A bridge over a canal.

A bridge over the Grand Union Canal near The Blue Lias pub.

Three Weeks Barging on English Canals

A Civilized Adventure

by Martin and Marcia Reff

Copyright ©1997, 2004 by Martin and Marcia Reff

We wrote home: "We live in a bowling alley 45 feet long. It floats and can move 3 mph." That bowling alley was a "narrowboat." and we lived aboard for three weeks.

Marcia and I had known for years about these boats that ply the English canals. Varying in length from 30 to 72 feet and barely 7 feet wide, the boats have to be narrow enough to pass through the locks. Early this century some locks were made "broad," allowing two narrow boats or one wide beam boat to use them. Still, most locks remain narrow and so do the boats.

The canals date to the 18th century when red stone and coal were shipped to London by water. As a second thought, in return, good things from London found their way to the Midlands. The story goes that once those hearty people of the heartland drank tea, they'd become civilized.

Handling a narrowboat is easier and safer than driving in England. Cars in Britain stay on the left side of the road, but a boat stays on the right side of the canal. A good reason to go by boat.

For us the trip started in the fall of '96 when Marcia and I wanted to "go home again." I am 70 and Marcia is a youngster at 60. Having cruised on Dutch and then French canals aboard our own boat from 1987 to 1992, we decided to try the English canals. As long as we could stop for a couple of days at a time to wander about a charming village or a strange city, we would forgo our daily loaf of French bread. A three week cruise during the less expensive off-season was planned. Friends, learning that we'd be in England, invited us aboard their boat for a fourth week. Then, to wind down, we planned to stay for two more in a London apartment.

Using catalogs of boat rental companies and maps of the waterways, we found a boat and a route. Our requirements were that the boat have a double bed that could be left open so we could just flop down for a nap anytime and a dinette so we could eat, read, and write comfortably. The route we picked was a circular one to avoid a duplicating return trip. The Warwickshire Ring in the South Midlands looked attractive and could be circled in two weeks according to the catalog. It consists of inter-connecting canals through the countryside near Birmingham, Warwick, Rugby, and Coventry. Later, while on the trip, however, we shortened the route and never made the circle. Our nature is to poke around. We were even slower than the boat.

Had we not been going to London for our final two weeks, we would have packed lighter because space aboard is limited. A soft carry-all and a duffel bag will do the trick. Comfortable, waterproof boat shoes that can be used for walking are essential. Our basic outfit consisted of trousers, warm shirt, sweater, wind breaker, and work gloves. From Marcia's log one day: "Very windy - put on two pairs of socks, two sweaters, and a wind breaker." Although we also brought rainwear, and needed it, dry, mild weather held for most of our stay.

Our actual trip began in Naples, Florida on May 28,1997 when we drove an Avis to Miami Airport where a British Air 747 carried us that night to London.

Next morning at Heathrow we caught a British Rail bus to the station at Reading and then took a train to Royal Leamington Spa (Coach/train: $75). (Note: all prices are for two people with an exchange rate at $1.74 to a 1).

On the train a friendly couple pointed out Windsor Castle, but our eyes were mesmerized by the puzzle-like-pieces of the Oxford Canal flashing by the windows. Sunlit trees, patches of grass, flowing water, herds of cows, colorful boats moving on the water and others moored by the side of the canal....This trip was going to be fun!

That night we stayed at a hotel in Leamington to catch up on jet lag and stock up on food. Royal Leamington Spa was not what we anticipated -- not even a spa! The town might have been a Royal resort once upon a time but it was now distinguished only by its shops which made it what the English call a "market town."

But once more, as in France, we could window shop for the ordinary -- the freshly cut red meats and hanging fowl, tea buns and scones, exotic vegetables in bright colors, dresses on racks, bins of pots and pans and so much more. The Old World charm of small establishments that is so characteristic of European towns was not lost on us. But for our needs there was a modern supermarket to stock up on our basic supplies.

Next day, after a full English breakfast of eggs, ham/sausage, toast, fruit, tea/coffee, and buns, we shopped for supplies. In addition to the ordinary items, we splurged on a case of wine. Stores held our purchases until the afternoon when a taxi ($30) picked us up, retrieved the groceries, and took us to our destination -- Calcutt Boats.

Our narrowboat, Wild Hemlock I, 45 feet long, was waiting for us. A likable young man, who would also be our instructor, reviewed the inventory of cooking utensils, dishes, flatware and other supplies, and then provided a thorough orientation to the boat and its systems. He would have given me instruction on boat handling if I needed help. I didn't, though, and as soon as we were ready, we headed toward our first English lock.

Because a canal follows the contour of the land, sections of the canal lie at different elevations. A lock connects the sections by raising or lowering the water level and, within it, a boat.

In France lock-keepers usually handle the locks, but in England almost all of the locks are opened and closed by the travelers themselves. Boaters need to be physically fit and have some strength.

As first mate and second in command (sometimes first) Marcia had the job of opening and closing the lock gates and the paddles, the small doors that controlled the flow of water in the lock. Our first lock was a "broad" one, that is, it had room for two boats side by side.

I maneuvered the boat so Marcia and the instructor could get off. She was then shown how to lever a gate open by shoving a heavy, solid wood balance beam. Meanwhile I maintained the boat's position outside the lock. Sometimes this is tricky when a wind comes up or another boat comes out of the lock. Once the gates were opened, I slowly guided the boat into the lock. The gates were closed and then Marcia was shown how to open the paddles with a windlass to let the water in. It is very hard work for the first few turns.

The water swirled in because we were headed to a higher level. Although we've had a lot of experience with locks in France, we watched as the boat rose and listened carefully. When the water in the lock chamber was level with the water outside, Marcia levered the gates open. I started the boat out but stopped it when the stern was close to the steps. Marcia and the instructor closed the gates and paddles and then returned to the boat. He stayed with us for another 200 yards and then hopped off onto a nearby bank.

Of the more than 50 locks we used during our trip we only had to work a few by ourselves. Boaters helped, particularly those whose boats shared the locks with us. Sharing was urged to save water. A serious drought still prevailed in parts of England.

The canal ended in a junction where we turned right, expecting to go to a town called Braunston. About ten minutes later I referred to a chart book called "Canal Companion" to see my mistake. I should have turned left. In the rush of leaving the dock and taking the helm I failed to check the chart.

We pulled over to the first convenient spot which happened to be in front of a pub and tied up. After we unpacked Marcia made a great steak dinner, with rice and broccoli, followed by salad, fruit and shortbread cookies, tea and coffee. Marcia enjoyed her Anjou wine from the Loire Valley in France while I drank a Cabernet-Shiraz from Australia. To make sure we knew we were in England, we walked over to the pub later for half-pints of bitters.

The British like all kinds of brews. We sampled some and asked questions, but still don't know the differences among bitters, ales, lagers, etc. Most of time we settled on lagers which are like American beer.

Comfort aboard our boat meant a fully equipped kitchen (galley), dinette, long shelves and lots of cabinets, separate shower, a toilet and sink, room heaters, radio and television, bedding, and more. Hot water for sinks came from an instant propane heater. Hot water for the shower, on the other hand, was heated by the engine and stayed quite hot until evening. An upper single bunk with double bed below and a dinette which converted to a double bed gave us 5 berths, enough for family or friends at no extra cost.

The next day dawned at 5 AM. Being so far north made for short nights and long days. Our latitude was 52° 15', the same as is the southern tip of Hudson Bay. The first thing I did was to raise both the British and American flags. Since the English don't fly ensigns on their canal boats, we brought home-made masts with us.

After breakfast I turned the boat around in a section of the canal right in front of us that had been widened for that purpose, called a "turning point." With few exceptions our canal passage was rural. And because there's no steering wheel inside the boat, your position outside where the tiller is gives you direct contact not only with the weather, but also with the colors, sounds, and smells of the countryside.

The canal landscape is crisscrossed with hedgerows, paths, farm roads, and fences. And many of the hedgerow fences are alive, made with interwoven branches and trunks of the hawthorn tree. Cows and sheep graze in fenced pasture lands, in shallow valleys, and on low rises. We learned later from menus that lambs are slaughtered and eaten in England, unlike those in the Netherlands which are shipped to France.

And the sky, too, is often crisscrossed but with high tension electric wires that stretch into the horizon like plumb lines but they are not attractive. A movement to preserve the hedgerows has begun. We wished there were a movement to bury the power lines.

Braunston Junction turned out to be a center for boat building, repair, rental, and storage, but it also boasts a modern residential community and grand marina. Braunston is also the town that has the field in which we took an uphill shortcut through a pasture, courtesy of "local knowledge." Horses stood their ground in a staid fashion and didn't even nay even as we trudged through their ranks. Braunston is where we bought the Sunday Telegraph, mature English cheddar, and where I gave up my low cholesterol diet for the duration.

Later, we lunched at the Mill Inn, a busy family pub/restaurant. In English pubs one selects courses from a menu and pays at the bar. The meal is served at your table. Ours consisted of a country paté and a bottle of red wine, Beef pie with "jacket" potatoes, marinated chicken, "Alabama" chocolate cake, coffee and tea. We were told by locals that one doesn't tip at a pub but we were not comfortable, so we compromised.

We listened daily for the weather on BBC. Rain was usually forecast for the Midlands. What arrived was an overcast sky or wind with patches of sunlight and shadow marching awkwardly along the land.

On our way to Rugby the following day we worked three locks and stopped to fill the water tank. Drinking water is provided by British Waterways. Waste from the toilets is flushed into a holding tank. Once a week we stopped at the nearest boatyard with pump-out station and an attendant emptied and cleaned the tank. It was simple, quick, and we were reimbursed for the cost.

Our boat tied up at a park.

Our boat, Wild Hemlock I, tied up at Rugby

Rugby is the name of the British football game as well as the name of the very lovely city named for its world famous school. Our tour of Rugby School included a ancient seminar room with old books in old cases and old desks carved with old names. The Great Hall, though, was a fine, handsome place. If you listened with some imagination, you could hear a young Rubert Brooke reciting poetry or an adolescent Matthew Arnold declaring "I behold the House, the Brotherhood austere -- and what am I, that I am here?"

The pews in the school's chapel are arranged face to face like the benches in Parliament because, as one tourist suggested, in medieval monasteries groups of monks faced each other to facilitate the chanting rhythms of affirmation and reaffirmation.

Near a playing field a plaque on a brick wall commemorates the spot where in 1823 William Ellis picked up the ball in a soccer game and ran with it - inventing the game of rugby. Both the town and the school were unpretentious and we really enjoyed ourselves.

We will also remember the town for its rabbits - dozens of them grazed like cows on the park grass in the morning near our boat. I talked to Marcia about stew. She ignored me.

Two days later we ran aground at a turn. I took the engine out of gear and pushed the boat off quite easily with a long pole. My hands were muddy, though, and so were Marcia's. We went aground three more times...twice after we passed a boat and once when a gust of wind caught us broadside.

The long narrowboat that we rented was very easy to handle: a diesel engine, ignition, throttle, gear shift, and tiller. But you can't go fast. High speed is about 4 mph. 3 mph is usual. In shallow places the speed is even less. The canal itself is not wide and if you did hit anything at all, it most likely would be a cow.

The canals vary in width from 15 to about 35 feet. Some sections narrow to 15 when trees extend their branches over the water or when cows push a piece of meadow into the canal. Most of the dozens of old stone bridges that cross the canal still carry livestock or farm equipment.

Ansty Hall, a great red brick mansion built in 1678 that dominates the village of Ansty, indulged us with a delicious full French meal including a sorbet interlude. We dressed up just this once although it was not required. On our way back to the boat we walked through a "kissing gate," one of the many we came across in our meandering at each mooring. The gate obstructs a horse or a cow but allows the passage of one or two people. An ingenious invention attributed to the Ming dynasty and imported by English sailors! You're kidding.

The catalog of boats published by Drifters calls a trip like ours "a civilized adventure. Civilized because you carry all your home comforts with you. An adventure, because around every corner there's something new..."

As for adventure -- a new one everyday, sometimes twice a day. Our chart book, Canal Companion (J.M. Peterson & Son Ltd.), contained maps of the canal with notes on tunnels, locks, pubs, landmarks, etc. However, seeing a curve on a chart is one thing; making the turn on the canal and finding another boat facing you is something else!

Passing a boat, by the way, is not too difficult. One stays as far on the right as possible, but not far enough to go aground. If the canal is narrow, you try to hug an imaginary line about a foot to the right of the center of the canal. Slow down a bit if you're going fast (4 mph), but maintain your way. Steady hand on your tiller. As you pass, head a titch toward the other boat's stern and you'll find the boats pass comfortably within a minimum of 12 to 18 inches of each other.

Our next stop, Hawksbury Junction, was one of the busiest. Not only did it have a great pub -- The Greyhound -- but it connected the Oxford Canal, that we were on, with the Coventry Canal. Going one way (left) takes you to Coventry. A right turn takes you north and eventually west toward Birmingham.

Approaching the junction we crawled through a baby lock that lowered the boat 6 inches. We then made a "U" turn under a graceful black cast iron bridge and, finally, we squeezed through a short section about 7' 2" wide. Back when horses pulled boats, the iron bridge -- this one was forged in 1837 and called a "roving" bridge -- allowed the horses to continue towing at a junction.

Mooring in most cases means hammering stakes into the ground and tying your boat to them. Metal rings or bollards embedded in concrete, not often available, are more secure. Boaters improvise, though. A length of chain is passed through an aperture in the corrugated steel sheeting that holds the tow path canal bank and then it is shackled to the other end. Your mooring line is passed through the loop of chain. It was at Hawksbury that the lockkeeper cut a chain for us.

When we first arrived, I noticed a small leak at one of the water hose connections to the engine. A phone call to Calcutt and within the hour, a technician arrived and replaced the whole unit. Service par excellence.

To save time we visited Coventry by cab from Hawksbury Junction although we could have gone by canal. The city is England's phoenix. Fire bombed and practically destroyed during World War II, it became a symbol of England's rebirth in 1962 when it replaced its ruined medieval Cathedral with a dramatic modern one with soaring planes that epitomize the essence of the twentieth century.

I had visited England in 1950-51 and warned Marcia before we left the States not to expect good food. How wrong I was! During the 21 days of our voyage we ate out 6 times for lunch (average $23) and four times for dinner (average $53) and we can, without reservation, say that every meal was a good one...particularly those served in the country pubs.

The Greyhound at Hawksbury was one of the best. I had a seafood pie with aioli (my first pie!) and Marcia, a Shepherd's Pie. Later, on our return trip, we had another magnificent meal.

We like to start a cruising day early. It's less crowded and we can get to where we want to go by noon. Also bad weather, if it comes, arrives in the afternoon. Except for weekends few boats were on the canals in June.

We left the junction heading for the Bosworth Battlefield located on the Ashby Canal, a branch of the Coventry Canal. It was on this field that Richard the Third in Shakespeare's play of same name, caught alone on the ground during the battle at Bosworth, cries before being killed, "A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!"

It took us two days to cover seven to eight miles because on the way we stopped for the night at "The Lime Kilns." We tied up between the playground and beer garden, both characteristic of country pubs. The English attitude about children in pubs differs from the American one. But then the pubs we went to were as much restaurants as bars.

That night our table on the second floor overlooked the canal where we could see hikers walking on the opposite side. A "tow" path runs along one side of the canal -- the side that is well groomed and usually banked with corrugated metal. Originally these paths were used by horses that towed canal barges. Nowadays people use the them for convenience and pleasure. On any day you might see a family walking together, a child going to school, a cyclist, hiker, fisherman, or a dog accompanied by its mistress or master. The canal bank on the opposite side often only consists of turfs of grass from a meadow or roots of overhanging trees.

Sutton Cheney Wharf, just past a turning point and a short walk to the battlefield, is merely a strip of canal where boats are moored. After lunch aboard we walked through the woods and fields for about 20 minutes to get to the Bosworth Battlefield Center. For two "old age pensioner" tickets, we toured the interesting exhibit and watched a portion of a motion picture of the famous battle.

That night we abandoned our original plan to circle the "ring" through Birmingham to Warwick. We were moving slowly. To return the way we came and then go on to Warwick made better sense -- a total of 53 locks -- rather the 103 locks ahead of us.

A few days later we tied up at the The Blue Lias, one of the warmest pubs, with its brick walls, fireplaces, and seating nooks, looking like a character set for an old-fashioned English film. There Marcia had a marvelous chicken and mushroom pie, French fries, a little salad and I had a large 1/2 roast chicken - the best I had ever had. All washed down with a bottle of claret (the English name for red Bordeaux table wine), and ended with desert, coffee and tea. The tab was $57.

In our after-dinner walk along the canal we saw a young pony standing in a field nearby. Ducks begged for food. "Why do Swans beg in the morning?" we asked a passerby. He didn't know but warned us not to kill a swan. If we did, we must send it to the sovereign. A tradition, he said.

Two days later found us tied up snugly at the Saltisford Canal Center (free the first night then $5 a night thereafter). It's a private marina 20 minutes by foot from the city of Warwick and its castle.

According to our chart book Warwick Castle is "the finest medieval castle in England." The original Castle was started by King William I (the Conqueror) in 1068 and has been a central point around which English history has unfolded.

We found the Mill Garden below the castle on the River Avon, across from the ruins of a bridge, in a beautiful scene that could have been created from a painting -- an intimate garden in full bloom. Above it soared the walls and spires of the castle. Sitting on a stone bench in a silence only broken by the rush of water over what might have been a weir, we easily envisioned heralds and knights on horseback, and all the regalia of medieval life.

Later during our tour of the castle ($22) we were impressed with the grandeur of its chambers, although some were cluttered with artifacts. Madame Tussauds' wax figures, on the other hand, were extraordinarily life-like...works of art that made the visit worthwhile.

Warwick was our last stop although we did spend a day at Stratford-on-Avon, reached by an $11 bus trip. There, too, we could have gone by boat and stayed in lovely basin in the middle of town. The trip back to Calcutt took two rainy days -- the first real rain in twenty-one.

We never felt anything like a "home" on the English canals. Our years on French canals were more familiar, so England will remain a good but a distant cousin.

A version of this article, entitled "Barging Through England", was published by the Naples Daily News on October 26, 1997."

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This page was originally erected on November 29, 1997 and last updated on April 15, 2007.