Travel: All aboard for full board

David Foster books into a floating hotel and plies the canals of Surrey's commuter belt down to the wide waters of the Thames

Somewhere on the Deepcut lock flight I stretch out on a black and white balance beam, cradle my head in my hands, and gaze up at the sky through a patchwork of trees. I've finished winding the paddles, and the oak gates creak and shudder as 200 tons of water thunder out of the chamber behind them. Below me, two gleaming narrowboats drop quietly out of sight.

A couple of days earlier I had joined a group on board the hotel narrowboats Rose and Castle at Odiham in Hampshire, western terminus of the truncated Basingstoke Canal.

It's the adventure holiday for lounge lizards; though, with space at a premium, the atmosphere is more house-party than Hilton. Standard narrowboats are just seven feet wide, and cabin space compares closely with a touring caravan. But all the prettily decorated cabins have washbasins with running water and, when Castle is replaced for next season, the accommodation will be completely en-suite.

"There's no need to do anything except sit back and watch the countryside drift past," David, who manages the business from Rose's aft cabin, tells me. Nevertheless, most people indulge hobbies such as photography or birdwatching, and there's exercise too, if you want it. Crew member Jayne Dolby is happy to pass on the art of operating the locks, and walking or cycling along the towpath are also popular options. The boats, which tie up side by side for easy overnight access, single out during the day. Operating like a traditional working pair, the motorised Rose pulls her sister ship Castle, an unpowered "butty" (a towed boat).

Our first full day's cruise brings us to the top of the Deepcut locks, a remote spot set in thick woodland, where lock-keeper Peter Munt and his wife Maureen serve Sunday teas in the garden of their lockside cottage. "There's no road access," says Peter with evident satisfaction, "but you can get here by boat, or walk up the towpath from Curzon Bridge."

This may be the heart of the Surrey commuter belt, but try telling that to the cockerel who wakes me at first light. I take some convincing myself as we work down the 14-lock flight. Sunshine filters through the young oak trees, and the locks themselves blend into the landscape like ornamental temples in some stately pleasure ground.

Is it by chance that Rose and Castle moor that night on the outskirts of Woking, right outside the front door of Peter Redway, the Canal Society's chairman? Peter comes aboard that evening, and we talk late into the night about the changing fortunes of the waterway. From the very beginning, he says, the Basingstoke Canal was a financial disaster, and for most of this century the story was one of slow decline and neglect. Things changed when Surrey and Hampshire county councils bought the derelict canal in the early 1970s and, in partnership with the society, restoration work began at last. "It was the era of job creation and training schemes," Peter recalls, "and they kept us going right up to re-opening in 199l."

We slip away in the morning, dropping down through Woking and West Byfleet before joining the River Wey for the short run to Thames Lock; soon Rose and Castle are forging out on to the broad reaches of London's river. The change of scale is dramatic; gone is the intimate, close-confined world of cosy locks and little arched bridges. Suddenly, the heavy steel boats seem fragile, vulnerable, and slightly out of their depth.

In half a mile we make for the security of the bank, and moor at Shepperton for the night. Remarkably, the place still retains much of the charm of an 18th century village; old inns jostle for position round the tiny square, presided over by the mellow brick tower of St Nicholas's church.

There's drama next morning. We are up early for the tide, and a guest called Mona has disappeared. This intrepid Australian, who worked in London for two years after the last war, still thinks of England as her spiritual home. Now on her third trip with Rose and Castle, she's booked for the London to Birmingham cruise in a fortnight's time. But the years are catching up, and she thinks this will be her last visit to England. "Of course, I wouldn't have come this time if it wasn't for the boat trips," she had told us.

Ten minutes later she shows up, flustered and breathless, having lost her way back from the letterbox; David casts off straightaway, while Jayne serves breakfast on the move. Our journey to the Grand Union Canal at Brentford is punctuated by huge, impersonal locks, and we motor on past Hampton Court through an uneasy mix of expensive property and converted houseboats. But, after three days on the canal, I'm still adjusting to the Thames; this is cruising in Panavision.

The run up the Hanwell locks is enchanting; basking in the warm sunshine, passing well-tended banks and the old hay meadows of the Brent River Park. But now we're cruising the Heathrow hinterland, squeezed between the railway and the M4 corridor; surely, no sane person would choose this as a holiday destination? Our overnight mooring at Bull's Bridge junction makes an ideal vantage point for the interminable stack of aircraft approaching their brief appointment with the Heathrow tarmac. Yet it's relatively quiet here, and the birdsong that wakes me next morning easily holds its own against the thundering city silence. And we, too, are on the final approach: a lock-free cruise to our journey's end, just a stone's throw from Paddington station.

It's a day of contrasts. We drift past the Sudbury Park golf course, and there's a friendly wave from workers at the Heinz food factory, pausing for a fag-break in the company's tiny canal-side garden. Rose and Castle float serenely over the North Circular Road, past Kensal Green cemetery, and on under Ladbroke Grove and through Westbourne Green. Stylish new waterside housing is nearing completion here, with dramatic jutting gables and suspended balconies pointing contemptuously at the serried ranks of tower blocks just across the canal.

And so at length we slip under the massive girders of the Harrow Road bridge, and tie up in the sequestered pool of Little Venice. Pottering out into the nearby streets for a spot of gentle sightseeing, I'm immediately overwhelmed by London's snarling rush hour. Back at the mooring calm descends once again, like stepping into a church and shutting the door on the world.

HOTEL NARROWBOATS

GETTING THERE

David Foster travelled with Heart of England Hotel Narrowboats (tel: 01252 378779). The boat tours programme covers most of the English waterways, and packages start from pounds 75 per person, per night, inclusive of all accommodation, meals, refreshments and canal travel. No supplements are charged.

Details of holidays with independent operators (including Heart of England) are also available from Drifters Hotel Boats (tel: 01905 610440).

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