At home on the river

Britain's waterways provide a tranquil link from city to country. Francis Jezierski takes his family, and a boat, from London to Essex via the locks of the river Stort
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The Independent Travel

Oh sylvan Stort! Thou Essex wanderer! (as Wordsworth may have put it). She runs along the border with Hertfordshire but can claim to be an Essex girl: she exists in obscurity, the charms of her generous curves are blatant and she has got quite a past.

Oh sylvan Stort! Thou Essex wanderer! (as Wordsworth may have put it). She runs along the border with Hertfordshire but can claim to be an Essex girl: she exists in obscurity, the charms of her generous curves are blatant and she has got quite a past.

For a century after channels and locks were hewn into the Stort valley to make the river navigable in the 1750s, she provided a route for malt to reach London's breweries. Then came a railway, and by the 1900s all was in decay. A down-river lock collapsed, trapping nearly all the barges and delivering a commercial coup de grâce.

To enter the confined reaches of the Stort now is to cleave into a seemingly endless garden of shadowy foliage, where lilies and rushes reluctantly part then come together as the stillness returns in the instant of passing. Part canal, part river, the Stort twists and turns among curtains of untamed alders, oaks and weeping willows, which will brush the boats driven by the unwary - and their occupants. Bridges that seem to lead from nowhere to nowhere arch between the dark banks.

Along some faster-flowing stretches the water is clear and fish seem profuse. In the late summer, blackberries, hawthorn berries and elderberries are crammed along the water's edge.

Yet the starting point for a voyage into this living remnant of the 18th century is close to Broxbourne station, under 40 minutes by train from Liverpool Street in central London. The Lee Valley Boat Centre attracts customers from across the world who combine a visit to the capital with a glimpse of the England of Stubbs and Constable.

For this, our first holiday on water, we had been given the pride of the fleet, the Augusta, a broad-beam craft rather than a narrowboat - a behemoth equipped for a party of eight. We were only six, including three sceptical, heel-dragging teenagers (Melora, 17: "I so don't want to do this"). I was unable to be present for the rites of departure so Barbara, my wife, took charge. New York-bound liners were wont to hop from Southampton to Cherbourg before tackling the Atlantic. In similar fashion, for the first leg of my family's voyage into darkest Essex Barbara successfully steered 100 metres across the water from the Augusta's initial mooring to a berth outside a pub. Here, as I approached in the fading light, I heard the querulous sounds of my family from an ungainly craft on an the edge of a Stygian expanse of water.

Inside all was neat, a homage to the plywood-and-foam-cushions movement that reached its apogee in the Sixties caravan. But everything was functional, including showers which, after the mastering of arcane procedures with pumps, proved surprisingly efficient, especially for those of us who unfortunately fell in.

Tiller. Throttle. Weeds. Confusing gas hob. I woke to a morning of those challenges by which a father is measured and, dare I say it, was not found wanting. We eased our way from the bank and up the Lee, of which the Stort is a tributary, where lavish homes sprawl over lawns that spill down to the river's bank.

Lock. Mooring. Winding handle. Here we faced the unspoken essence of a first canal holiday: could we halt, enter one of these tangles of bricks, timber and submerged conduits and proceed safely into the next section? (Answer: Yes, usually.)

As the affluent suburbs receded, for a time the scenery became somewhat forlorn - flood-plain meadows interspersed with warehouses. The Lee has for centuries supplied much of London's water, and all around it are reservoirs. The waterway, which terminates at Hertford in the north and the Thames in the south, is busy here; two impatient pensioner couples virtually ordered us to tie up so they could speed past. After a couple of locks we arrived at Feildes Weir, the Lee's junction with the Stort, and we were alone.

The Augusta and Stort worked together slowly but beautifully. Our craft's size, and the bends and bank-side vegetation that hemmed us in, necessitated a leisurely pace. Locks and some stunning domestic architecture punctuated our dark progress north. We stopped at Roydon and admired its perfect village green. Further along was Hunston Mead nature reserve, said to be one of the finest grassland sites in the region and awash with colour from spring to autumn.

Other barges were few. Some were clearly disused, apparently bought in hope and then left as reality sank in. The rituals and rhythms of the locks provided exercise and entertainment for our boys, but the experience, which could be considered the opposite of cool, was proving too much for Melora and her sister Eleanor, 15. By the time we reached the edge of Harlow, and despite the chance shortly to gaze upon Posh 'n' Becks' Beckingham Palace, they had had enough, abandoning boat and skipping home. I took the chance to explore the new town, which in the Fifties had been hailed as a masterpiece of planning. Sir Frederick Gibberd's work, a revolutionary combination of open and living space, is now mocked and decaying. As is the centre of Old Harlow, which is well worth missing.

Several locks further brought us to unspoiled, relaxed and pretty Sawbridgeworth, a town notable for a flint-clad church which features a pudding stone, the sign that it had previously been a site of pagan worship. We had intended to reach Bishops Stortford, but near the ancient Wallbury Camp realised we had run out of time and reluctantly turned. So did our fortunes.

Soon afterwards we mislaid a lock-paddle winding handle and I cycled back along the towpath in search of it, noting how peaceful everything was without the diesel. Then, after cooking a pizza, the engine failed to start. A call on the mobile and the mechanic was on his way, but he would be hours. I relaxed. We had our fishing rod. I relaxed some more, stepping on and off the boat with increasing nonchalance. I went in backwards.

By the time the mechanic arrived I was dry, and dusk was approaching, but Barbara still wanted to be at the next lock. Next a rope wrapped itself round the propeller. In fading light and drizzle we drifted in the slight current, the boat slowly rotating and seeming certain to fall over a weir as I desperately hacked at the coiled rope with a carving knife. However, accidents aside - by a lock the next day, Christopher also fell in but came up smiling - it was a successful first water-borne expedition.

Lee Valley Boat Centre (01992 462085; www.leevalleyboats.co.uk) offers three-night breaks from £318 on a two-berth boat. Short breaks on 'Augusta' start at £633, a week's hire from £897

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