Some bloggers who read this blog might be wondering why I have a picture of a narrowboat on my blog page.
It not as if we have any here in South Africa but those of you who are familiar with the United Kingdom will surely know what they are. Narrowboats evolved from the barges that carried cargo on the 2 000 odd miles of canals in the 18th and 19th centuries. Cargo carrying fell away gradually in the 19th century as railways and better roads made them uneconomical and by the mid 20th century many of the canals had fallen into disrepair.
A small group of people saw the potential for the canals to be used for leisure boating and adapted old barges to accommodate people. They met with lots of opposition but slowly their numbers increased and a new industry was born. Hire boat companies sprang up and more and more people were converted to narrowboating as a form of holiday or indeed permanent lifestyle.
During our early visits to the UK we observed the boats moving through locks (taking them up and down a level) and our interest and curiousity grew. We then spoke to people who had had narrowboating holidays and we were sold – we had to try it.
In 2007 we had our first narrowboating holiday spending 10 days on the Kennet and Avon Canal and it was everything we had hoped for and more. I think I had a permanent smile on my face that we had actually realised our dream. We took to the life like we had been born to do it, quickly mastering locks, boat handling, mooring up etc. Our journey was from the little town of Melksham in Wiltshire through to Bristol and back. On the way we passed through delightful villages, the beautiful city of Bath and spent a night in the Bristol Floating Harbour. In spite of the slow pace of the boat 3 – 4 miles per hour it is an active holiday. Working the locks provides upper body exercise and walking back and forward to work them stretches the legs. But most exercise comes in the way of exploring towns, villages and cities on foot, shopping for groceries along the way. Some big supermarkets are conveniently situated alongside the canals but where we could we tried to support small local businesses.
The boats vary in length and design but all hire boats are well equipped with a full galley (kitchen) and bathroom/s. Our first boat was 47 ft long and just under 7ft wide. It had a cruiser stern which provided space to sit on the aft deck with a sundowner or three, a saloon (lounge area with television) a galley, a bathroom with shower, toilet and basin and up front a double bed. The bow (pointy end) also had a seating area. Packed into this relatively small area was loads of packing space for clothing and other stuff. There are many pubs along the canals and one has the choice of eating out or cooking on board. We favoured cooking on board as pub food is not terribly healthy and found it relatively inexpensive to eat much as we would at home. We were gutted when we had to hand our boat back to the base at the end of our ten days.
Our next trip was 14 days on the Grand Union Canal from Leighton Buzzard up to Rugby on the North Oxford Canal and Napton on the Grand Union where we turned around. This trip was very different in the way of scenary, mostly rural but still some interesting villages and stop over places. We had a much bigger boat 62 ft in length with two bedrooms and two bathrooms , television, dvd player, radios in the saloon and both bedrooms.
The last trip we did was in Yorkshire where we cruised the Rochdale Canal and took in the stunning Pennine scenary and then turned around to cruise a bit on the Calder and Hebble navigation. This time our boat was 56ft long, semi-trad stern which provided a bit more protection from the elements.
You meet the nicest people on the canals and we proudly flew the South African flag which was a great ice-breaker. It’s not the cheapest holiday but your boat is your accommodation and transport and most hire companies include the diesel in the hire cost. The beauty of this type of holiday is that you unpack once and the boat becomes your home from home. We found we became very attached to our boats and sad to leave them every time.
Our dream is to be able to do an extended cruise for say one or two months and see more of the canal system. Many of the industrial buildings that stood on wharfs in the cargo carrying days are being converted into luxury apartments but the industrial heritage is still very much evident.
The experience of being able to pass through urban, rural and sometimes almost rain forest like stretches provides an ever changing panorama and taking photos whilst moving is easy because the boat is moving slowly and smoothly through still water.
Leaving a lock on the Rochdale. The spectators are called “gongoozelers” and the chance that you will make a mistake entering or leaving a lock is in direct proportion to the number of gongoozelers watching. But some view narrowboating as a “contact sport” and the boats are very strongly constructed with steel hulls.