this trip and was subject to remark by almost everyone we met. Most of the time, people asked where we were from rather than directly asking if we were American. “I didn’t want in insult you in case you were from Canada,” one said to me. Really? Its insulting for a Canadian to be mistaken for an American? I’d be insulted but I actually understand why. Look, after Obama leaves office, could we just borrow the Canadian prime minister for a couple days of the week? We’ll give him back, I promise.
A staircase lock is where you have several locks that just drain straight into each other so that you pass from one lock to another. Basic same principal but a little more coordination required.
While we were among the first to get out and going this morning, we took a long breakfast and lunch break which meant we got shut out of the town with a pub, (actually all the pubs), we wanted to tie up near. We ended up in another beautiful and bucolic mooring south of town and pulled a magic dinner out of supplies set aside for just this situation. Food planning is a balance between enough but not too much tucked away in small spaces and refrigerators. In the end, I was very happy with how the food planning, shopping and cooking worked out. Except for the gas oven which was useless.
During our lunch break, we were over-run with what looked like an entire village out on a scavenger hunt on their bikes. Families, older couples, most on bikes that looked like they had been pulled out of the back of the garage just for the event. “How long can a boat tie up here,” many of them asked us as they peered down at their clip boards. Honestly, this may have been the most English thing that we experienced on the whole trip. Unless it was the bake sale at the Upper St. Martin Lock on Thursday.
Older folks, long time lovers of the canals, were volunteering to run the locks while selling off pies and marmalade. “We’ve raised 200 pound,” one volunteer said to me proudly. I looked over to where three men and some large equipment were replacing and update a canal wall and thought, “Well, good, that is about an hour of work right over there.” The budget for the whole system has to be in the millions but these brave English folk were quite proud of their civic engagement that afternoon. “Oh we love doing this,” they told me. “We get to meet people from all over the world,” a pointed reference to my non-English accent. Honestly England, I thought you guys got out more.
We start our new habit of heading out almost as soon as we are awake. The toaster only works if the engine is running. Also the microwave but we only used that once. We’d spend the first hour just put put puttering on down the canal nashing on some toast, then a grapefruit, then I’d go cook up some bacon or sausage and then some eggs and we’d take turns eating and driving and then we’d be full and still watching the world glide by.
The world was open fields and close in forests. Other boats ranging from decrypted, forgotten and disassembling old narrowboats to hippy narrowboats to retired and carefully, immaculately traditionally painted to one of the most fabulous pleasure crafts I’ve ever seen. This narrow boat had a Greek temple theme that couldn’t be missed. Painted purple and decked out stern to bow with rich curtains, flags, drapes, and piloted by two men who’s sexual orientation I can not state with certainty unless they say so to my face but I will say that their boat was over the top. I applaud them for it.
This turned out to be a long day. We had hoped to tie up in the town of Chirk where there were not only grocery stores for restocking but also pubs for drinking but we missed the best place to tie up. Instead we ran the first, short aqueduct and long, dark tunnel. The tunnel is 459 yards long and people walk it. From town, like carrying groceries back from the store. Like its pitch dark and yet folks walk the tunnel, half the time without a flashlight. This does not make sense to me. Back in the day, the horses would be un-hitched and taken up and over the hill. Meanwhile, men would be waiting by the tunnel to be hired as “leggers.” They laid down on their back on top of the boat and pushed the boat through the tunnel by “walking” along the top of the tunnel roof. This also didn’t make sense to me but it was a paying gig.
We kept going until we came to the last mooring before of the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct which was the small hillside town of Froncysyllte. After we tied up, I watched the parade of narrowboats pass us by, trying to catch a crossing in the late afternoon sun while Beloved went for, you guessed it, his run. We knew we were going to take our turn in the early morning light so we turned our attention to dinner. The town had a local pub hanging off the hill. From the outside, it didn’t look like much but they sold beer and how bad could it be?
It wasn’t bad. It was terrific, it was one of the best meals on the whole route. Standing in front of the chalkboard menu, I wondered out loud what, exactly was Welsh Black Beef. A man, working at his computer in the back of the room spoke up and said it was a local and very tasty kind of cow. “I’m the chef,” he said. Okay then, I think, I’ll have whatever he is cooking tonight, thank you. Which turned out to be lamb chops (of the Welsh lamb kind) in a peppercorn sauce with the best vegetables and the very best french fries outside of Belgium. We waddled back down the hill to our gently rocking berth. By now we were sleeping through the night, something that doesn’t happen much at home.
We snuck out of our mooring early and headed out for the World Heritage site, the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, aka River in the sky. Here the canal crosses a river and its flood plane about about 126 feet in the air and it stretches 1,007 feet from hillside to hillside. It is built atop 19 arches and is essentially a five or six feet deep iron tub, filled with water and a walkway on one side. The walkway side has a railing but the water side is open. This means that on one side of the boat there is nothing between you and the soft green pitch below. Just watch the video. Its amazing.
This is not the only place where traffic on the canal needs to take turns on a one-way stretch. Turn taking is not regulated. Not much on the canal is regulated actually. Most everyone is left to sort it all out. Sometimes a boat sends a runner ahead to check around the curve and sometimes the pilot takes a long view down the tunnel or across the bridge and then hopes for the best. I think it all works out, but being first in the morning beats being part of a mid-day herd of twenty some odd boats. We usually got through the tight spots with little trouble.
After the bridge, the canal takes a sharp left turn underneath a narrow bridge which only adds to the navigational negotiation. You’d be forgiven if you think you’ve now seen the best this canal has to offer but wait, there is indeed more. The canal runs along the side of the hill, offering lots of view points across the valley the boat just crossed. There are cows who express their active protest of the boat’s presence and more sheep that just can’t figure it out. Of course the forest and the field are also gasp worthy around every turn and bend.
Finally, we arrived at the end of the motorized line, Llangollen, just before lunch. Its possible to take a horse drawn narrow boat another mile upstream but its also possible to just walk. We tied up, had another pub lunch, went food shopping and then relaxed on the boat for the rest of the afternoon. At least I relaxed. Beloved took a run up to the horse shoe rockwork that diverts water from the river to the canal. I did mention that we relax in very different ways, didn’t I?
By now, Wednesday is more of the same. Get up in the morning, go to the marina at the end of the line, turn the boat around, and start heading back. Back across the bridge, back through the tunnels, back across the other bridge and through the first set of locks until we couldn’t go any further. We tuckered out an hour short of our goal which was Ellesmere, the town we got locked out of on our way up the canal. The double locks at St. Martin really chewed up our afternoon not to mention the three day-boat birthday fleet of pirates wannabes at slow putter in front of us most of the morning. But if there’s a universal bumpersticker on a canal boat it is this: “You’ll get there when you get there.”
We tied up instead alongside a beautiful little hill left behind by an ancient glacier. It was a spot in the middle of nowhere. No roads, no buildings, no city, no town…just fields. And this hill with its little druid-like tree grove on top. This is why you have to go rent a boat, dear reader. You need to come to this place and just sit here. Take in the silence and the ancient story of the land. Watch how the day fades into night and the full moon. We drifted out of all time zones at this mooring and into a time that transcended any measurement of passing. If King Arthur or some vikings or the Royalist Army or Shakespeare himself had come walking by I would not have been surprised.
Early morning start and a shorter day drifting down to the head of the Gridly Locks. More bridges to pass under, forests and fields to admire, ducks to ignore. We tied up above the staircase lock. We saw the line up for that afternoon and we knew there were not many places to tie up past the lock. “We’ll get up in the morning,” we said. “We’ll beat the crowd,” we told ourselves. “We’re good at this lock thing now, who needs the volunteer staff at the stair step anyway?” Anoher afternoon sitting in the fading sunlight. While we knew Friday was going to be stormy, we thought we’d be okay with it. Why waste a beautiful afternoon standing in line for the locks? And so, another run by Beloved, and another few chapters in my book read.
On Friday morning we could see that the storm was clearly arriving but we were okay with that. I had my bicycle rain cape and Beloved could fit the wet suit provided by the boat vender. I should have asked for a larger set before leaving port on Saturday last but that’s okay I thought. I have this waterproof cape.
1. It wasn’t waterproof.
2. Capes get tangled up in lock gear when its windy out.
Also, when old locks leak water, sometimes the boat gets grounded on the bottom of the lock which is one of the reasons Gridley Lock comes with volunteer lock water managers. The ones that show up around 8:30 a.m. And not 7:30 a.m. which is when two Americans boldly sailed into the first of three stair step locks. Beloved also likes to work the doors so I volunteered to pilot the boat through the lock which went well until Beloved ran off to help another boater and not notice just how dry my lock had become.
“Okay, gun it,” he says upon his return.
“Nope, not going anywhere,” the boat replies as I realize that we are sitting on the bottom and not floating.
Floating is good. Grounding isn’t and I started to see not only how huge this lock could be when it is empty but also how really huge the doors are that are holding back the water from the upper canal.
I was not amused.
Luckily, we had a more experienced boat skipper around to help us get sorted out and into the next lock. Where I was close and level to the edge and could step off the boat easily, explaining to beloved that he was now piloting the boat. Right Now. And forever from here on out. I was no longer piloting nothing. Thank you. Profanity may or may not have been involved, not saying it wasn’t.
Still, we made it through the rest of the stair locks and the three immediately following stand alone locks and then tied up for breakfast and to catch our breath. A change of clothes and a re-arrangement of rain gear plus the liberal application of bacon helped reorientate my attitude back toward fun.
After a few hours, we came into Wrenbury where our boat was due to be returned by 9:30 a.m. the following morning. It was close to mid-afternoon and I was starving for lunch. We tied off a few hundred yards short of the vender and went into the closest pub only to discover that the power had gone out due to an accident in the area and all the pub could do was sell us beer. While the idea of Beer Lunch tempted me, we walked down the road a few dozen yards and found another, older pub. Lots older. They still had a gas griddle and deep fry so they could serve food with beer. We played Gin Rummy by candlelight on a dark rainy afternoon and this is probably the most English thing we did on the whole trip. Unless it was just persevering in the rain through the locks.
The sky was cleaning as we returned to our last night on the boat. It was time to finish H is for Hawk which is a poet’s meditation on the death of her father and the training of Gos Hawks. The book, like our voyage, skipped across time in order to gather together the threads of our stories.
We were up bright and shiny. Time to go. Beloved cranked over the starter on the diesel engine and got: nothing. Big silence. He dug through the manual, he really wanted to solve the problem for himself. I get that. Eventually, it came time to just walk on over to the boat yard and ask for help. A really great bloke came along, opened up some hatches, wired this and cranked on that and turned over the engine. Then, as long as he was there, he took the boat on into the mooring as he knew the secret of backing up.
Remember, you only have power over the direction of the boat when the boat is moving forward. Reverse can end up with your boat all over the place. At one point, while trying to sort out the go backwards and still control the craft thing, Beloved had done a major trim on someone’s lovely wild rose bush that was overhanging into a canal basin down stream of a lock. “If they want to keep their roses whole, then don’t plant them where a canal boat can get them,” he muttered when I had stepped back on board to a deck covered in the debris of great rose bush massacre.
Our guy knew out to power forward enough to set the direction, then how to power back to move the boat toward the marina, power forward to reset the direction and so on. We felt less shame when we realized that we weren’t the only renters wanting the guys to bring the boat in for us.
At any rate, the crew at the marina were happy to see us early as the power drop of yesterday afternoon had thrown their schedules off getting ready for the turn over of the boats. We said good bye to a few of our fellow traveling companions and were soon collected by our Holmes Chapel friends who treated us to lunch at yet another incredibly yummy pub on the way back to the airport.
You gotta do this. If you want to see Real Briton, to get out of the tourist channel, this is the thing to go do. It is surprisingly easy and relaxing and your American accent will be a hit.
Beautiful BBC Documentary on our canal: Great Canal Journeys