We’re big fans of Timothy West and Prunella Scales ‘Great Canal Journeys’ in our house, I hope you are in yours. The programme is a joy, serene and informative and also funny. We love it so much we were inspired to actually hire a canal boat for a recent holiday.
Thing is, TV is a liar. When Tim and Pru are aboard there is some lock keeping where Pru wields a windlass as if it’s a feather duster. Sometimes there’s a little light tunnel navigation a brief history of the engineering of the brickwork or the haunted spot in the middle where some poor navvy drowned. After they emerge into daylight they moor up at some idyllic spot and there’s a glass or two of wine already chilled, a crossword open, pencils sharpened. It’s appealing. You always feel as if you are sitting with them, relaxed and in the company of old friends.
What Tim and Pru never reveal is the hard graft that is a canal boat holiday. It is, in every sense, an adventure.
Possibly the dice were loaded against us for this escapade. We had both had a flat out flu the previous week, sweating profusely and aching as if our bones were being used by the Devil for his very own xylophone. Perhaps you had that flu too, it was going around. Anyway, we had stopped sniffing just enough on the Thursday to look forward to heading up to Trevor basin on the Friday and picking up our craft for the week, the estimable narrowboat ‘The Golden Lark’. We imagined that it would be relaxing, recuperative.
Here’s your first problem. A canal narrowboat is really a big empty workhorse of a boat. It is not a pleasure cruiser by nature. In its heyday it was loaded with coal and china and pig iron and trundled up and down the intricate web of the waterways of Britain. I have always loved canals and their history ever since Mr Pennington started waffling on about it during my secondary school history lessons. I loved the idea of these secret and hidden paths through the hearts of our post-industrial cities. You’d be surprised how many canals you’ve driven over, walked by or passed unawares. They skulk and lurk under bridges and dual carriageways and they were the M6 of their time. In its heart, a canal boat is the Georgian equivalent of an articulated lorry, built for trade and industry. This, you might think is not an issue. You would be wrong.
Also the ‘narrow’ in the moniker ‘narrowboat’ gives away the other slight issue. They are quite spacious, just in a long thin sort of way. We didn’t mind the dimensions of the galley and cabin seating area or the rather snazzy James Bond villain chairs it was equipped with. I might have mentioned it before but my husband and I are bred from Welsh pit pony and Irish bare knuckle boxing potato farmers. We’re not large in dimension.
The canal boat cabin bed wasn’t large either. A Great Dane or Wolfhound might have curled up comfortably. I balanced on the port edge, my husband snored on the starboard side, his back chilled by the side panelling of the boat. I had thought ahead, drilled by camping trips, and brought extra blankets and sleeping bags.
This was a wise move because it turned out that Putin had plans and sent a further Beast from the East. On Sunday morning we woke up to find a foot of snow on the boat and surrounding countryside.
This was, at first, one of the seven wonders of the canal world. They are the secret slipways and through routes that allow you to chug along and see the backsides of things, the untidy and the private. You are, as Celtic myth would have it, between the worlds of land and water, you are riding the borderlands. The whiteout was dotted with wild trees and wilder geese, brought down by the storm. The sky lowered above us a glorious bronze grey, heavy with the promise of further flakes.
We had all our clothes on. That didn’t come out quite how I wanted to write it. It makes it sound as if there was some sort of naked orgy previously, what I actually mean is, it was so cold we had to wear ALL OUR CLOTHES. I personally, on the Monday morning, was wearing leggings under my trousers, a long sleeved t-shirt, two dresses, three heavy duty cardigans, a tweed jacket, my faithful fleecy lined raincoat, my survival poncho, four scarves and a hat.
The thing is that a canal boat holiday is just that. You are on board and you have to chug along the, well, canal, for several hours a day. The reasons for this are twofold; if you don’t chug along you don’t get anywhere and b. if you don’t keep the engine running for 5-6 hours you don’t have any power in the evening and have to run the engine at your mooring. This is not great. Firstly the engine lends a waft of diesel to all the proceedings within the narrowboat (crouching, scrunching, bending mostly). Secondly it is noisy, for you and whoever might be moored up beside or behind you.
We chugged along in the bitter and biting wind, the exact one Masefield was thinking of in his poem ‘Sea Fever’.
There was no escape. Also that biting wind simply pushes the narrowboat around like a paper boat on a park lake. The lovely gentlemen who gave us the introductory tour of the boat and its workings did warn us ‘The wind is not your friend.’ It is quite disturbing to see your front end drifting sideways so that you are, essentially tacking up the narrow waterway. Narrowboats are long, canals are not wide, it’s a dodgy equation. That’s why they give you a grappling hook and a big, giant pole to shove yourself away from the bank. The tiller swings this way and that, the boat is slow but steady and deadly. There is no real margin for error.
We persevered to a place called Prees Junction where we thought we might moor for the night. The landscape, draped in ice and snow became more and more mystical. There were the Meres by Ellesmere, lakes scooped out by the ice age and eerily quiet, bereft even of the hardiest dog walker. Our only companions were the crows, flapping like black pirate flags from tree branch to bare bough.
Prees Junction. On that windbitten afternoon this place looked like a set for a horror film. There was an empty building, barren and dishwatery canals in two directions, distant malevolent looking lift bridges to block our way, windlass or not. And then the wind whirled us, around, angled us again, around, shoved us towards the distant bank. Shoved us back here, over there, until the movement of the tiller was like our sword in a duel with the element itself. The engine growled in reverse and my husband said at last ‘That’s it. We’re going back to Ellesmere for a curry.’
We had fun. Don’t misunderstand. We were lucky in that we had most of the canal to ourselves. Just as well considering the terrible steering and the whim of the weather. We saw the arse end of Shropshire at its most pagan, white and ancient with snow. But each morning the necessity of dropping down into the engine pit to check water, oil and turn the stern greaser was stressful. Yes. A stern greaser. We have no real idea what it did, just that it was vital. It was also, for 48 hours of our trip, frozen.
There was the night the electricity failed because we’d only been chugging for three hours that day. We had moored at Chirk and made the two mile escape to the castle instead, finding that the world sways a little when you leave the water. There was the fact that the door was not a sealed unit and so, at night you could watch the snow drifting in through the gap at the top as the wind hammered to be let in. Well he would wouldn’t he? It was cold outside.
To sum up the trip. It was very different from anything we’ve ever done. Atmospheric. Yes. Wild. Yes. Primitive. Yes. We even had to take on fresh water daily, seeking out the black and white hydrants to fill the tank.
Did I mention the toilet? No? Probably just as well.