THE CANALS were once the heartbeat of England. They were the arteries of the Industrial Revolution, the motorways of their day, transporting goods and commodities in large quantities fairly rapidly by the standards of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Rapid is not however an adjective which could be applied to the country’s canal system in the 21st century – and that’s no bad thing.
While life on the canals in their heyday was tough – from the hard working life aboard non-motorised boats, to the leggers who literally propelled barges through tunnels using leg power – today England’s canals are primarily a source of leisure. These days taking to the canals on a narrowboat offers the chance to take some time out from the ever-increasing pace of modern living.
There remains a palpable sense of history as you chug gently along at no more than brisk walking pace, with only the odd reminder of the modern world as a high speed train rockets by, or a jet plane passes overhead.
Narrowboats today are not the workhorses they were of old. They now offer all home comforts – wi-fi, microwaves, showers, fridges and televisions etc – but there remains a sense of adventure in taking to the waterways.
Simply steering a 60 foot plus long narrowboat can at first appear a daunting prospect. It is not like driving a car where the back wheels follow the front. With a narrowboat there is a central pivot point which means having to go slightly past where you intend to go before turning the tiller to direct the craft. It is something most pick up very quickly. Our instructor called it the ‘dry mouth’ run when a novice first takes the tiller. Within ten minutes, and one not so quick turn around in a winding hole (a turning point on the canal), we were alone on the open water of the Grand Union Canal in rural Northamptonshire.
The prime rule on canals is to take your time. Stopping is not simply a case of slamming the brakes on. Use of reverse gear is needed well in advance. With locks, while also a little daunting at first, again it is simply a matter of taking your time and soon they become second nature.
Our trip included a stop-off at Stoke Bruerne, one of best examples of a canal village in country, with a fascinating small museum and a couple of excellent pubs. It also took us through the Blisworth Tunnel – the third longest canal tunnel in Britain at just under two miles long. It takes around 30 minutes to pass through, although it used to take the leggers a good 90 minutes.
In truth it is the experience of life on the water rather than the destination which really matters. Canal travel brings out the best in people. Greetings are warmly exchanged without second thought with passing fellow boaters, and those walking and cycling along the towpath. In the 24/7 world we all now live in a stress-reducing argument could easily be made for canal travel to be made available on the NHS.
* We travelled with ABC Boat Hire from Gayton Marina in Northamptonshire.
Visit www.abcboathire.com for further details.
* The 20th Crick Boat Show, near Rugby, runs from May 25 to 27. Visit crickboatshow.com for further details.