I thought there would be nothing more relaxing than a canal boat holiday. Travelling at 4mph along sleepy waterways through beautiful countryside sounded idyllic. Until I did it.
Let’s take that 4mph thing first. Time goes slowly and that’s what we love about canals- if we’re sitting out on deck with a G&T. Time going slowly is not so much fun when you’re waiting for the boat to respond to your moving the tiller and you’re going down a canal that’s maybe two or three boats wide. You hardly ever seem to get more than five minutes before a boat comes past in the opposite direction. Steer too far to the right and you’re grounded, too far to the left and you’re playing dodgems.
At first, I was zigzagging from left to right like a UKIP voter. Eventually I acquired a steady hand on the tiller but, even then, I couldn’t afford to lose concentration for a moment. If I took a second to look at a heron or sip a beer, I’d find myself grinding to a halt as I mounted the deceptively shallow bank. And, however blasé I became, the approach of another boat seemed to draw me toward it like a moth to a flame.
Aye Aye Captain
While some of the ‘crew’ might relax with a cocktail or a cuppa, there was no relaxation for the Captain and me. (My brother-in-law saw himself as Captain Hook while I, as a less than able seaman, was clearly Smee.) Every few minutes, there was a lock or a swing bridge to negotiate. Each time, I had to leap from the barge onto the tow path with a rope, pull the vessel into the bank and tie it up to a little bollard.
This was not helped by my complete ignorance of the way floating objects behave. I soon found out that when you pull one end, the other end goes in the opposite direction leading to the boat completely straddling the canal like a river police roadblock.
Having secured the vessel, I would sprint to the lock, ratcheting some ratchety thing to fill or drain the lock chamber, untie the boat so it could sail into the lock, and then go through the process in reverse. After that, it would sail out of the lock and I would have to secure it again while I finished my work at the lock. Finally I had to untie it and push it off with one foot on the tow path and one foot on the boat, bringing me dangerously close to falling in or splitting my difference.
Swing bridges, which operate like the gate to a field, are slightly easier but still hard work. On one occasion, pushing the bridge open proved beyond me so my brother-in-law got off the barge to help. It was only when we finally opened it that we realised we were both on one side of the canal and the boat was on the other.
At the end of each day of this ‘relaxing’ holiday, I was more exhausted than I have ever been in my life. At least I slept well because it might otherwise have been a sleepless night, given how cramped these boats are, even the big ones. My wife and I were sharing with two other couples. So each evening, we had to convert the comfy chairs in the sitting room-cum-kitchen into a bed for one couple. Then my wife and I would retire to our ‘cabin’ which was actually closer to being a drawer, part of which went under the third couple’s cabin. Consequently, any movement of our legs led to severe bruising and complaints from next door about the knocking sounds against their headboard.
So, what about the view? It’s true I saw some beautiful rolling Cotswold landscape and very pretty views from aquaducts. But the immediate view was of an almost continuous line of moored boats. From the look of them, I’m guessing quite a few people who live on the canal can’t afford or don’t want a mortgage. Maybe they just don’t want to be part of mainstream society. Whatever the reason, they choose to live on these small boats and then, apparently, discover that while acquiring one may be cheap, maintenance isn’t. I can’t imagine any other reason why so many of them are held together by rust.
Many of them also seem to collect junk. Quite a few boats were piled high with old bikes, tyres, wheelbarrows and who knows what items that someone must have thought would be useful for doing up or selling for parts or, most likely, as scrap metal. Very friendly people, mind you, apart from the odd grumpy one who was probably worried that any ripple from our boat as it passed was liable to shake their fragile home apart.
That Sinking Feeling
The facilities on a narrow boat are inevitably limited. It’s a bit like a caravan, I imagine, but at least when you’re on dry land you can stock up when something runs out. On the last full day, we ran out of water and missed the Water Point where we could fill up. As at a well known supermarket, once it’s gone it’s gone. There’s no turning round with a canal boat except at ‘winding holes’, which more rare than the sighting of that kingfisher everyone talks about.
Because it was cold (and wet) most of the time, we had the heating on continuously. Consequently, even though we were told it would never happen, we ran out of gas. No water and no gas might seem bad enough but there was worse to come. We awoke in the early hours if our final morning, the chemical toilet had filled up and begun to back up.
We hightailed it for the end point- or at least hightailed it as much as a boat going at 4mph can. We arrived with dawn chorus still chirping and got off the vessel feeling much as the pilgrims must have when they disembarked from The Mayflower after their transatlantic journey.
In marketing, emotion rules reason. Of all people, I should have known better and thought through the practicalities instead of being swayed by the romance of a canal boat trip. One thing’s for sure: a canal holiday has gone from my Bucket List to my something-that-rhymes-with-Bucket list.
A version of this article appeared on the Daily Echo website.
Paul Lewis is the owner of the Winchester based marketing consultancy Seven Experience