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Pamela Wade and friends discover the trials and tribulations of a week in a narrowboat on England’s Grand Union Canal.
"The thing now,'' said James, putting the car into gear, ``is not to go banging into anything.''
One of the many unexpected features of a week in a narrowboat on England's Grand Union Canal is the appalling after-effect it has on a lifetime's driving skills: back behind the wheel, the odd bump or scrape doesn't seem to matter any more.
It was a different story on Day One, when we took command of the Florence Edith, 13 tonnes of steel, 16m long and 2m wide.
Still in awe of the careless skill shown by Neil at Kate Boats as he manoeuvred her out of her berth where she was hemmed in by three others, we stood nervously at the tiller, already anxious about our first lock.
James and Gill had done narrow-boating before, so Roy and I were hoping to stand back taking photos, perhaps just holding the odd rope. But that, as we almost immediately discovered, is not how it works.
Our plan for the week was to follow the Grand Union and Oxford Canals from Warwick to Stoke Bruerne and back again, a round-trip distance of around 128km.
"That looks doable,'' Roy said, following James' finger as he traced a route across three pages of the boater's bible, Pearson's Canal Companion.
"Er, that's just the first day,'' said James, while Gill was counting up the most important statistic.
"Seventy-two locks altogether! But just 10 today.''
It was the easy option: heading the other way, towards Birmingham, we would have been, er, thrown in at the deep end, straightaway tackling the 21-level ski slope of Hatton Locks, rising nearly 46m.
So we ticked gently along eastwards at barely 4kmh - less than walking speed, allowing plenty of time to admire the engineering marvel that is the British canal system: we crossed two aqueducts, over the River Avon and a railway line, almost straight away. We were still, however, travelling fast enough to be confronted by our first lock within half an hour of setting off.
Suddenly it was all hands on deck: actually, most of them off the boat entirely.
The lock gates were closed, so someone had to stay at the tiller, someone stand on the bank holding the midships rope, and the other two climb up to the lock, one to teeter across the top of the gates to the other side, so both could wind up the submerged paddles to let the water out.
Locks are both simple and complicated. The principle is straightforward: to allow boats to go up or down slopes by using watery stairs. But the actual operation of the locks requires skill, strength and sweat; plus a windlass. This is the boater's badge of office, distinguishing her (it's usually her) from mere observers along the towpath.
There is winding, and then pushing, to open the gates: that's where the strength comes in. Then the tillerman (it's usually a man) has to ease the narrowboat away from the bank, through the gates and into the lock, and hold the boat steady as the water rushes in: that's where the skill and the nervous sweat come in.
More skill means less sweat; also, discovering that bumping and scraping are a normal part of the boater's day relieves the pressure enormously. By the week's end, we were blithely ricocheting off banks and lock walls without wincing.
This is not to say that we didn't attempt to maintain standards. It became a source of pride to slide gently into a mooring; to negotiate a tricky tight turn under a bridge on a blind bend; to emerge intact from the blackness of a 20-minute tunnel. And then there were the ropes.
There are two main divisions of boater on the canals: there are holiday renters, and there are owners. Owners divide further into friendly types who share tips and gossip as you nestle up against them in a lock; and superior sorts who chug by without acknowledgement, or pop out of hatches like Jack-in-the-boxes if you skim alongside too closely, or who offer passive-aggressive advice as you pass.
"Your ropes are untidy,'' was the bluntest comment we scored, from someone whose mooring rope was neatly coiled beneath the tiller.
Of course, we sailed past without reacting, but once round the bend looked guiltily at our careless tangle on the deck, and judged every boat thereafter on the neatness of their coils.
And there were plenty of boats. Moored along the banks, coming towards us, following behind, cosying up as lock buddies and halving the work - tatty, new, modern, traditional, with giveaway names like A Frayed Knot, Quidditch, Funky Monkey, Kiwi Dragon, Auntie Elsie and Campanula revealing all we needed to know about the owners.
Not the Tui, though, with its familiar billboard picture in yellow and red. "I'm not a New Zealander!'' the boater declared wearily, in defiance of the All Blacks flag behind him on the roof.
There was other life on the canals: ducks, geese, swans, all with fluffy babies; the flash of a kingfisher. Dogs trotted along the towpath or sat in state on boat roofs. Sheep, cows and horses grazed in summer-lush fields, poppies and buttercups brushing their knees. Joggers, walkers and cyclists passed the time of day, fishermen nodded, old men on benches outside pubs watched the waterborne traffic.
Ah, the pubs! The Two Boats at Itchington Bottom, The Boat House, the New Inn at Buckby wharf with its sad story about Matilda who painted the water cans, The Wharf at Bugbrooke, The Moorings at Crick ... good beer, good food, good company at the end of the day, then a wander home afterwards beside the canal in the long dusk, to be gently rocked to sleep.
And in the morning, more locks, distant churches, birdsong, trees, and friendly boaters.
Concentration at the tiller and hard work on the windlass, rewarded by a long lunch in the sunshine, a nap and then a quiet pootle along to that night's pub. Magic.
- Britain’s canal system is extensive, totalling 3500km. www.canaljunction.com.
- There are many companies that hire out narrowboats. We were happy with Kate Boats. www.kateboats.co.uk
- No particular skill is required and basic tuition is given.