Foreign Travel: Narrowboat to Nowhere

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, May 1995

Foreign Travel: Narrowboat to Nowhere

A slow poke along England's canals
By Mark Kramer

The 2,000 miles of narrow canals that weave through England were built a few centuries ago to ferry coal from rural mines to mills and cities. Long abandoned for faster transport, the canals now fill with hired "narrowboats" and are maintained by zealous work crews from local chapters of the Inland Waterways Association, a sort of canalers' Appalachian Mountain Club. Putting along at the required four miles per hour, you people-watch as much as nature-gaze as scenes pass an arm's length away. Always there are acquaintances to be made--a professorial grandfather canaling with his wee granddaughter; a cook dragging a broken bicycle along the canal path, hours late for the wedding party he was to feed; a farmer hunting at midnight with dogs and rifle; bored Birmingham street kids. This surely isn't sailing away from civilization--it's sailing through the thick of it.

Our narrowboat, the Wye Valley, was just seven feet wide but 55 feet long from stem to stern. It had double beds, milk glass lamps, a C-shaped velveteen settee, a hot shower, a full kitchen, and outdoor perches on tiny fore- and afterdecks. We picked the boat up in Atherstone, 60 miles north of Oxford, at a ma-and-pa boatyard that rents out a dozen craft. From there we navigated through 120 locks in a 110-mile ring crossing the grain fields of Warwickshire, uphill into the desperate heart of Birmingham, southeast toward Oxford, and back around to Atherstone.

Like most canalers, we ran our own boat, and it took muscle. The tiller wanted constant horsing. We ran aground daily--which in dry weeks is common even for old hands--and shoving free took pole-vaulting brawn. But it was the locks, the devices that enable 20-ton canal boats to climb mountains, that required enough hard work to keep us feeling tough in spite of our posh quarters. Locks are boat-size boxes with iron valves that must be cranked open and closed repeatedly and big wooden gates at each end that must be wrestled open and shut a few times per passage. Crack crews manage about four locks an hour. The climb to Birmingham, up a 21-lock staircase, kept three of us sweating for nearly six hours.

During lock-free stretches, the small diesel blatted pleasantly, allowing at least two of us to run or bike ahead on the towpath, exploring cobbled villages and scouting out the friendliest pubs. I liked best my stints alone, threading the boat through farm valleys and tight channels under oddly angled bridges. The hours underway stayed engrossing because of the way the boat's slow glide emphasized the parallax effect: A nearby tree passed at walking speed, showing one side and then the other, while in the same few seconds the view of a barn a hundred yards back shifted just a slice and the image of a distant tower barely altered at all. Then came the backyards of small brick houses, each with a personality, a calico cat here, a ragamuffin elderberry stand there, until we found a mooring and a chatty pub. And in the next dawning sun, yellow bales floated on fields of yellow stubble and the smell of coffee rose up from below.

Valley Cruises (011-44-82-771-2602), on the Coventry Canal in Atherstone, rents the four- to six-person Wye Valley for $763-$1,208 per week; other boats rent for $390- $1,562. If you're not up for manning the locks on the Warwickshire Ring, you might head into rural farmland on the lock-free Ashby Canal. Blakes Holidays, through its U.S. agent, Richard Batham (800-628-8118), books boats all over the country. Rates range from $815-$1,375 per week for a standard four- to six-person boat, to $1,200-$2,010 for a 12-person boat. Batham often recommends that trips start around Braunston, near Rug-by, where you'll have five routes to choose among, including a two-week trip down the Oxford Canal to Oxford. You can also plan a trip through Hoseasons Holidays (011-44-50-250-1010), which charges $706-$1,177 per week for a six-person boat. More sedate cruisers might try the nearly lock-free trip from Whittington down Llangollen Canal to Wales. The best fares from New York to London ($469- $499) are on Virgin Atlantic Airways (800-862-8621) and Air India (212-751-6200). For further information, contact the Inland Waterways Association at 011-44-71-586-2510.

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