Spending a week gliding upon Britain’s canals means one thing, and one thing only – you have to slow down. Even if you wanted to navigate the narrow stretches, countless bridges, turns, aqueducts and locks with speed, you couldn’t. The restrictions placed upon you by the fact that barges simply won’t go that fast (the speed limit is a mere 4mph) mean that when one takes to the canal system, one has to slow down. And in doing so, you do something many of us are incapable of these days: you switch off.
But you see, the tranquil pace of life on the canals doesn’t merely afford you the chance to relax, it also offers you the unbeatable opportunity of becoming one with nature. Traversing the vast system of the waterways at a pace favoured by geriatrics the world over allows barge tourists to take in everything the canals have to offer. And they certainly don’t disappoint. From beautiful meadows, to quaint stone bridges from a bygone era, countless wharf-side pubs, and some of the most spectacular countryside you have ever seen, the canals provide a taste of unspoilt, rustic England at its best. There’s wildlife too. Fluffy ducklings paddling like mad to keep up with the flock, herons taking gracefully to the air as you pass by, kingfishers flitting from tree to tree, their feathers azure blue, and audacious swans peering into barge windows on the lookout for crumbs and morsels.
As you’ve likely inferred by now, I thoroughly enjoyed my recent week spent on a canal boat, where we attempted (and completed) the four counties ring that takes in Staffordshire, Shropshire, Cheshire and Derbyshire. Below, I offer my main highlights from the trip.
Bridges, so many beautiful bridges
The canal system is a feat of engineering, having been constructed some 300 years ago during the Industrial Revolution; its usability lies in its simplicity. All bridges across the canals are like junctions on a motorway – they are numbered, allowing drivers to determine where they are on a map. They’re also rather beautiful, most of them being made of stone and curving gracefully over the water. Many are no longer in use, having previously been built on busy walking routes through forests or fields that are no longer trampled.
In the deeper canals, forged into hard rock, the bridges are simply majestic, and gliding underneath them fills you with a sense of awe and amazement at not only man’s ability to carve the landscape all those years ago, but nature’s equally astonishing ability to take back what she deems to be her own. Oh, and one of them had an old telegraph pole in too, which looked rather wonderful.
Locks are simple and great fun too. When you rent a canal boat, your supplier will run you through the necessary etiquette with regards to locks, as well as the best way to tackle them. Some of them are a bit stiff though, so you’ll need to be prepared to well and truly muck in. Most of the locks we stopped at offered wonderful sights – old houses presumably built originally for lock keepers and staircases of 5 or 6, sometimes even 15 locks in a row. Most traffic occurs at these points, with people waiting for their turn to pass through.
Beautiful Countryside and Wildlife
As mentioned above, canals afford you the opportunity to see countryside not visible from roads or well-trodden footpaths. But I’ve said enough about that already, so instead I’ll let some images do the talking.
Tips, tricks and practicalities
We rented our 6 berth barge from Canal Cruising in Stone, Staffordshire. On board was an oven, kitchen equipment, bathroom with shower, small living space, two double beds and two singles, and ample cupboard storage.
Stopping for water every couple of days is recommended, particularly if everyone on board is showering regularly. As for steering, take it slow on the narrow sections and make sure you don’t moor up in private areas, or sections that require a fee.
Locks are simple, but must always be left closed to avoid flooding or draining, unless another barge is ready to enter. Good manners, smiles and offering a helping hand goes a long way with fellow users of the network. And finally, enjoy the opportunity to just take it all in.