My husband and I were planning to spend several weeks exploring England, and he thought taking a narrowboat along countryside canals would be a good way to break up our overland trip.
It didn't faze him that our nautical experience was limited to sailing a Sunfish, but I was doubtful. He pointed to a picture in the brochure that showed a child of about 12 opening a lock while his dad steered. If a kid could do it, we could too.
We settled on a four-night, five-day "short break" on the Grand Union Canal. The trip cost a bit under $1,000, including value-added tax, insurance, and fuel. We'd start at Linslade, a town about 35 miles northwest of London and travel to Stoke Bruerne, some 25 miles further northwest.
England's canals are not much more than 7 feet across in places, so narrowboats are built 6-1/2 feet wide. But they're long. Daffodil, our boat, was one of the smallest at 42 feet.
We learned that the boats were originally used for the transportation of coal, lumber, and commercial products in the late 18th century and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. They traveled through the maze of canals and rivers that crisscross England and Wales, their commercial use continuing up to World War II. Since then, vacationers have used the converted boats to get a better look at the British countryside.
Bob and I had to learn some rudimentary skills before we set out. After we'd stored groceries and luggage aboard Daffodil, a cheery mariner gave us a brief tour, showing us how to work the boat's engine and check her innards. Our instructor stayed with us through the first 20 minutes of our voyage and took us through the first lock before he leapt ashore and walked back to the dockyard.
I felt some trepidation as I watched him disappear down the path, but it turned out he'd taught us most of what we needed to know. We set off, armed with our Grand Union Canal cruising guide and a typed booklet of instructions that included a list of pubs we'd pass along the way. And when, a short time later, we negotiated a triple lock with boat and locks coming out unscathed, we figured we just might carry it off.
Soon my husband was handling Daffodil like a pro, but each time I took the tiller I had to experiment to see which way to push to go the proper direction. With a top cruising speed of four miles an hour, you can't get into too much trouble, but I discovered that it takes time for a 42-foot boat to answer the tiller.
We especially enjoyed the evenings of our five-day odyssey. Sometimes we tied up near other narrowboats, but mostly we searched out a place by ourselves. Once we were joined by two swans who appeared at the first peal of Bob's metal hammer against the mooring stake, quite as though they'd been summoned by a dinner gong. We decided not to feed them, but the next morning, when they came swimming up to the boat and poked their heads in the open window as we lay in bed, we relented and shared our breakfast toast.
The best part of our journey was the scenery: great blue herons patrolling the canal guarding their fishing claims, peaceful pastures dotted with cows, and the square towers of Norman churches in the misty distance. We enjoyed stopping at small market towns, but could have done without our seemingly endless progress through the industrial Milton Keynes.
Eventually we arrived at Stoke Bruerne and it was time to turn around -which isn't as difficult as it sounds. You simply put the bow of the boat into a V-shaped space in the bank called a Winding Hole, and using engine and pole, swing her around.
While never terribly confident navigating beneath the stone bridges, I was handling Daffodil with increasing aplomb by the return trip. To my surprise, I'd found working the locks quite manageable. Sometimes Bob offered to do lock duty while I steered. "No, no," I'd say proudly. "I'll do the locks."
On our last evening, we docked near a pub and had some of the best mussels we've ever eaten. We walked back to Daffodil, satisfied with our canal vacation.
*For more information call Blakes Vacations, Beach Park, Ill., 800-628-8118.