I’ve spent a glorious week drifting up and down the Kennet and Avon canal, from Bradford-on-Avon to Bristol and back again. As an antidote to the relentless hubbub of the city, it’s hard to beat. And since my return, I’ve been perusing my copy of Waterways World, daydreaming about the day when a 50-foot narrowboat can be mine, all mine…
The canal goes through some of England’s most exquisitely lovely, bucolic countryside. The rolling hills and woodlands between Bath and Bristol are not spectacular, but have a domestic softness. Crossing the Avon valley, over an elegant stone aquaduct, mazy fields stretch into the distance. Closer to the boat, there’s the sheer joy of watching a chaotic bundle of tawny yellow ducklings scramble along behind a harassed duck, or seeing a stock-still heron unfold its pterodactyl limbs and flap lazily across the water. The menacing mute swans, accompanied by fluffy, gawky grey cygnets, stuck their heads in the hatch of the boat to demand bread.
Once I’d got the hang of the steering (thanks to the Gentleman Caller for patience and extricating me from a few tight corners) I enjoyed the tranquil, almost hypnotically slow progress of the boat down endless corridors of green, overhung with willow. I liked spotting the different styles of moored ‘live-aboard’ boats, from the gently hippy (Buddist prayer flags, peace signs, a few scruffy pots of herbs) to the professional boaters, with their gleaming brass portholes, perfectly coiled ropes and ship-shape crew. Other boat people were clearly living the alternative dream , with all manner of solar panels, bikes on racks, great gardens of salad, tomatoes and strawberries adorning the roof.
The names of the boats were a dead give-away. There were a suspicious number of boats named after 1960s songs – I spotted two Penny Lanes, at least one Hey Jude, a Strawberry Fields (to be fair, it was hung about with blooming strawberry plants) and a Maggie May. Clearly, canal boats are now a favourite pasttime with the baby boomers. The GC was pleased to spot Comfortably Numb, his favourite Pink Floyd song. Then there were the heartfelt expressions of relief to be out of the rat race. Three At Last caught my eye, and Narrow Escape.
Somewhat to my surprise, the limited bathroom facilities and cosy dimensions of the boat didn’t diminish the pleasure. The freedom of the river was a surprise. You moor up, pretty much where you want to, head off to the nearest pub for dinner, sleep lulled by the gentle rocking of the boat, then in the morning, untie the ropes and you’re off. No bill to settle, no check-out, no hassle. And you can make a proper cup of tea whenever you want one.
In Bristol, my favourite city outside of London, we moored on a pontoon literally next to the city centre Arnolfini art gallery, where we had an excellent lunch. In Bath, we lashed out on a £9 license to moor opposite the Abbey, right next to the famed Pultney Bridge. We sat on the deck in the evening, with a glass of wine and a book, watching the world go by. The next morning, the GC proved his heroism by donning trunks and goggles to dive under a neighbouring boat with a rudder problem, mallet in hand, and fixed it.
‘Where did you find such a man?’ asked one of the women on board the other boat, overcome with admiration. I basked in second-hand glory. It felt a bit like being a Bond Girl. Except I can’t imagine 007 making tea, or taking his turn with
the washing up.
I haven’t mentioned the locks, have I? We took turns, partly because I wasn’t sure whether I was more worried about steering the boat into the lock and holding it steady, or by all the physical work of winding the gears and shoving the lock gates around. So I learned to do both, and we were dab hands by the end of the week, although I still have the bruises from a few struggles with the heavy great gates.
A day after having to give the boat back (dammit, that was hard) I’m still gently rocking when I close my eyes. It was my first boating holiday, but certainly not my last. As Ratty said to Mole, there really is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing, as simply messing about in boats.
Here’s a few riverine books that I’ll revisit to help me adjust:
- The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Graham
- Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K Jerome
- Thames: Sacred River, Peter Ackroyd
- Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens