Holidays on water: Steer a course to harmony

Their canal boat trip got off to a stormy start. Yet Adrian Mourby and his family soon found calmer waters
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The Independent Travel

I blame the brochure that seduced me with the idea of "long, lazy days cruising through an ever-changing tapestry of unspoilt countryside, riverside cottages and welcoming inns".

No mention whatsoever of being stuck at the bottom of Grindley Brook staircase (a flight of three locks) with a smelly diesel engine and two children who have developed dam-buster tendencies. My wife has already jumped ship and stalked off to the Horse and Jockey. We're only one day into this holiday on the Shropshire Union Canal and she has already had enough.

It's not just the fear of drownings and sinkings; it's the incessant noise made by two kids who think it great fun to chase each other along the six-inch gunwales or leap on to the bank and run alongside the boat, shouting and waving. One has already miscalculated the leap and gone in up to her bottom, but the locks are my real worry. Initially I had the 15-year-old son working the gates. All that winding up of windlasses was a good way of tiring him out, I thought.

Unfortunately, the two of them soon cottoned on to the fact that letting water out of a lock is much more fun than filling it, especially if you throw things in at the top and see if you can spot them exploding in a torrent of white spume. At Quoisley we'd just gone up and were manoeuvring past the spruce little motor boat waiting to come down when I realised that John and Livvie had opened the sluice gates for another game of Killer Pooh Sticks. This meant they had drained the lock, obliging the crew of the oncoming boat to refill before they could proceed. There is no greater breach of waterway etiquette.

"Sorry!" I shouted, using the international shrug-semaphore that says: "Kids! What Are You Going To Do?"

Soon after that was Livvie's leap into three feet of water and my wife's resignation. She walked along the towpath, stony-faced and silent, making it clear that she had not given up a week of leave to fish stupid children out of the water.

Of course, we could have made it easier on ourselves by leaving them below decks watching their portable DVDs, but that wouldn't do at all. As middle-class parents we had to get them up on deck for the obligatory lecture (from me) on the important role of canals in the industrial revolution and (from Kate) on all the things you should never do on a canal boat. Safety and education are not the most appealing aspects of a holiday to any child. No wonder they ran amok as soon as the opportunity presented itself.

From the outset John had wanted to steer. Given that 3mph was all we were allowed to notch up in our floating garden shed I hadn't thought this a bad idea, but Kate vetoed that. She remembered all too well the glee with which he'd steered a motorboat straight at some Austrian holidaymakers on the lake in Kitzbühel last year. Reduced to supernumerary lock-opening status, the junior members of my crew became fractious, rebellious and stupid. In the Navy they used to make people scrub decks to avoid this kind of problem, but this is a holiday. They are supposed to be having fun, albeit in a good, safe, educational way.

There is a queue of four boats ahead of us at Grindley, and more boats waiting to come down the staircase. Canal etiquette dictates that only three boats can go up before three of those up top get to come down. That's why I know I'm here for some time.

But things improve when Kate comes back, having found gin and tonic, newspapers and her equilibrium in the pub. Soon it's our turn to ascend the staircase and we seem to get into a rhythm with the children running ahead to get the next lock up. After three flights I want to keep going but we've run out of locks.

"Can we have lunch now?" they ask. Very soon Kate has put together a collection of sliced cold cuts and other nibbles and uncorked some wine. The great thing about canal holidays, I find, is that at 3mph you really can drink and drive. The putter putter of the engine has a calming effect; it complements the glug glug of wine.

Later we moor for the night just past the Prees Branch Junction. It's getting cold, but the charm of canal boats is the freedom to camp out in the middle of nowhere without having to pitch a tent. Our garden shed seems very warm and inviting when I go below deck. More wine has been opened and the smell of simmering chilli nearly knocks me sideways. Captain's log: situation definitely improving.