Approaching the marina at the end of a beautiful day my right hand is steady and sure on the smooth wooden tiller of the narrowboat Malvolio. It feels like I’ve been doing this all my life. A trail of ripples sparkles in the warm, early evening sunshine. The course is slow, steady and deeply satisfying. This, however, wasn’t quite the story at the start of the day.
It’s a still, overcast late-summer morning as my mate John and I walk along the pontoon to Malvolio. Once we get to our luxuriously appointed six-sleeper narrowboat, we are given a thorough demonstration of how to handle the boat. How to start and stop, and how to manage the throttle settings – forward and reverse. Our instructor demonstrates a perfectly controlled 180° turn (mine, later, wasn’t so pretty). We are then shown how to operate the gates and sluices, when to leave them open and when to leave them shut. It’s all sinking in somehow, but there’s more to this sedate pastime than I first thought. And soon enough John and I will be on our own.
Miles of opportunity
When we set off the sun breaks through the clouds and John and I smile at each other hopefully. After successfully negotiating a narrow gap, a sharper right takes us into the wonders of the Staffordshire stretch of the Trent and Mersey Canal and the heart of the UK’s historic canal network.
We face open water, miles and miles of opportunity and locks. The first one is in sight after 10 minutes. It hasn’t been the most graceful 10 minutes, either. I’ve been overcompensating with the tiller, but this ungainly zigzagging makes us our first friends on the water.
"Just picked it up?" Asks a woman on board a pristine, cream and burgundy narrowboat.
"We’re novices!" I reply.
"Thought as much," she says, with a genuine smile, before steering her boat, as smooth as anything, into the lock, the dark gothic gates closing behind her. Her husband works with the paddles – suntanned, in green chinos and a blue fleece, he seems extremely relaxed. He nods and smiles. "Remember, it steers when you’ve got a bit of power on. And take it easy," he calls down to me. I’m grateful for the tip. They look like they make a good team.
And then it’s our turn. John steps onto the bank, windlass in hand (a steel tool used to wind the gates that let water in and out), bounds up ancient smooth-worn stone steps and wait me to steer Malvolio in.
My confidence in handling the boat is improving all the time. John closes the gates behind me and slowly winches up the paddles that let the water in. The grind, clink and whistle of the mechanism is deeply evocative – this canal dates back to 1777.
As Malvolio rises I keep clear of anything that might hold her down. When I’m level with the next passage of water, John opens the front gate so I can steer out. He carefully winds down the top paddles – rather than letting them fall – and closes the gates, as there is no one waiting to enter. This etiquette is appreciated on the waterways.
It’s not long before the working of the locks and the nuances of the steering start to become intuitive. There’s only one thing left to do — find a pub.
There is no shortage to choose from on a narrowboat holiday. England’s canals are like an intricate capillary system offering unique access to towns and villages, rather like sadly missed railway branch lines, but still thriving. You won’t just discovered great alehouses, you’ll also come across fine independent butchers and grocers. We moor up near Alrewas and, after a short stroll, finds Peter Coates, a family-run village butcher selling free-range meets sourced from farms within 10 miles of the village.
No one’s faster… or slower
One of the joys of narrowboats is that no one’s really got a bigger boat than yours, no one’s faster or slower — it’s just not competitive. People just get on. It’s the perfect way to relax.
Our pub of choice today is the Crown, which has roots far back in the 17th century. After ordering local beer and succulent Packington pork baguettes, we get talking to the landlord, Peter. "One of the joys of narrowboats is that no one’s really got a bigger boat than yours, no one’s faster, or slower — it’s just not competitive. So people just get on, they make friends and have a great time. It’s the perfect way to relax." He tells us why the places you turn boats are called winding holes — because, before engines, the wind and current would help turn the boat. We learn that the term "leg it" comes from boat crews lying on their backs to push boats through tunnels using their feet. And he tells us how the Trent and Mersey was a business lifeline through Josiah Wedgwood, the pottery magnet. Before the canal, bad roads were costing him a fortune in broken pots. The canals changed all that.
Thanking Peter, we return to Malvolio. The next few hours are a delight. Any trepidation has melted away and John and I adapt to life in the slow line. This morning we were Londoners, stressed and deadline-driven. Now we’re watermen, soaking up the spirit of peaceful co-operation that characterises this kind of holiday.
Hunts and Keeper
And locks aren’t challenges any more. They’re social opportunities. Just before Fradley Junction — which has another great pub, the Swan, aka the Mucky Duck — we reach Hunt and Keeper’s lock. Here a jolly woman from Seattle, glowing with enthusiasm, is busy working the gates while her husband negotiates the lock.
"You guys look like you’re new to this. Don’t worry you soon get the hang of it. After that it’s easy and you start to feel like you’re at home. Everything you need is right there on the boat. We’ve been on this trip for three weeks and we’ve gone through about 150 locks in 250 miles!" She says.timeshare canal holiday UK "We come back here every year and there’s always something new to discover. You meet such a lot of great people, you have a few brews and you keep fit on these locks! It’s just the coolest thing!" With that she skips off to rejoin her boat.
By now we’re running late, and it’s time to find a winding hole to turn round. The manoeuvre lacks finesse, but I pull it off and even attract a small gathering. "That wasn’t pretty was it!" Someone calls out. "Don’t worry, the first one I ever did had to be at least a 27-point turn. You’re doing just fine!"
I feel fine, and I wish we could moor up, get something to eat, have "brew" at the Mucky Duck and spend at night in Malvolio — you sleep where you stop on this kind of holiday. But we have to get the boat back tonight.
Too soon we’re back on the pontoon. Ideally we should navigate Malvolio into the marina but, certainly at the start of the day, it would have been too tricky for a novice like me to manage it. I don’t think so now. I really think I could do it. But maybe next time — sometime soon.