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Go Barging Around Inland Britain

March 01, 1987|MARGARET W. KETTERINGHAM | Ketteringham is a Sun City free-lance writer.

RUGBY, England — It may well be time to indulge in gliding through the verdant countryside on Great Britain's inland waterways.

Moderately priced hotel boats vary in size and accommodations. From an extensive list of itineraries, the traveler is offered fares ranging from 175 to 210 a week or 55 for two nights, per person. The price includes lodging, meals and transportation on the canals and rivers.

BritRail or the efficient National Express bus system will take you to most embarkation points.

Several companies operate these narrow boats, which are patterned after the old 18th-Century working coal barges but are now brightly painted with roses, castles, scrollwork and polished brass.

The craft are operated in pairs consisting of a front or motor-driven boat measuring about 70 feet long by seven feet wide with a draft of three feet, and a towed vessel of similar size called the "butty."

Interior space is limited but manageable, and the mood of the boats is casual for the 8 to 10 passengers in single, twin or double cabins with comfortable bunks and cozy continental down comforters. A small washbasin supplies hot and cold water in each cabin and each boat has a bathroom with a marine toilet and a shower.

Constant Cooking

If you are riding in the butty of Dawn and Dusk you will receive the full benefit of the delicious aromas rising from Ann's constant cooking. It will be difficult not to gain weight from early morning tea, then a huge English breakfast of juice, porridge, eggs, tomatoes, sometimes baked beans, bacon or sausage, toast, marmalade and coffee.

All that is followed by mid-morning coffee and biscuits (as the British call our cookies) and lunch of heart-warming homemade soup, quiche and black cherry mousse.

Afternoon tea comes with freshly baked cakes or scones and finally the four-course dinner with a "starter" (English for appetizer) varying from ravioli to eggs mayonnaise, creamed fresh mushrooms on toast or an ear of hot buttered corn.

The main entree might be crackling roast chicken, turkey, beef or pork, always served with two kinds of potatoes (roasted, baked, boiled or au gratin) and two other fresh garden vegetables. Dessert will be some kind of luscious concoction smothered with double-thick or whipped cream. Cheese and crackers will follow, and last are chocolate-covered after-dinner mints.

This pampered leisure is provided by a personable crew of four. Ambling along, the cruise averages only 10 to 12 miles a day at a rate of less than four m.p.h. Yes, you can walk that fast, and there are tow paths beside the canals if you want to trek or jog.

If you are less energetic or the weather frowns, you can enjoy the pastoral scenery of large dairy farms where curious cows stare at you from the canal sides. Gray herons guard their territories and red-beaked moor hens and coots peek out from the reeds. Stately swans and sleek ducks swim serenely by, and tiny, brilliant-feathered kingfishers dart among the drooping branches.

In the spring yellow iris, vari-colored primroses, flowering trees and daffodils straggle over green pastures and hills. Photographing lovely reflections on the tree-lined canals can be a major obsession.

At lunch time, mooring is usually scheduled near a country pub, that British institution that has no real counterpart in American culture but serves as a community club where whole families may gather. While adults quaff a pint or two of beer or ale and eat a ploughman's lunch of cheese, onions and crusty bread and catch up on the neighborhood news, the children play indoor or outdoor games provided for them.

Docking at night is also planned to be near a village pub where you may have the luck of a rare treat to see a canal-traveling troupe present old songs and dances about the history of the working canal boats. By the end of the evening the audience enters into enthusiastic group singing and foot-stomping.

Life on the canals is a specialized existence. Boat owners and crews take a fierce pride in their way of life and zealously try to keep the waterways open for the public. They spend hours painting their boats in the old manner with authentic designs, polishing the brass fittings to a mirror finish and constantly shining the interiors and exteriors. The crew makes every effort to attend to the passengers' well-being without any forced activities.

There are many routes to choose from, going to such marvels as the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct on the Llangollen Canal in Wales. This dizzy engineering achievement, a narrow iron trough built on arches towering 120 feet above the River Dee, was opened in 1805 with much fanfare. As your boat navigates the aqueduct, houses and animals below look like toys strewn over the green farmlands.

Another pleasant sojourn unfolds on the Snipe and Taurus plying the Oxford Canal with stops at Banbury of nursery rhyme fame, going through tunnels and concluding with a pleasant stay in Oxford, city of universities and colleges.

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