Going with the flow

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On the Leeds Liverpool Canal Lisa Stocks finds a narrowboat weekend the perfect escape from the rat race.

You’re never going to get anywhere far in a short space of time on a narrowboat. So, it’s not the ideal mode of transport if you’re expecting a whistle-stop tour, cramming in as many sights as possible.

Yet, travelling along the Leeds Liverpool Canal at less than five miles per hour, I saw and experienced more than I thought possible. The old cliché “It’s not about the destination, it’s the journey”, certainly rings true for a narrowboat cruise.

Having never been on a barge before, one of my first experiences was to take the steering tiller in my hand, turn the engine to hear a gentle chug beneath my feet and slowly reverse into the middle of the canal at Apperley Bridge Marina, near Calverley in West Yorkshire.

This was the start of my weekend training cruise in which I and a friend, guided by our instructor, keen sailor and owner of luxury boating holiday company Bear Boating, Andy Stakes, drove the 57ft narrow boat on a round trip to Granary Wharf in Leeds and back.

Bear Boating offers this course (as well as hiring out its vessels Molly Moo and Jessica Boo for holidays) where people are given onboard instruction up to the Royal Yachting Association (RYA) RYA Inland Waterways Helmsman Level.

I’ve always imagined how calming, sedate, and romantic, the experience of steering a narrowboat must be. Yet, I was surprised that moving so slowly could instil such a sense of adventure and, even though you’re limited to the waterways and the speed limit (to avoid erosion to the canal banks and to be courteous to others), freedom.

The initial white knuckles, as I gripped the tiller, rigid back and a gaze fixed straight ahead quickly eased under Andy’s expert tuition and easy going manner. My friend and I were soon in the swing of things, once we got round the concept that in order to direct the boat in one way the tiller had to be moved in the opposite direction.

Life slowed from the 60mph of the working week to gently ticking over in under 30 minutes, and all that was left to do was view the surrounds. Sights such as a solitary crane on the banks of the canal, clusters of blue tinged dragonflies hovering along the water and wondering why someone had gone to the trouble to place a sign that reads “The remains of a wooden icebreaker lie submerged” when you look at its reflection in the water provided spots of entertainment. And, despite the fact that we were minutes from built-up urban areas, the often rural landscape and tree canopy watery path before hitting a more industrial scene as we edged closer to Leeds made it feel like you could be anywhere.

While the swing bridges felt like a doddle with two people pushing, the locks, seven in total, were more involved.

Armed with a windlass we were taught how to prepare the lock before the boat enters, both to travel up and down the canal, and how to open and shut the gates and paddles correctly.

One charm of the water I hadn’t expected was the community. Not only was it the brief conversations with those who live on their boats, who we saw going about their business, and the lock keepers who skilfully worked the more complex three-rise staircase locks, but fellow boaters too. Should you be aware that a narrowboat is behind you, the etiquette is to wait and to pass through together. Working the locks going down we encountered a family, on the way up a retired couple spending a month on their boat – all the while experience and life stories were being swapped.

Every boat, of course, has a name. Ours was Molly Moo, which was accompanied by paw prints, named after Andy’s water-loving Newfoundland. The bear-like appearance contributed to the name of the company, as did the fact that chartering a boat without a skipper or crew is known as bare boating.

Once moored at Granary Wharf, our instructor bade farewell for the evening. While barges conjure up images of traditional and twee folk artwork, cascading with roses and castles, the Molly Moo more resembled a floating city centre apartment flat. Designed and fitted out by Andy, the luxurious four berth included a full working kitchen, shower and entertainment systems.

The return leg presented a new challenge. The rain falling during the night had swelled the canals making the opening of the first gate harder than the day before. Andy kept the instruction to a minimum as we put our new found skills into practise, controlling the narrowboat into the locks, mooring up and pulling off the banks – even a three-point turn.

Once moored up and back on dry land we were handed our helmsman’s certificates – and a passport to a whole new world on the water.

Getting there

Lisa Stocks went on a City Break RYA training cruise weekend with Bear Boating. A World Heritage Break training cruise to Saltaire is also available.

Bear Boating RYA approved training courses cost £200 per person, with weekend courses for four people booking together including free accommodation.

For more information visit www.bearboating.co.uk, email admin@bearboating.co.uk or telephone 07969 901383.

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