Oliver Gray and his family met a crew of engaging eccentrics on the canals of the Pennines
The little TVs they supply on hire boats aren't much cop. Nevertheless, despite the rice pudding on the screen, we could hear Michael Fish loud and clear: "Cool and wet over Spain and the Mediterranean." We, meanwhile, were lavishly applying the sunscreen and stretching luxuriously on the sweltering roof of the good ship Helen. Where? Why, on the Rochdale Canal, of course.

Mind you, things hadn't begun that well. For a start, the couple with whom we had planned the holiday for months chose this inconvenient time to split and failed to turn up. And the first few hours after leaving Mirfield, near Dewsbury, almost decided us to knock the project on the head completely. Aside from a lengthy series of difficult manoeuvres through locks on and off the river, the Calder and Hebble Navigation makes its way through a less than inviting West Yorkshire landscape of tatty industrial estates and malodorous sewage works. It was near one of these waste processing plants that our younger daughter slipped off the edge of the boat and into the Brown Windsor soup which masqueraded as water. While heroically rescuing her (and planning my forthcoming appearance on 999), I kept up the mantra: "For God's sake don't swallow anything."

Before long, however, we had reached the in-the-process-of-being-lovingly- restored metropolis of Sowerby Bridge, where, the guide-book assured us, the canal would "retire into a telephone box and emerge wearing its underpants outside its tights". And, blow me, it did in pretty spectacular fashion.

First, again from the trusty guidebook, we had time to take on board the warning that this was one of the most difficult stretches of canal in the country. Well, great. We are a family featuring a prize wimp (me), a well-disposed but frankly not very muscular wife (Birgit) and two keen but small daughters (Annabel and Lucy). And the first thing that confronted us was only the deepest lock in the UK, that's all. Luckily, there was a trusty lock-keeper to guide us through. His tactics were ideal. At first, he was strict and authoritarian, but by the time we emerged at the top (having obeyed all his orders to the letter), he had become a kind uncle, dispensing tips and witticisms by the gallon.

Yes, those locks. First you need a normal lock key. Then you need another type of lock key. And then it gets difficult. You need a whopping great baseball bat-like hunk of wood to open the top paddles of most of the Calder and Hebble ones (apparently unique in the country, and certainly worthy of the instruction course we received before setting off). And then, on the Rochdale, the most nerve-racking of all. A tiny key to open the security protection encasing the lock mechanism itself. I spent the whole time in terror of dropping the only one we had into the murky depths.

The aim of those attacking Rochdale Canal is to reach the "Summit", which is effectively the top of the Pennines, to which this waterway improbably but successfully climbs. We soon discovered that our allotted week was not going to be sufficient to achieve this and that we should really have started from Sowerby Bridge. Instead, we resolved to get to Todmorden and hike the rest of the way. To a family which is half-German, Todmorden is a frightening name, meaning, as it roughly does, "Death and Murder". The children were threatening not to get off the boat there at all, but before we arrived, there were some worryingly "Todmorden" things to deal with, mainly associated with the teenagers of Lancashire. After waving cheerfully to a group of young men on the towpath, I felt a substantial stone whistle past my ear. I turned round to see them bending down to pick up further ammunition and opened the throttle. Luckily, Helen had a good turn of speed, and I briefly didn't care about exceeding the limit.

The "baseball bat" locks have upper and lower paddles. Obviously, you have to open the lower ones first if you don't wish to be flooded, but the crew of a passing boat told us a cautionary tale. They had accepted the kind offer of some passing youths to allow the crew to stay on board while the lads operated the lock for them. You've guessed it. The kids purposely opened the top paddles first, causing the water to flow into the boat and putting the travellers in fear of their lives.

So it was with some trepidation that, on the return leg, we arrived at Brighouse, back on the Calder and Hebble. A dozen lads were taking advantage of the hot weather to leap in and out of the full lock (yuk, I should say in passing). As we chugged in, one young man suddenly leapt onto the boat, knocking Birgit so that the throttle shot forward and we inflicted quite serious damage upon the front gates. In my more imaginative moments, I find myself thinking about what might have happened if we'd hit them hard enough to burst them open ... but it's too frightening to contemplate.

The place we fell in love with was Hebden Bridge. It's like a kind of permanent Glastonbury Festival. Everyone we met had a pony tail, tie-dye gear and a dog on a string, and the atmosphere was friendly and laid-back. The hippie with whom we shared a lock possessed two canal boats and claimed to own large stretches of the canal bank. No wonder he had a permanent smile. Me, I couldn't believe I'd actually seen the Trades Club, one of the few places where the Sex Pistols played live.

And so to the attempt upon the summit. We donned our walking boots and felt rather smug about being able to overtake the few boats struggling up the lengthy series of (sometimes almost completely empty) locks. We knew that we'd be rewarded by a delicious lunch when we got to the top ... except that we didn't know that everything thereabouts shuts on Tuesdays. There were three pubs and several shops, and all of them were closed. We literally ran to the Bird in the Hand, one and a half miles away, to be informed that they'd stopped serving. It took all our combined talents of turning on the pathos to make them relent. Baguette and chips, yum.

You wouldn't expect the Rochdale Canal to be a gourmet trail, but you'd be wrong. In Sowerby Bridge we had an Indonesian feast of unrivalled deliciousness, climaxed by a coffee which appeared swathed in dry ice rivalling a Pink Floyd live show. Hebden Bridge has the most fantastic vegetarian restaurant in the universe. And, on the way back, you can do what all canal travellers look forward to most - tie up outside a pub and be at the bar in three strides. This is at the Colliers Arms outside Elland.

Canal holidays are all about memories. Such as Dobsons' wonderfully quaint sweet factory in Elland, where we met a genuine Dobson, the children were in paradise and we bought pounds of excessively E-numbered indulgences. Such as the unstoppably loquacious artist in Sowerby Bridge who told us his life story and sold us the ultimate souvenir, a personalised print of the canal's history. Such as the Clog Factory which turned out to be a craft superstore. Such as the lady in (where else?) Hebden Bridge who had three dogs with flower pots on their heads. Such as all the lovely friendly people we met and the cosy times on the boat, basking on the roof or snuggled up in the evening with a good book.

Birgit says the only thing wrong was that the locks were so frequent that she didn't get to finish her book. Well, you can't have everything.


Narrowboat hire

The Grays hired their very comfortable craft from Shepley Bridge Marina, Mirfield (Tel: 01924 491872)

The cost for a week's cruise for a family of four at Whitsun half-term was pounds 650

Other hire firms

Shire Cruisers, Sowerby Bridge. Tel: 01422 832712

Baltimore Boats, Todmorden. Tel: 01706 816472

Gourmet delights

The Java Restaurant, Sowerby Bridge Tel: 01422 831654

Vegetarian: VB's Cafe Bar, Hebden Bridge. Tel: 01422 845272

Bespoke watercolours and prints

Bolton Brow Gallery, Sowerby Bridge. Tel: 01422 836896

General information

Rochdale Canal Trust. Tel: 01422 844990

Tourist Information Hebden Bridge. Tel: 01422 843831