Cruising England's canals

It had been a busy day: up early for a three-hour drive to Rugby, located in the middle of England. A quick look around the famous school there. A half hour trying to find the boatyard. Unloading the car. Receiving detailed instructions on how to manage and steer 57 feet of steel along narrow inland canals.

''Don't forget,'' said the man, ''to check engine oil, gear box oil, and reduction box oil every morning. Switch on the bilge pump. Turn the screw that greases the propeller blade. Top up your water tank each day. Run the engine to boost the battery if you don't cruise much. Keep to the center. Move to the right when passing another boat. Slow down when passing boats, moored craft, and fishermen. Don't go faster than four miles an hour. . . .''

Would I ever get the hang of it? Would the children ever sort out who was sleeping where? Would I ever become accustomed to the length of the boat stretching away fearsomely in front of the rear tiller at which I was so nervously standing?

Which of the oncoming boats would I strike first, bringing down a lawsuit which would make my family paupers and my name as muddy as the bottom of the canal?

The friendly boatyard man stepped off the boat as we moved under a bridge. Help: I was alone, just me and the tiller and 57 feet of steel. . . .

But, wonder of wonders, all was well. All was, in fact, quite splendid.

The afternoon sun shone. The sky was dappled with merino-wool clouds. On both sides of the canal, almost close enough to touch, were brilliantly green fields, gently rising to trees, farmhouses, hedges. Cattle and sheep grazed. Moorhens splashed busily from one side of the canal to the other. Voles, tiny brown water rats with brown fur, clung to the canal edge, putting me suddenly in mind of ''Wind in the Willows.''

Gone were cars, highways, telephones. The 20th century had dropped from view. We were back in the England of 200 years before, when man-made canals and their narrowboats, pulled by horses, carried freight far more easily than the appalling roads and uncertain coastal shipping. Railroads were to come later.

My spirits rose. We were to spend a week cruising canals in the heart of England. What a change of pace it would be, civilization over the hill and far away.

Indeed, it was a fascinating break from normal routine. We fended for ourselves. We fed ducks and swans and geese. We spotted birds. We operated locks with increasing skill. We moored where we chose at night, usually in the quiet of the countryside. We watched the moon rise. We became, to a degree, a part of Britain's 2,000-mile canal world - a ''linear national park,'' someone once remarked.

The British government has launched a campaign to persuade more Americans to cruise the canals. Earlier this year the Britsh Waterways Board, which runs the canal system, joined forces with boat operators to form a consortium (UK Waterway Holidays Ltd.) to sell canal holidays to tourists from abroad.

The scheme is still new. When I asked Barry Smith, manager of the boat company we used, what the scheme actually meant, he replied that he had put towels, a first-aid kit, and a set of yellow waterproof rain gear for whoever might have to stand at the tiller on a rainy day into boats to be used by the Americans.

Our eight-berth craft, named ''Taurus,'' might seem somewhat old and worn to an American family fresh from the US, but there are new boats that will be better equipped. Not only will they have the dining area, the gas stove, refrigerator, cutlery, pump-out toilets and shower that our boat had, but they will also offer modern television sets, paneled sitting rooms, and wider bunks.

We found enough room for the five of us in an eight-berth boat. A good rule of thumb is to choose a boat with at least one more berth than you think you will need. Otherwise, it could be a cramped week instead of a relaxing one. We found the sleeping bags provided somewhat old: duvet covers (stuffed with down) would have been better. Some boats have them.

Tourists are able to hire boats more cheaply than local people because they do not pay the 15 percent value-added tax here.

A six-berth boat costs about $1,300 for two weeks in high season (June 13 -Aug. 31), about $880 from May 1 to June 12 and in September, and around $750 in March, April, and October. One week would be half as much, and smaller boats cost less. For the above calculations, I used an exchange rate of $1.73 to the pound.

Our experience showed that canal cruising is a good way to meet British people, particularly families, together with their dogs.

We heard about a musician who gives nearby boat concerts on the virginal (a small harpsichord) he always carries on his own boat. A vacationing Navy cook feeds boats around him with fresh rolls he bakes on board. Owner-boats are decorated in traditional reds, greens, and yellows, with elaborate paintings of castles and flowers and other motifs developed by Gypsy live-in families of years ago.

The canals are a world of their own, mirroring the English class system. ''There are the noddy, or Tupperware, boats,'' the upper-class owner of a luxury narrow-boat observed languidly one morning, referring to small cabin cruisers made of fiberglass.

''Then there are the hire boats like yours,'' the clipped accent continued. ''And the live-in boats, usually a husband and wife who have living space at the rear, cover the rest with tarpaulins, rig up bunks, and take youth groups and Girl Guides and Boy Scouts around the canals all summer. . .''

''Then there are the short boats, the 40 footers, who hold rallies and so on. . . And then the owner boats. Like ours.''

We were agog: inside his 70-foot hull was a fully carpeted living room with red plush Victorian armchairs and divan, pine paneling, a stereo car radio and speakers, a television set, a full kitchen, a double bed, a chemical toilet, and a splendiferous bathroom with a primrose-yellow bathtub.

He and his wife travel the canals every weekend in the spring, summer, and autumn. They tie up with friendly lock-keepers. He unfolds a tiny Italian motorcycle from the engine room, rides to his car, puts the motorcycle in the trunk, and comes back to pick up his wife.

I am not going to pretend that our week was uneventful, or that we canal novices did not have our disconcerting moments. Yet it was a good holiday. Perhaps extracts from the ship's log will help:

Saturday: A steel hull, 120 gallons of water for cooking and washing, a quiet , three-cylinder, 19 hp. Diesel driving us along at a reckless four miles an hour, a small television set, room enough to stand up comfortably. All we have to buy now is our food. Here's an expanse of green fields. No one around. We'll stop for the night.

We need practice in driving in the metal stakes and securing the ropes. From around the bend comes another family. We exchange notes. They, it turns out, know what they are doing: 100 miles around the Warwickshire ring (Rugby, Warwick , Birmingham, Tamworth, Nuneaton amd back to Rugby) in a week. We are less adventurous. We won't even make Stratford. . .

Sunday: En route to the Napton Junction, we encounter wind. I almost hit an oncoming boat. I do hit an oncoming boat - gently. Trying to haul 57 feet of steel around against the wind takes practice. We spot rabbits, coots, kestrels, sparrow hawks. No one wants to help Dad steer for more than three minutes at a time. . . . He steers doggedly on, into wind and twilight.

Monday: We reach Warwick by sliding through the backyards of Leamington spa. Walk to Warwick Castle, which is every child's storybook dream of what a castle should be, all towers and battlements and torture chambers and suits of armor. It is a shock to see cars and roads again.

Tuesday: On foot, we take a look at the famous Hatton Flight, 21 locks in a row, leading up toward Birmingham. We decide we are on holiday, turn the boat around (with difficulty) and cruise back. Magnificent afternoon. Margaret and children take afternoon tea in a broad meadow, retreating only when a group of young bulls stroll toward them. The retreat is rapid. Father, watching from safety of the boat roof, is amused.

Wednesday: ''They've got me beat,'' says a veteran fishermen of the carp that live in the muddy waters of the canals. ''They've gone off the cheese. . .I've tried Irish Cheddar and English Cheddar. . . Course, I throw the fish back. . .''

We are delayed because a boat ahead has rammed a lock gate. Meet more families. Fill the water tank on board.

Thursday: How do you turn a 57-foot long boat in a canal 50 feet wide? Answer: You do not. You try, and you strain family ties by trying for some time. You amaze a moored boat by passing it in reverse and in defeat. You decide to press on, despite nine locks ahead on the South Oxford canal. You enjoy it so much that you don't turn around for hours because the countryside is idyllic.

Friday: Back to a spot just short of Rugby. We are veterans. We handle ropes, operate locks, pole off swiftly if we run aground. The Oxford canal is short of water. The government has allocated (STR)7 million ($11.3 million) to refurbish the canal system, but meanwhile, the Napton locks are closed at 5 p.m. to save water and don't open until 8 a.m. If you don't make it in time, you are stuck.

Saturday: Up so early that mist still covers canal and fields - lovely sight as an orange sun burns it away. Back to the yard by 9 a.m.

Most tourists would start on the Thames instead of a place like Rugby. But if they want to meet people and go back to a slower, easier-paced time on a water-borne apartment that only occasionally goes aground, then the canals are a delight. Our son fell in only once (he slipped), but the water is only four to six feet deep.

He - and we - enjoyed it. Practical information:

Canal season starts Easter week and goes through late October. According to the British Waterways Board, prices for 1983 have risen less than 10 percent over 1982 prices.

UK Waterway Holidays Ltd. publishes a brochure listing more than 110 hire cruisers and five hotel boats (for those who want to sit while someone else steers and cooks), operated by 30 companies from 39 bases in England, Scotland, and Wales.

The address is Melbury House, Melbury Terrace, London NW 1 6JX England. Telephone: London 723-3700. Or contact your nearest British Tourist Authority in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles.

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