Sunday, 13 September 2015

Messing About on The....Canal

By T W Coombs

The question is can you live in a tube with four people? I shall explain. Summer holidays in the UK don't usually involve much sunshine, cheap beer or having to change your money up into any currency.  But it can involve water sports, well, I say sports more of a boating jolly.  Was it a huge yacht with staff and taking control of the open seas I hear you cry? No, it wasn't it was a forty foot canal boat on the not so open Warwickshire canals, the Grand Union heading south to be precise.
           Now I live in Kent so everything starts with a journey, this journey of course involves the M25 and M11, so obviously the two hours forty minute journey that my Stephen Fry'd up TomTom told me was complete rubbish.  So over half way through the journey myself and my other half stopped off at the services, due to the usual problems of a rather full bladder and an ankle in so much pain I would have crashed the car rather than drive any further in slow moving traffic.  I have recently given up smoking, onto week 9 at this point in time so after said bathroom break I actually didn't know what to do so I could rest my ankle some more before another gruelling journey.  Now I always see people sitting around at their fast food dispensary of choice and all around one Costa, but I am not on a leisurely cruise I need to be somewhere or I am up shits canal without a narrow boat.  But thankfully I was saved as this certain services had not two but three Costa Coffee stations, why you need three I wasn't going to ask, maybe it can be that busy, but everyone was only queuing at one, odd people.  So we went to the smaller one where no one was and got a double espresso.  What you must realise that at this point is I had been up since 6:50am to go and sort out my day job before heading out on this journey, so the caffeine was needed.

                After this ten minute refresh and ankle rest we were back on our way and I even hit 70 mph, for about ten minutes, but I got back down to 10 mph which went on until I left the M11 after another two hours, and with only 20 minutes to go, through towns and villages, so not twenty minutes at all.  So after just shy of four and a half hours in the car, we triumphantly arrived at the boatyard where we could take control of a forty foot boat to cruise the canals of Warwickshire.  Not before we unloaded the car.

               A week in the UK involves a standard weekend bag, and a bag with tablet, camera and other electronic devices and one with towels and toiletries, so all set for me.  My girlfriend has come with same size bag you could go away for a fortnight with and a couple of extra pieces of luggage with what she couldn't fit in the main huge walk in suitcase (I exaggerate, very slightly).  This is the normal differences between man and woman kind but we are about to set out on a boat with, if turned into a square, less room as a bedsit in central London that already has ten people living in it. I would advise packing light and in a container that can be squished down and stored easily.

             Finally the time had come, it had been raining so the whole deck was soaked and all five of us including the Dog were on our vessel and a little old fella was ready to show us the boat.  Firstly checking bits and starting up, I remembered none of it, actually that is a lie I remembered what he did but the second we were on our own I didn't remember why. But I just knew I had to do what he did and it worked out okay.  My other half and her mother were shown how to do Locks, which was good as I couldn't have remembered all that either, it is a lot of info in what was a small amount of time as they were ready to close when we finally rocked up.  So through one gate we were left to our own devices.  We had a basic route mapped, from a book we had bought at the boat yard and we were churning up the crap filled canals quicker than you could say, "we're fucked".

                  We survived our first night on the boat and Saturday came with some crisp morning air and a bad back.  As you can imagine we didn't get too far the night before so we moored up before the Sun totally disappeared and went for food and a pint or two.  This was now the beginning of the first day of boating for real.  Were started off from Braunston which to be fair is about ten minutes from where we started at Napton, if you were walking, so about two hours on a canal boat.  Braunston seemed like quite a nice village with some really nice cottages and some very drunk people on Friday nights, so not too dissimilar than my home town.

                Now the first challenge was getting water, you see you are on a boat and have to fill up your fresh water tank as often as you can from taps along the route, the issue I had was the lack of seal around the cap to said tank and the fact I was using a muddy looking garden hose to transfer the water.  I was really hoping there was a filter somewhere, but just to think there is one, than to ask and get told no, that is what you get, straight from the tank.  So after waiting an hour for the slowest moving old guys to fill theirs up we did ours which took about ten minutes and we were back off on or journey to a place we hadn't quite worked out yet.

                Today involved locks, we first thought there was five turned out the map wasn't quite to an exact scale and was actually 12 in total, a small amount really, but there is etiquette.  We never really found out the etiquette and just winged it.  If you decide to do this, make sure you keep away from whom I am now calling boating snobs.  Some volunteer for the Canal and River Trust and I am sure most of them are really nice but this one guy just got my hackles up.  My other half’s Father was steering and we easily got into the lock, it was a double so another boat can fit if one is also coming your way, which it was.  Now the women were out of the boat ready to do the Locks, and I was on the boat trying to get the dog to stop whining, which he wouldn't, and as this was the first Lock and someone else had to fit in I am not surprised that we weren't 100 percent.  There was a man trying to help who took the centre line which helps you control the boat as we were veering off and another boat needed to fit in this space.  He then looked at me and said "This should be your job" a little rudely like it was a chore for him to help, to which I replied "maybe, never done it before", he then replied with a stern "It involves all the crew" all right pal keep your life jacket on FIRST TIME!! REMEMBER!! He then went on to be rude to a six year old girl who said two more boats were coming, "Yes I know, I saw them" just a thanks very much and a smile would have been better.  Just to save face of the canal trust people he was the only rude one, but some do need to smile more, you volunteer so if you don't like doing it then don't!  After the initial five locks there was a tunnel, which unlike modern tunnels has no lights and a feel of you are not coming out alive.  Many people have died since it was first used, less these days I am sure, but the amount of noise the dog made did make me think there would be one more fatality to add to the list.  After the 30 minutes in the tunnel there was seven more Locks, oh joy.  I took the helm, well the rudder stick and got us through the down hill locks like a pro, except one incident with a large tree, but saved it with the help of ropes and pure luck.

                Surprisingly it was quite tiring controlling the boat, it is 40 feet long and turns from the centre and no matter what you do will not go in a straight line, ever.  But we moored anyway and ate and drank without a problem.

              On Sunday we had twenty five minute walk to the nearest shop, which was good as the sun was truly shining and we needed dinner for Sunday night.  Our route we had been chosen was now lock free until we had to turn round and come back.  Now one thing I will mention was so far everyone was getting on but I was now a little bored.  You see I had driven the boat and I had gone through Locks and I had helped open and close locks, so what now? I see the peaceful side of it but you don't have much to do if not driving.

             The day was the day we hit the end of the line.  Now it wasn't the actual end of the line but if we had gone through the Lock at Stoke Bruerne then the map ran out and just said, To London.  So rather than get stuck on the route to London and probably end up drifting down the Thames we were to stay there for the night then swing round and come back.  First though we had to head through the longest tunnel in the UK, river wise the book said, which was over three thousand metres long.  It takes approx forty minutes and once you're in you can't see the end, the only twinkling you may see is if another boat is heading straight for you like a demon in the darkness.  This wasn't the best time for my claustrophobia to kick in, but it did, so headphones firmly jammed in my head and rooting myself inside the brightly lit cabin, there I stayed, until I could see the light at the end of tunnel, literally.
               
           Stoke Bruerne was actually very nice and also very small. There was at pub at the end near the lock, a canal museum and gift shop and a couple of houses, and to be honest that was it, except the poorly positioned main road, so the quaint look was destroyed by fast moving traffic.  Well the new modern world needs to destroy the old somehow doesn't it?

          So Monday came and we had turned round and were beginning our return journey, so back through the tunnel.  We stopped closer to the area we had to go to the shop and I got myself a Chinese takeaway.  You see I had downloaded some movies to watch in the evenings to pass some time, which was well planned as there is only so much I can read in one sitting.

          We soon got to Wednesday and were now taking it easy as to waste some time.  We boated along at quite a steady pace and moored up just before the junction for Coventry.  There was a nice pub next to the Lock which some amazing food, I was drunk by about 5pm and had filled my belly so much I thought I was going to die.  Another night in for me, plus drinking early just makes me want to sleep.

                Sleep is easier said than done on a canal boat, let's just say they are not built for comfort and ours certainly wasn't.  The put me up beds were horribly uncomfortable and even the one that was supposed to be a bed was not comfortable and backs were hurting and sleep was being deprived, which isn't the best thing when you are living in a tube together.

                Now Thursday started it not the way we had hoped, you see like camping at some point you need to get the very disgusting chemical toilet emptied.  The guy at the beginning failed to mention the pumping out of shit at the time he was rushing through what to do with the boat.  Thankfully we found somewhere that could pump it all out for you for about twenty pounds which in my mind wasn't a bad price and saves us hoping that the tube is attached and then finding out it is not and getting covered in our own shit.  So after holding it in for a bit we were back on our way to where we began.  And as predicted we reached our final destination, we moored up and settled in for the night as the next morning we were travelling home to comfort and real plumbing.

                So in conclusion, if you don’t like camping or caravanning then you won’t like being on a canal boat.  Yes it seems like a pleasurable thing and I must admit people seem to love it, but I was not one of them. You will get covered in crab, mud etc. it is a water based activity, you will not be able to move or get time to yourself and for a slow moving leisurely exercise they aren't at any level of comfort. If you haven't tried it and really want to then go for a long weekend and not a week and be prepared to need a massage when you get home.  I took myself and my other half to Aquamanda at Hempstead House Hotel, Bapchild near Sittingbourne for a full body massage and it was the most comfortable and relaxed I had felt all week.