Go with the flow

Narrowboat at the junction of the Grand Union and Oxford Canals, Braunston, Northamptonshire
Narrowboat at the junction of the Grand Union and Oxford Canals, Braunston, Northamptonshire
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Hiring a narrowboat is as relaxing as it gets, as Helen Werin discovered

We’d just spent an hour with John from the boatyard learning how to handle our hired narrowboat and, crucially, the locks. One suspects his job requires a lot of patience, particularly so with customers like me whose brain won’t compute the fact that to go right you steer left and vice versa. So I put my husband’s name down as skipper and volunteered to flex my muscles on the lock gates instead.

Now John was asking; “Do you feel ready to go off on your own?” As we confidently dismissed him, he called out: “Where are you going?”

“Banbury”, I answered. Cue a wry smile. A moment later he was back, pressing on us a detailed map of the Oxford Canal and Grand Union Canal on which we were to motor in the Esma Frances.

We never did get to Banbury. It’s only 17 miles by road from Stockton, in Warwickshire, where we jumped aboard Esma at the Kate Boats base. In canal terms, that’s around nine hours. We may have had three nights aboard, but we were travelling at a gentle walking speed. Plus we had to factor in the nine narrow locks at Napton, nine further locks over the Oxfordshire border and stops to take on water. We didn’t want to be motoring from dawn until dusk. We were here to escape that sort of pressure.

It didn’t become obvious that Banbury was an overly-ambitious destination until we’d headed in that direction. Well, as far as The Folly pub at Napton anyway.

Did a change of plan matter? My biggest concern was that, after a couple of glasses of cider at The Folly, would I be able to get back on Esma?

But with myself and daughter Sophie (10), safely back on board, Robin performed an impressive three point (well, that’s what he reckoned) turn and we backtracked towards Braunston Turn in Northamptonshire.

Cheryl Howes, owner of Kate Boats, says the first question novice narrowboaters ask is: “How far can you go?” Those who have done it before appreciate just how long it takes. “It’s difficult to get the message across that you take your time,” she said. “Banbury may be a nice run in a week, but hard work over a weekend.”

I also read later that the fastest way to slow down is to travel by narrowboat. Having spent most of that long weekend sitting at the prow, watching the countryside roll by, I can concur with that. Robin and Sophie were at the tiller, I was saving all my energy for the locks.

Here I admit I’d been reading up on how locks work. What I hadn’t learned was the finer points of steadying the craft once in the lock. This was evident in our first attempt at Calcutt. So as not to waste water in the locks, Esma was paired up with a privately- owned beauty to tackle the uphill canal. I could see my fellow lock operator looking at our boat with a rather supercilious expression. “Okay, so what are we doing wrong?” I sighed. There and then we got a very friendly lesson in boat handling.

After that the locks were a cinch. At the second lock I jumped off to find a group of teenage boys working the other side. Sophie gave them one of her haughty, “I can do this by myself, but it’s taking three of you” looks as she leaned in to the heavy gate to open it. The look of achievement on her face was a joy to behold. From then on, she complained if there weren’t any more locks for miles.

Braunston Turn is known as the “capital” of the canals. The approach was beautiful; Thomas Telford’s eye-catching bridge spanning the junction of the Grand Union and Oxford canals. By now we badly needed water, but there were boats queueing for the taps.

What I’d kept from Robin was that Braunston is the busiest junction on the British canals network. Within minutes of our arrival it felt like Piccadilly Circus.

Robin looked a bit alarmed. He’d relaxed into cruising along at a slow speed. Now he was jolted into action. He spotted a vacant tap and pulled in front of a hire boat taking on water. Two of its crew – who turned out to be Dutch – stood on the bank with their hands on their hips regarding us in a distinctly unfriendly manner.

We realised it was worry on their faces. They were even less experienced than we were and concerned about how they would manoeuvre out of their tight space. As it was, they managed it admirably, but not before the biggest drama of our trip.

We’d fallen into conversation with a veteran of the canals who lived on a boat nearby. He was patiently waiting to fill eight huge water carriers. Suddenly I sensed alarm and looked up to see a boat loaded with young women sunbathing on the roof heading straight for the Dutch boat – and us. They were going far too fast.

The man with the water yelled at a Dutch crewman sitting on the roof of his boat. “Brace yourself.” He was almost drowned out by the shrieks of the sunbathers. The helmsman of the speeding boat was only just visible above the sea of bodies on the roof. Right at the very last second, he thrust the engine in to reverse, and missed the Dutch tourists’ boat by inches. My new friend remarked wryly: “We have to remember that we are sharing the waterways with people who have no experience whatsoever”.

The only racing we’d done all weekend was trying to beat the boats as we strolled along the towpaths. We always won. Back at base, we looked at the map to see how far we’d journeyed. We’d only travelled the equivalent of two junctions on the M1. Watford Gap services had only ever been a few miles to the east of us, but might as well have been a million miles away.

Getting there

Esma Frances is one of a range of boats to hire from Kate Boats, all fitted out to high standards. All we had to take were towels. You can also arrange for groceries to be delivered and put on board. Esma Frances costs from £395 (short break) to £625 (week). Smaller boats available from £225 (short break) to £355 (week). Kate Boats operates from March to December, including Christmas. www.kateboats.co.uk 01926 492968.