September 2, 2014

Our Narrowboat Adventure

Schricker,-Mary-Dec2010By Mary Schricker Gemberling

With the first week of our trip in Ireland complete, we were eager to meet up with our friends Jim and Diane Tiedje for our narrow boat adventure in England. We departed from the Manchester airport and headed to Festival Park at Stoke-On-Trent. The men stopped at the boatyard to check in while the women shopped for groceries at nearby Morrisons (similar to our Hy-vee)! By the time we joined our husbands at the Black Prince boatyard, they had completed the required orientation on driving and operating the boats.

We had rented two boats, each accommodating four people. A third, larger boat had been rented by Gary’s longtime friends, the Roebucks from England. After introductions were made, we loaded our supplies and luggage on board and were on our way. We would spend the next five days leisurely winding through the narrow Trent and Mersey Canal.

Narrowboats have earned their name because they are just that… narrow! The canal system in the UK was developed at the height of the industrial revolution. To keep costs as low as possible, the waterways were reduced to the minimum, allowing just two boats to pass in opposite directions. The locks, built to accommodate the increases and decreases in gradient along the route, were just over seven feet wide. Today there are few working boats on the canal system, but it is estimated that more than thirty thousand licensed or moored boats now use the canals for recreation. About eleven million people a year visit England’s canals, rivers, and docks, and canal front property has become highly desirable.

Our narrowboat, Belle, was a comfortable but compact home. The stern of the boat was where the driver steered by a tiller. Navigating Belle, 6 ‘10” wide and 58’ long, was much like steering a pencil. Just inside the back of the boat was an open area with a one-person kitchen and a dining table. Down the narrow hall were two double beds and 1? baths. I decided the Belle resembled a motor home on water!

We left Festival Park Marina in the late afternoon, driving through Stoke past remnants of the manufacturing district where narrowboats once played a key role in transporting goods at the height of the industrial revolution. Before long, we approached our first lock. Locks are the most common means of raising or lowering a boat from one water level to another. The distinguishing feature of a lock is a fixed chamber whose water level can be changed. Locks are used along the canals to make the river level more easily navigable or to allow a canal to take a more direct route across land that is not level. With our windlass, in hand we jumped off of the boat, ready for our first lesson on how to operate the locks. We soon learned that this was a serious and rather strenuous job. The first lock was quickly followed by three more built close together to accommodate the land pitches along the route. After working up a thirst, we decided to tie up for the night and head to the nearest pub.

By the time we got back to the boat, it was time to turn in. I was a bit apprehensive about being able to sleep in the “narrow bed” in such close quarters with a modicum of privacy. But after the long day, a glass or two of wine, the gentle rocking of the boat, and a cool breeze, getting to sleep was no problem.

I awoke rested and ready for another day of adventure. Our dining table became the common breakfast area, as we all discussed our plans for the day. We had no predetermined distance to travel each day, but we needed to establish a turn- around spot so we would have ample time to arrive back at the boatyard on Friday morning. Otherwise, we could go as fast or slow as we chose, stop when we wanted, and tie up each night at any suitable place along the banks of the canal. The only requirement was that we be within walking distance of a pub.

The countryside of the UK is stunningly beautiful, and the canal waterways make the most of its magnificence. Bright colorful flower gardens line the back yards facing the canal. Stone bridges traverse the canal and mark the roads leading into the villages along the way. Far away steeples can be seen beyond the fields of grazing sheep. We sat on the back deck of the boat, never tiring of taking snapshot after snapshot of
beautiful scenery, as ducks and swans with their babies kept pace with us.

The pubs we visited, like Star and The Holy Grail, were all a bit unique, and the casual atmosphere gave us an opportunity to get to know the Roebucks. We enjoyed listening to Malcolm and Gary recount previous trips they had made down the canals many years ago and savored traditional English fare including Fish and chips and Pork Pies.

We awoke Friday to our very first rainy day, and headed back to the marina. With promises to keep in touch, we bid farewell to our new English friends and traveled back to Manchester. Our narowboat adventure would be an experience we would recount for many for years to come.

Mary, a former educator and Seniors Real Estate Specialist, is the author of two books, The West End Kid and Labor of Love; My Personal Journey Through the World of Caregiving (available at www.amazon.com).

Filed Under: Personal Growth