The dark and narrow road
Earlier this year adventure cyclist and all round nice chap, Mark Beaumont cycled 18,000 miles round the globe on his bike and he did it in just over seventy eight days. Just let that sink in for a moment. That’s an average of about 230 miles a day, on a push bike. It might help to create a little perspective when I tell you that I have just checked our logs and we have managed an impressive 115 miles in three weeks with the aid of a thirty eight horse power engine and an occasional tail wind. I think we may have achieved our prime objective of travelling slowly.
I was hoping by now to be able to give a reasonably rounded assessment of what travelling on a narrow boat is like but I don’t feel qualified. I am very happy to tell you that I am only qualified to tell you what it’s like to travel on a narrow boat in near perfect conditions. We’ve had three weeks of mostly unbroken sunshine and for the last two, very light or no winds. It’s boating heaven and the longer it lasts the more nervous I become about what we might have to deal with later.
We are in Middlewich now and at the start of a new phenomenon in canal terms. We are about to embark on our first experience of narrow canals. It all changed over the last couple of days when the term narrow boat suddenly made sense. You see up to now we have mostly travelled on the Leeds and Liverpool and the Bridgewater canals They were both designed to accommodate barges up to fourteen feet wide. Bridge holes, locks and aqueducts are all built to this specification so travelling on a skinny minny like the Golden Girl is quite straight forward. You just aim her at the middle of everything and she slips through with room for a little wiggle on the way. Or so we thought.
After several days of no locks, swing bridges or obstacles other than the odd bicycle wheel or dead fish we set off last Friday for what promised to be an exciting leg of the trip. After a brief stop for our travelling companions to top up on fuel we would be leaving the Bridgewater Canal and joining the Trent and Mersey. We would be passing through one lock and no less than three tunnels and we hadn’t realised that our Golden Girl had been hitting the wine and cream cakes, or so it seemed. The lock was our first one that would only take one boat at a time and that’s when I first suspected that somebody appeared to have put a little weight on. Gill was handling the boat with confidence now and she elected to navigate the first tunnel after waiting for our time slot to meet the one way regulations. She entered cautiously and it was obvious that this was narrower than other tunnels we had been in. There was still plenty of room either side and no doubt it would all have been fine if Victorian engineers had had access to lasers and tunnel boring machines rather than pencils and pick axes. It was soon obvious that with each change of shift the navvies that dug this beast had changed direction! I won’t go into too much detail as it wouldn’t be fair but let’s just say we had a little bump and Gill took full responsibility for trying to create a branch line using our TV aerial pole mount on the side of the boat. It didn’t work and the boat came off worst. (It’s all fixed now so no serious damage was done.)
By the time we emerged from the third tunnel at the end of the day we had pretty much mastered the technique for staying in the middle and accepted that perhaps it was the canals that were narrowing rather than the Golden Girl’s waist line that was expanding. The challenges got greater over the next two days with narrow and winding sections of water which seemed to be occupied primarily by newly acquired hire boats travelling flat out and plainly not expecting to meet another boat coming the other way. Particularly at blind bridge holes. Words were exchanged on a couple of occasions, especially with the driver of the one that was travelling so fast that he couldn’t take any avoidance measures and ended up, rather satisfactorily, buried in the mud and reeds on the far bank. We left him and his crew, at a sedate pace of course, trying to dig themselves out with barge poles.
We only had another couple of miles to go before mooring up for the night and although I had found these new narrow sections with very tight turns quite tricky, I had actually secretly enjoyed the challenge. We hadn’t had any mishaps other than those caused by other boaters so I was feeling tired but a little smug when we came around the final bends. That didn’t last. As we rounded the corner I was trying to work out the line to take when the canal disappeared. Well at least it appeared to. No doubt perspective played a part but about fifty yards ahead the waters narrowed into what appeared to be a six inch channel over a river. I hastily looked around for an escape route, assuming I was going the wrong way but all I was faced with was impenetrable canal bank. Engaging reverse with more enthusiasm than the engine was keen on I slowed down and approached what looked like an impossibly narrow gap half the width of the boat. As we got closer I finally accepted that perhaps it was wider than us but only by inches and passed gingerly through to the other side. I swear the boat breathed in as we passed over the considerable drop to the river below. Now I really understood that we were on the narrow canals.
The white water rapids and waterfalls that I was now expecting around the final turn didn’t emerge and we were able to moor without further trepidation just outside the small town of Middlewich.
We are having a little break now for two days and we are all on strict diets in preparation for up to twenty narrow locks per day and the tunnel from hell. More on that later.
Photos by Gill