Unlocking the back door to England: Anna McKane and family learn useful knots and broaden their experience on a narrow boat

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The Independent Travel
AS SOON as you board a narrow boat you know why it has its name. Narrow it certainly is. 'It is very, er, compact,' we all said brightly, squeezing past each other to view our staterooms. Our craft, Jemma, was 56ft long and a maximum of 7ft wide. The reason for this becomes clear after negotiating a few locks, some of which are 7ft 2in wide.

Our holidays have usually been dependent on the car, but this year we decided to view the countryside from a different perspective; so, with assorted cousins and a grandmother, we set off for a week's chugging along canals and rivers in the West Country.

Jemma was a steel-hulled replica narrow boat, one of hundreds plying Britain's huge complex of canals and navigable rivers. Nearly all are pleasure craft, but we did meet a few genuine cargo boats, carrying wood or slurry.

We hired our boat at Stourport- on-Severn, which gave us a choice of various routes, most of which led to Birmingham. For some reason we did not want to make Birmingham the high spot of the holiday, so we cruised down the Severn, combining boating with visits to cathedral cities.

Jemma had two sleeping cabins, a saloon in which bench seats converted to extra beds, two washrooms with chemical loos, a shower and a galley with gas cooker and fridge. Electric lights ran off the battery which was charged when the engine was running. It was intimate: if one did not know one's crew well at the beginning of the holiday, one would certainly be quite friendly by the end.

Because the locks on the river were manned, we decided to go a mile or two up the Staffordshire and Worcester Canal and then turn round so we could say we had mastered locking. A lock is a devastatingly simple way of performing what would otherwise be a superhuman task: using the flow of water down a hill to lift 15 tons of boat up it. But, while simple, it is at first difficult to grasp, like one of those problems involving a dog, a hen, a sack of corn and a river.

Early on we met the first of many Friendly Experts, who took us through a lock, showed us a few Useful Knots and warned us, although too late for some, about the black grease on the winding gear. After a few more locks, including two double ones to get us on to the Severn, we began to see the timeless quality of canal cruising. It would be hopeless to be expected at a certain time for drinks somewhere a mile away. Depending on the locks, and the number of people going up or coming down them, you might arrive in half an hour, or not until bedtime.

All eight crew tried their hands at the tiller, which operates the opposite way from a steering wheel: you swing it the way you do not want to go. The boat takes a few seconds to respond and this, combined with the flow of the river and the breeze, means the helmsperson can never relax.

Mooring for the night was either a slight headache or tremendous fun, depending on your age. On the canals it is reasonably easy to moor almost anywhere, but the river was often too shallow towards the bank and almost every conventional mooring was firmly private. The noise of the engine meant the helmsman could not hear the crew in the bows. 'We've run aground]' they shouted.

'You want me to turn round?' he shouted back. We began to think it would be easier to park a large coach in central London on the Saturday before Christmas. However, we always found somewhere eventually, with younger crew members leaping on to the bank, sometimes gleefully up to their knees in mud, and tying up to tree trunks.

On our first night we dined in a buttercup-strewn meadow, teetering across the gangplank with a salmon, several salads, quantities of wine, lemonade and fruit. We had brought our first few meals with us, and while we found shops and pubs along the way, we did not find any gourmet food.

Travelling by boat gives the feeling of arriving at the back door everywhere, particularly in towns, where the waterway meanders past disused warehouses and half-empty factories. Bankside shops and pubs cater for boaters, but they depend on road users for most of their trade.

Moored for the night with not a house nearby was certainly tranquil. We saw kingfishers, herons, ducklings and cygnets. In one 15- minute walk from the boat we spotted 45 different varieties of wild flower. Early one morning, watching the mist rolling off the river, I thought I saw an otter along the bank. I later discovered it must have been a mink, which have become much more common than otters on riverbanks.

After a day in Worcester, looking at the cathedral, the porcelain factory and museum, we cruised on with the Cotswolds in front and the Malverns behind, to Tewkesbury, with its jumble of picturesque old buildings and the abbey with its Norman tower.

Then to Gloucester, where the triumph of road over river is complete. Visitors by car to the excellent National Waterways Museum in Gloucester Docks, a monument to canals and canal boats, can park right in front, but we had to moor about half a mile away.

We progressed on down the Gloucester and Sharpness Ship Canal to Saul, with wide open views on either side, and then reluctantly turned for home. By now we were feeling expert, the lock- keepers began calling the helmsman 'skip' and we felt less nervous in front of onlookers.

Other narrowboaters were friendly, although some of the owners of sleek gin palaces were rather cool. Just how cool became clear when our heavy steel boat seemed to be moving inexorably sideways towards someone's white fibreglass cabin cruiser as we negotiated a mooring.

It is not a cheap family holiday, but the boats cost pounds 30,000 or more and the running costs, maintenance, licence and insurance are high. We did hear of one crew who managed to sink their boat.

Narrowboating is probably best fun for pre-teens, who will love steering the boat, hauling ropes around and jumping on and off, especially with the added danger of falling in. One of our daughters missed her footing on the gunwale and, her face a picture of surprise, fell into the murky water of the Worcester boat basin.

The only other crew overboard was the ship's dog, who mistook some smooth duckweed in a backwater for a lawn, and disappeared beneath it. He was hauled out, with bits of weed sticking to his eyebrows and looking as fed up as only a wet seadog can.

FACT FILE

Basic costs: Jemma was booked through Hoseasons, Lowestoft (0502 501501) who act as agents for boatyards around the country. Prices range from pounds 270 per week before 11 April for a small boat sleeping two to four, to pounds 1,245 a week for a 12-berth, 69ft boat in high season. There is also an obligatory cancellation insurance of pounds 20, plus a fuel and security deposit of pounds 75.

Subsidiary costs: About pounds 25-worth of fuel was used in one week. Dogs are charged pounds 18 a week extra, and boatyards will probably charge pounds 5 or so for car-parking for a week.

Agents: Blakes of Leicester (0533 460606) also operate as agents for many boatyards, and there are many smaller operators.

Further information: Holidays Afloat (published by the English, Scottish and Welsh Tourist Boards, pounds 4.95) is packed with information and is available from bookshops.

The boatyards provide lifejackets, and usually a set of waterproofs for the helmsman, but do not forget to collect these before you set off.

(Photograph omitted)

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