Canal cruising offers unhurried look at English countryside

If you want the most relaxing, do-nothing vacation imaginable, take a cruise on an English canal. Or if you want a vacation full of vigorous exercise, take a cruise on an English canal.

It can be either, as we found out when we sailed on the Snipe from Nantwich to Stourport. You may sit in the well deck and drink in the rural scenery, as we did for most of the week's trip. Our boatmates Roger and Alex chose to walk alongside on the towing path and help operate the numerous locks -- 22 in one day.

Keeping up with the ``narrow boats'' was no problem -- they adhere to the canal speed limit of four miles an hour, slowing down to two miles an hour when passing a moored boat. That's because people on a moored boat may be eating, and it's not polite to cause their kippers to quiver.

A pair of boats made up our floating hotel -- the motor boat Snipe, on which we traveled, and the ``butty'' boat Taurus, which it towed. (The origin of the term ``butty'' is obscure; some think it is a corruption of the word ``buddy.'') Each has four single cabins and one double. The Snipe has a saloon that was popular for games and writing postcards. All passengers had to move to the Taurus for meals in the dining room. Hopping from one boat to the other was not difficult if your hands were free to grasp supports, but crew member Andrea did fall into the canal while trying to carry a tray of food to the captain.

The narrow boats are called that for good reason. They are seven feet in beam and 72-feet long. That means the cabins must be marvels of compact planning. Within our double of less than seven feet by seven feet were two berths, a sink, a window, a door, and space to store luggage under one of the berths. It proved wise to unpack one at a time! We made liberal use of hooks on the walls to avoid frequent manipulation of suitcases. Plastic bags with handles proved convenient.

Down the corridor was a shower and water closet. The other boat had only a water closet, but somehow the total of 10 passengers (one double was unoccupied) and four crew managed to remain clean and on good terms.

The meals were of gourmet quality -- we didn't know whether to attribute that to Annabelle, a newly graduated nurse who appeared to be in charge of the kitchen or to the fact that in the off season Captain Derek was a cook. A cold beverage was included with dinner.

In addition to breakfast, lunch, and dinner, passengers were pampered with a hot beverage brought to the cabin at 8 a.m., coffee for ``elevenses,'' and afternoon tea with home-baked cake. The agile crew clambered over the roof to hand down these morning and afternoon snacks to the passengers on the lead boat.

My wife and I were the only married couple aboard, with Alex (a 15-year-old giant), his mother, and grandmother composing the other family group. Granny Hilda beat the socks off everyone at Scrabble, coming up with words like ``quern'' (a pepper mill) and ``rath'' (a prehistoric hill fort).

Other passengers included two London-area schoolteachers, one originally from New Zealand, the other from Trinidad; a retired professor of French literature from the University of Washington; a shorthand-typist from New Zealand visiting her daughter near London; and Roger, a London-area parks supervisor.

Roger and the retired professor contended for the title of most ardent canal-cruiser, each having been on nine trips. The professor used the cruises to catch up on his reading, while Roger never tired of striding along the towing path (the boats once were towed by horses) and operating the locks.

The lock operation is a very deliberate ritual. Traffic alternates. If a boat has just gone down (or up) in the direction you were proceeding, you have to wait for any boat wishing to move in the opposite direction. Meanwhile, the motor boat and its butty have to be separated, because there is room in the lock for only one boat at a time. When your turn comes, you use a windlass to crank open a paddle that allows water to enter the lock. When it and the boat rise to the proper level, the paddle is cranked closed and a gate is pushed open for the boat to pass through. Then the butty has to be pulled through the same operation by a crew member holding a rope.

During one such maneuver, the rope broke, providing our excitement of the day. Almost every day brought some incident to vary the routine. Crew member Tim, who had just earned his degree in political science, mistook a bag of clean laundry for trash, and had to cycle back frantically to retrieve it before it was collected. His colleague Andrea needled that he didn't really care because he bought his clothes at ``jumble'' sales (the equivalent of our garage sales).

Another time we had great spectator sport as a two-unit mobile home was moved across the canal in front of us. It was to replace the burned-out home of a canal shopkeeper and couldn't be put in place by any other route because the farmer on the other side wouldn't give permission to cross his field. It seemed touch and go whether it would make it or fall in the canal, and all cheered when it got across safely.

On day three, disaster struck a one-two punch. Andrea called home and found that her house had been broken into. She would have to leave the crew that day. Then Tim suffered a relapse of an injured rib, and had to give up heavy duties such as pulling the butty's tow rope. Fortunately, Roger and Alex proved eager to fill in, and others volunteered to help with kitchen work.

Day four's incident occurred when Captain Derek moved a moored boat about three feet in order to allow us room to tie up for the night. When the owner returned, he was angry, threatening to report Derek to the British Waterways Corporation, a semi-governmental organization that maintains the canals. This didn't seem to bother our unflappable captain.

Day five's little event was stopping to give a jump start to a woman's stalled boat, a more complex operation than it sounds. Derek had to remove our battery and carry it over to the other boat, then back when the job was done.

Almost all the boats were gaily painted in the traditional ``roses and castles'' style, and some had names that tickled us. Sterling, operated by Pound & Co., was a particularly choice specimen.

The route's varied pleasures included passage through dramatic tunnels, under handsome bridges, and in one case over a Roman road that runs west to east straight as an arrow. The sheep and cows browsing near the canal watched us without comment, but we did exchange greetings with the boys and men fishing in the canal's cloudy waters, and with one lady who brashly chose to wade in them.

For a change of pace, our captain made occasional stops in large or small towns. In the tiny hamlet of Wolverley, a poster invited us to view, for the benefit of a restoration fund, church registers dating to 1538. Since the event would take place two days hence, we could not accept.

Stops in somewhat larger towns, like Market Drayton, allowed for the tourists' unavoidable gift shopping. With one small store after another, it proved easy and pleasant to complete our list in the space of one block, while observing with delight such signs as ``George Orwell -- Butcher.''

At night our captain, by what seemed more than coincidence, always managed to find mooring near a pub (which he pronounced ``poob''). In one pub, the evening was enhanced by the performance of a group of Irish folk singers. And sometimes we provided our own entertainment on the boat. Our talented cook Annabelle turned out to be a self-taught flutist, and we joined her with our recorders.

Britain's first canal opened in 1761, and the system grew at a rapid pace as the transport artery of the Industrial Revolution. At its height in the 19th century over 6,000 miles of navigable rivers and canals received heavy commercial use. Railroads and then trucks wrote finis to this chapter of canal history, but today former work boats like the Snipe and Taurus have been lovingly converted to pleasure use and can operate over a network of canals that covers most of England and Wales.

They and four other hotel boats are owned by Inland Waterway Holiday Cruises, which sends them over 15 different routes from April 28 through Sept. 29. Each cruise lasts a week, and (at 1984 rates) cost 165 pounds ($205.42) per person. The company address is Preston Brook, Runcorn, Cheshire WA7 3AL, England. Additional information:

A variety of agencies offer barge cruises throughout Europe. Prices are generally all-inclusive for week-long trips. FLOATING THROUGH EUROPE 271 Madison Avenue New York, N.Y. 10016 (212) 685-5600 Barge cruises in Holland, Belgium, Germany, France, and England. Prices start at $995, double occupancy. HORIZON CRUISES 7122 West Main Street Belleville, Ill. 62223 Barge cruising throughout France. Prices start at $1,500, including transportation to and from Paris. Some trips include balloon rides. INLAND VOYAGES McGregor Tours 33 Lewis Street Greenwich, Conn. 06830 Barge cruising throughout France. Prices start at $1,250 per week. Check with your travel agent for these and other canal-cruise offerings.

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