Canal boat holidays: once the backbone of industry, Britain’s canals have survived to provide relaxing and peaceful family holidays. Carol Davis reports from on board a narrow boat
While thousands in Britain were sitting in motorway jams or queuing at airports for a bank holiday break, we were taking the most extraordinary holiday of our lives. It was one of Britain’s canal boat holidays.
Just 20 miles away from home, we discovered another world we never knew existed. I’d lived in Cheshire for years, but there were some mysteries I’d never uncovered. That pub we’d walk to across the fields, called Top of the Tunnel – I knew there were centuries-old tunnels deep underground, but had no idea where they were.
But with three very excited children as crew, I was about to drive a 60ft boat through them. Travelling by narrowboat ticks a lot of boxes when it comes to responsible travel. You start your journey close to home – the waterways network covers much of Britain, so your local marina could be closer than your nearest airport. And hire bases are well set up when you arrive by train or bus, selling groceries to help families arriving by public transport.
“Travelling by water is cleaner, greener and safer than travel by road,” says Debbie Walker, British Waterways spokesperson, “as it uses less than a third of the fuel and emits less than a sixth of CO2 pollution. So a UK canal boat holiday will not only reduce your carbon footprint by cutting out a flight abroad, it will also take you away from the car for the duration of your holiday.”
The green message was there from the start. Our Boater’s Handbook and explanatory DVD arrived by post before we left, with stickers on the covers asking us to help reduce waste, and return them clean for someone else’s use if we no longer needed them.
That short journey to Anderton Marina in Cheshire was a step into another world. “Canal boat holidays are often described as “the fastest way to slow down”, Debbie told me, “as the speed limit for boats on British Waterways navigations is just 4mph. Higher speeds are not permitted as the resulting wash can damage wildlife habitats and canal and river banks.”
And even 4mph is often too fast, we learned once we’d carried our bags and supplies on to Grey Partridge, moored at the Alvechurch base at Anderton Marina. Softlyspoken Trevor Blackhurst, marina engineer for Alvechurch Waterway Holidays, guided me through the basics of boat handling.
Slow right down when you pass moored boats, he told me, because you can pull them off their moorings. And a wave could damage banks and sensitive plants.
Under Trevor’s watchful eye, I took the shiny brass tiller to take Grey Partridge out onto the Trent & Mersey Canal. Enjoying the waterways safely and sustainably was the key, he told me. That meant mooring without blocking the towpath, favourite of anglers, walkers and cyclists. And it meant sharing locks where possible, and giving way to an oncoming boat when a lock is set against you: even if you arrive first, unnecessary emptying and filling a lock can waste up to 80,000 gallons of water. Ten minutes of guidance and I’d got the hang of it.
So had my 13-year old daughter Louise, who took the tiller with me beside her to steer us towards the bank for Trevor to step off. With a wave, he made his way down the steep steps to the River Weaver and the boat he calls home.
The cathedral of canals
We ticked past the Anderton Boat Lift, nicknamed ‘the cathedral of the canals’ and a testament to the power of conservation groups. Built in 1875, it was the world’s first boat lift and carried boats from the canal to the Weaver Navigation some 50ft below.
Corrosion closed the lift in 1983, but waterways enthusiasts campaigned for almost two decades until the lift finally re-opened in 2002 and visitors flocked to see it. And that reopening was a day some older people thought they’d never see – born on the canal boat her parents worked up and down the canal, Lily Wakefield was there that day in 2002, and recalled playing under the lift as a child.
As Grey Partridge made her way along the canal, we watched the vast lift lowering boats to the Weaver, breathing new life into the navigation below. Passing boats help to keep the waterways clear of reeds, campaigners argued, keeping them alive as a diverse habitat for fish, birds and other wildlife. And boating breathes fresh life into communities, as pubs and shops provide for boaters and walkers who come to watch the boats.
And as Grey Partridge ticked slowly round the bends, we watched nesting swans and grey herons fishing from the banks. Ducklings followed the boat, and the spring countryside simply bloomed with cowslips, native bluebells and wild garlic. Kingfishers flashed over waters rich in roach, bream and gudgeon. Steer well clear of the non-towpath side, Debbie had warned us, taking care not to disturb plants or wildlife there, including badgers, otters and bats.
Suddenly the mouth of the first tunnel loomed ahead. Dug using hand tools in the 18th century, the canal tunnels were part of a waterways network that transformed the British economy, halving the price of coal in Manchester since goods no longer had to travel over bumpy roads. And as the towpath rose over the hill, we imagined those horses, suddenly free of the boats they towed, as men worked their boat through the tunnel.
The 572 yards of Barnton Tunnel were dark and very still. Grey Partridge’s engine purred in the darkness, illuminated only by sudden flashes of daylight from light wells, and some dank drips. Tiny stalactites clung to the roof. Then sunlight and the idyllic Barnton Wharf filled with boats. Another dank 424 yards of Saltersford Tunnel, and we were cruising above the beautiful Weaver Valley and mooring for the evening.
You can be totally alone on a canal boat, but never lonely. Around the next bend, you find a family living on their boat, wood neatly stacked on the roof and geraniums growing in tubs.
Chat to elderly ladies beside a lock, and you might hear that they were born on a boat and helped their parents work the boats up the canal as children. And pause for a moment, and passing boaters offer help – a hand to hammer in a mooring pin, or chat about the route ahead. Jokes and friendly waves bind seasoned boaters and holidaymakers alike.
With Grey Partridge safely moored, we explored the boat. Care for the environment is key, says the Waterways Code. Never throw waste overboard, Trevor had warned us, because it can kill wildlife and wrap round boats’ propellers.
And since the grey water – washing up and showering water – goes into the canal, using as little as possible of an environmentally friendly detergents is a must.
Since the water tank needs refilling daily, water conservation is crucial. And in a small space, we became painfully aware of how much rubbish we created from packaging alone. Yet finding alternatives was easy. A short walk over the fields took us to a farm shop for Cheshire potatoes, fresh eggs and local vegetables.
Food miles: nil, freshness: perfect. And after a good meal sprawled on the roof in the evening sunshine, we slept beautifully, lulled by Grey Partridge’s rocking.
Seven miles from Anderton to Preston Brook took us most of a day, through the Preston Brook tunnel deep below that Dutton pub. Then a cruise on lovely Cheshire waterways, mooring to walk into the village of Moore for supplies and a quick drink.
Another short walk took us to Daresbury, home of Lewis Carroll and where a window in the church commemorates his characters. On previous bank holidays, we’d simply have driven to
Daresbury on a tank of petrol. But with responsible travel in mind, Grey Partridge was our home and our slow transport too. Travelling on diesel heated the water and charged the battery too, generating electricity as we travelled. And as canal boats are becoming even more environmentally friendly, using biodegradable oil helps to keep waterways clean.
Powered by biofuel
Biofuel power is coming to the waterways too, with a biofuel powered boat exhibited at this year’s Crick Boat Show.
And on the Norfolk Broads especially, electric boats are popular. Some boat owners now also use wind turbines. On our slow-moving Grey Partridge, my three junior crew members worked as a team: 11-year-old Julia and her friend Georgie produced wonderful meals in the wellequipped galley, and moored expertly too.
Safety was key, they learned – forget the rules, and the momentum of the 20-ton boat can crush a leg or hand dangled outside. But for children, this was the most magical holiday.
Other kids agreed: “I loved working through the locks,” enthused 15- year old Ellie Owen from Altrincham, also in Cheshire. “I really liked it too. In fact, I thought it was great,” added her 12-year-old sister Ariana, crewing the boat with her 10- year-old sister Molly and grandfather.
A lazy weekend on Grey Partridge led us to a secret waterways environment I’d never found before. As Julia guided Grey Partridge along those seven lovely miles back to Anderton, we’d found a slower and greener way to discover a whole new world – and learn to conserve it, too.
Rights of passage
Alvechurch Waterway Holidays: www.alvechurch.com 08708 352525. Prices start from £429 for a short break in early June.
Report any pollution or fly-tipping to the Environment Agency pollution hotline on freephone 0800 807060
The Saul Canal Festival takes place from 29 June to 1 July near Frampton on Severn, Gloucestershire. www.junctionevents.org.uk
• Originally published in GreenerLiving magazine in May 2007