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Hotel Narrow Boats

on the Canals and Rivers of the UK

Navigating the heart of England.

From The Sunday Times, April 27th 2008.

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Christy Campbell messes about on a boat in the Midlands canals.

As we chugged past the derelict hat factory, a large rodent scurried in the reeds. We had stumbled on a hidden world full of ancient ruins and brooding forests. I looked at the map. Our journey thus far into England's heart of industrial darkness had brought us little short of Nuneaton.

My son Joe and I had signed up with an eccentric sounding outfit called Reed Boats, begun three years ago by a former Church of Wales clergyman. Martin Reed bases his business in Gloucestershire, and he and his family spend the high season - March to the end of October - leisurely navigating middle England (and a bit of Wales) welcoming up to six paying guests aboard.


Imagine an ocean liner in miniature. Cabins, galley, saloon, library, sun-deck and crew quarters all crammed into two narrowboats. Oak and Ash, one towing the other. An attentive crew of three would see you safe and attend to your every need. It sounded plain sailing, nothing to do except watch the world go by.

But this was a canal boat. Around every turn it seemed was some bizarre physical challenge. Take Atherton locks for example, a "flight" of 11 watery stepladders.

Our floating hotel was in two halves, the "motor" and the "butty" (you learn canal speak fast). How to get the engineless butty in and out of these brick built coffers?

Once upon a time it was done by horses. You do it by man-hauling on a long rope, finely judging speed and momentum. Martin's charming daughter, Marie, whirled her "windlass" expertly, sticking the all important crank handle ( you open the gates with it) into her belt - the sign of the seasoned canalist. Neither Joe or I could resist joining the towpath ballet. I was getting it now. Canal cruising can be as physically demanding as a mountain hike or as sybaritic as a picnic on a punt. You can choose for yourself. I toiled at the lanyard for a bit, ranked clumsily at a few sluice gates, then thought about the three-course dinner that Martin was preparing. After all that exertion I deserved it.


The best bit is the pace - a little faster than walking. Chugga chugga, ducks quack and geese scurry. There's time to spot most things. At Tamworth there were signs in Polish urging fishermen to replace their catch in the water. Other boats glide by, piloted by pensioners in bobble hats or hippies puffing roll-ups. There is a gruff camaraderie at the lock gates.

Brash modern Britain is exiled. There are pubs, of course, but the whole experience is of raveling not just in space but back in time. The landscape of abandoned quarries, shuttered mills and crumbling cooling stages is full of mystery.


There are leafy interludes. One gorgeous evening we tied up in a huge wood near Hopwas, which Joe and I explored for hours before returning to glimpse the lights of our new home twinkling in the distance.

It was the fate of the canals, so I read in Oak's well-stocked library, to linger in industrial twilight for decades until being rediscovered 60 years ago.
I also found a memoir of families bringing children up in the tiny cabins, without schooling or medicine, always on the move. They have long gone but you can sense the past at every humpbacked bridge, at every cast-iron stanchion where a tow rope naturally slips into a grove made more than two centuries ago.

It was time to leave. New guests were due to board. You get off where you like, by the towpath, and summon a cab. It was back to the modern world. I looked at Oak and Ash heading northwards up "the cut", through the Harecastle Tunnel and on to the Peak District. Their adventure was only just beginning.


(The Author also wrote in our Visitors Book. See what he said. )


To be sure of the quality of your holiday you can also ...


Read, "Dream to Reality", the story of the setting up of Reed Boats.

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