Even though the rain came down in stair rods and my wife howled with terror every time I attempted to put up the sails, we had a jolly time. The highlight of the trip was observing other boat users at the locks. Boating is generally a lazy business, particularly on the Caledonian Canal, which has great stretches of water, including Loch Ness, in its attractive length. Locks provide a rude interruption.
After hours lounging on deck with a good book, the crew are suddenly required to do something useful. Successful negotiation of locks, particularly the sort of staircase locks to be found on the Caledonian Canal, demands good teamwork. Water can come gushing in through the gates at an alarming rate. If you do not have a firm control of the ropes and a wary eye on neighbouring boats, the situation can become fraught and tempers are easily lost.
We would sit in our boat smugly observing vicious internecine warfare erupting all around. 'Fend off, will you]'. 'I am fending off]'. 'Daddy, for God's sake look out]'. 'Shut up, shut up, shut up: I hate you]'. 'Why do you have to spoil every bloody holiday we go on?' There's nothing like a blazing family argument to brighten up your holiday. As long as it isn't your own family.
Since our family adventure was being recorded for posterity by the BBC 1 Holiday programme, the prospect of my children trading blows and insults in front of 10 million viewers was not one to gladden the heart. Gentle persuasion and reasoned argument was called for. 'If you two don't behave on this holiday, I promise I will cheerfully murder you both.'
Wroxham is where most Broads holidays start. It is a pleasant place, but overwhelmed by tourists in August. Curiously, all shops in the town seem to belong to Roy. There is Roys supermarket, Roys coffee shop, Roys garden centre, Roys DIY, Roys department store - and for 'young fashion' there is even Miss Roy. In Wroxham it would be a mistake to get on the wrong side of Roy.
Roys amply supplied supermarket is where most people stock up for their boating trips. To fulfil this task successfully you have to be the sort of person who can work out what they would like for their dinner in four days' time. Since I find it hard to imagine what I might want to eat in four hours' time, I bought rather a lot of chocolate mini-rolls.
Next step was to install ourselves on the boat. Having prepared for the trip by reading Arthur Ransome's The Coot Club - a Swallows and Amazons-style yarn of sailing adventure on the Broads - I had imagined myself a romantic figure at the helm of something like a gaff-rigged ketch (if such a thing exists).
The boat we were issued with was the Fair Lowliner 38' Class, which felt the size of the QE 2 - definitely not the sort of thing Arthur Ransome would have approved of. However, I was delighted to discover it had all mod cons: hot water, a shower, central heating, flush toilet, a fridge, stereo radio/cassette player - even a colour television: definitely my sort of boating holiday. A man from the boatyard demonstrated the controls and took us out for a trial run. We quickly discovered the main problem was not controlling our own boat but avoiding collisions with other people's. Around Wroxham, the Broads are like the M25 on a Friday night.
On the Broads, boats are caravans on water (ownership of a caravan, as we all know, is the manifestation of a severe personality disorder). The average Broads boater appears to be a Sun reader, a smoker, dines exclusively on cholesterol and is almost certain to own at least one dog: Swallows and Amazons they are not. Fortunately, it is fairly easy to escape the worst of the crowds. Finding a place to moor for the night (or at any time) is rather more of a challenge. Most banks seem to be privately owned, and the better marinas and the berths nearest the nicest pubs are massively oversubscribed at peak times.
When you do find a space, you have to withstand inspection as you attempt to tie up. Come in backwards and you will be greeted by some know-all who says: 'You didn't want to come in backwards . . .' Come in frontwards and he'll be around to tell you differently. 'Daddy just told that man to do something very rude,' observed my daughter during one fraught manoeuvre. At least that particular remark was not recorded for 10 million viewers.
While the adult half of the crew may at times have preferred to be on a Mediterranean beach risking skin cancer, the children found the Broads holiday a continuous delight. Ten-year-old Dan steered the boat most of the time (frequently scaring the life out of other Broads users); eight-year- old Jessica enjoyed feeding our meagre provisions to the coots, while keeping a careful look-out for herons and kingfishers.
At the end of the day, after we had tied up, the children raised the aerial and watched Neighbours while we all dined on a plate of chocolate mini-rolls. At night we slept like tops undisturbed by the pit-bull terriers on neighbouring boats and untroubled by the thought that we were making total fools of ourselves for the nation's entertainment. As another expert mariner said in a similar situation, England expects . . .
Frank Barrett will present a report on his Norfolk Broads boating holiday on the BBC 1 'Holiday' programme on Tuesday, 19 January at 7pm. Viewers are warned that the item is unsuitable for small children and those of a nervous disposition.
Operators: Blakes (0603 782911) and Hoseasons (0502 501010) are the two main operators in the Norfolk Broads. Prices range from pounds 200 up to pounds 1,000 for a week. A peak week in the boat we had costs pounds 735.
Further information: East Anglia Tourist Board, Toppesfield Hall, Hadleigh, Suffolk (0473 822922).
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