NARROW BOATING IN BRITAIN'S MIDLANDS
The Aqueduct at Wootton Waven
I should never have had that second cup of coffee! We're inching along about 50' above the A3400 highway and I'm trying to keep my hands steady on the tiller so as not to bump either side of the aqueduct. I figure I have about 1" to spare on either side and why aren't there railings on both sides? We're just leaving Wootton Wawen after exploring its 1100 year-old Saxon sanctuary and this crossing, built in 1813, is by far the most adrenalin pumping of the three aqueducts we encounter on the waterway. Reaching the other end without a bump, I beam proudly as the crew from a waiting canal boat applauds.
The narrow locks on Stratford Canal
It's day five of our pilgrimage to Shakespeare's Stratford-Upon-Avon, only thirty kilometres away by road from our starting point in the Midlands at Stockton Top Marina but a six-day trip for us. Distances are deceiving in a narrow boat: Five kilometres can take five hours if there are copious locks between you and your destination-and a queue of other boats ahead of you.
There are no boat queues this rainy, early May morning, but copious locks have, indeed, lurked in wait-the famous 'staircase' of Hatton Locks on Day Two, for example. Completed in 1799, its twenty-one locks climb 150' over two miles and are then punctuated with 396-metre long Shrewley Tunnel, built in 1799, a trickster of a tunnel that delighted in anointing all four of us with icy rivulets when least expected. We choose this route for the fun and challenge of its locks, all 152 of them (return), its aqueducts, and its sleepy, scenic countryside, all part of our adventure as we head to the Bard's home town.
Flowers aboard a canal boat home
Our boat is the 56' Florence Edith, an impressive size until you realize that a narrow boat is called that for good reason. It's only 7' wide. These canals and locks were originally designed for narrow boats carrying coal, sugar, tea and spices, so modern craft still need to emulate their ancestors in order to squeeze into those lean locks. The Florence Edith, hired from Kate Boats, has a stateroom, 1.5 bathrooms and an eating area, galley, and lounge, and both the eating area and the lounge convert into beds, perfect for two couples, because this is one vacation that should be shared, splitting the work and doubling the laughs. My partner, David Dossor, and our close friends, Pat Crossley and Gerry McKeating are all getting a good workout.
Our skipper David Dosser at the top of Hatton Locks
Cruising to Stratford entailed leaving the wider and busier Grand Union Canal and navigating a frighteningly abrupt elbow turn under a low bridge into the South Stratford Canal. The hair-raising narrowness of the locks had a positive side, however: there was only one gate to open at each end instead of two, and although more challenging for the skipper, it made the crew's jobs much easier. An already scenic trip soon trumped itself as we chugged dreamily past black and white footbridges, grazing sheep, undulating green-hedged fields, and rainbow-coloured canal boats spilling with rooftop flowers and folk art, on our hunt for the perfect 'happy hour' tie-up. Last night we couldn't resist a spot near the country pub and ancient church, but tonight's choice is a pastoral one, far from traffic and nudged by wheat sheaves and sheep. Wine on deck chairs on the towpath is the daily routine, followed by dinner al fresco on our floating restaurant. (My turn to be sous chef).
So, do you have steady hands and a good eye for nudging between those unrelenting canal walls? Strong arms for cranking the windlasses to open the sluices and well toned muscles for pushing the balance beams to shut and open the gates? Do you harbour a thirst for savouring good beer in country pubs, and an urge to enjoy a little slow time, passing through bucolic countryside? Can you handle the peace of evenings tied up alongside curious sheep, and can you stand being woken in the morning by a birdsong reveille? If so, your choices are endless in Britain.
IF YOU GO:
" Getting to England. Montreal-based Transat Air has regular flights from Vancouver to Gatwick. (www.airtransat.ca).
" Getting around England. Get a Brit Rail Flexi Pass! (www.acprail.com)
" Stockton Top Marina. (www.kateboats.com)
" Canal and routing information. (www.canalrivertrust.org.uk)
PHOTOS by Cherie Thiessen
1. The narrow locks on Stratford Canal
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