My mother-in-law has a canal boat. Way, way back in the day, before my kids were even a twinkle in the eye, my husband and I had a couple of happy holidays on that canal boat. Once on our own and once with friends. And in the summer holidays, we’re going back. This time with kids!
A canal boat holiday is unique. You are completely cut off from the ‘real world’. Your world is the water, the tow path, the trees, the wildlife, the locks, the quirky little canal and farm shops and the canalside pubs. You don’t go into towns. The only people you see are fellow canal users. You may or may not (but most likely may not) get the television to tune in. You get up when it gets light, go to bed when it gets dark. It is relaxing, but at the same time active (those locks are heavy work). And I love it.
You don’t go on a canal boat holiday to get a suntan. Even back in the 90s, before we had constant freak weather, you would usually see every type of weather in one day – hot sun, strong winds, then torrential rain and back again. You change clothes constantly – layers on and layers off again.
There is never time to get bored, even though you’re not doing a lot. You are never far from the next locks. Locks, in case you didn’t know, are the way canals go up (or down) hill. If you’re going up, you need to fill the lock with water, if you’re going down, you need to empty it. It sounds simple, and it is, but it’s also very easy to get confused. There are four gates to operate – two at each end. It is possible for one person to steer the boat in the lock while another person operates all four of the gates, but in the summer there are usually plenty of willing helpers from the boat behind or the boat in front to muck in. Butthey’d better not muck in if we’re there with the kids and our boat is going through! They want to do it themselves.
If you get bored of travelling on the boat, jump off and walk alongside instead – the boat travels at about the same speed as you do. You might even find an ice cream shop! There is a hidden economy on the canal – lots of farms and disused mills selling ice creams, pints of milk and lock keys (to replace the one you’ve dropped in the canal).
A canal boat isn’t camping – you have a shower, a toilet, a cooker and a fridge. It is a home from home, but on a really small scale. There is plenty of storage cunningly hidden under seats and beds.
But the water from the shower has to come from somewhere and the contents of the toilet have to go somewhere. While travelling, you need to stop at a tap to refill your water tank – and at a pumping station to have your toilet emptied. It’s not as gross as it sounds – you don’t do it and you don’t see what’s coming out.
Old habits from real life die hard. Things like queues for the taps and pumping station, and particularly the locks, can start to stress you out. You want to beat the rush. You don’t want to queue. You start travelling from dawn until dusk, going slightly faster than you should do.
We are heading for Llangollen from Cheshire. We did it in three days last time, with a day off in Llangollen and three days back. In those days, our boat was ‘powered by Boddington’s’ to quote a posh old lady who looked at us disapprovingly as we ‘drove’ far too fast up the canal. My husband and his friend started off with a ‘no drinking before lunch’ rule and by the end of the week the Boddington’s was out at 6am!
So we want to make the same time again, otherwise we will be in a hurry to get back home for work. There will be no Boddington’s this time, so this may make us faster or slower. It’s a beautiful run through some stunning countryside and a terrifying trip over the Pontcysylite Aqueduct, which is very high and very narrow. It was fine back in the day, but I have three little people to worry about now.
I’m incapable of going on holiday withouth worrying and the canal is no exception. The kids all have life-jackets, which they will need to wear all the time they are outside the boat. My other worries are:
- Rain – a bit is fine and to be expected and we’ve got waterproofs, but the sort of monsoon-like conditions we’ve had recently will be a nightmare. The boat gets positively steamy inside even from people breathing, so add in layers of wet clothing with nowhere to dry them and it will be tropically uncomfortable. It will also force the kids inside and make them bored.
- Illness – the cramped conditions are not conducive to illness. And if we needed a doctor, and we were in the middle of nowhere and travelling at the speed of a snail? It doesn’t bear thinking about.
- Claustrophobia/ lack of sleep – I am claustrophobic. We’ve spent two nights on the boat with the kids and I found the double bed claustrophobic, so the second time I tried to sleep in the open on the settees. Neither worked. This is fine for a night, not for a week.
- Boredom – I won’t get bored, but I have to face facts – the kids might. We need books, colouring and the DS.
I’ll let you know how we get on, but in the meatime, wish me luck!