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England by Narrowboat

For the adventurous, piloting a canal boat past old market towns and sylvan pastures may be one of the best ways to feel at home in the Midlands countryside

May 09, 1999|BILL CISSNA

MIDDLEWICH, England — They call it flat water here in the Midlands of England. Unless the wind is well up, the spidery network of narrow waterways that crisscrosses England barely shows a ripple, much less a current. Perhaps that's what makes a slow-paced, self-directed tour of these canals such a charming holiday for the traveler in search of something unique.

The Midlands, and the bulk of England's canal system, lies northwest of London, roughly from Stratford-upon-Avon on up into Liverpool, Manchester and the Yorkshire counties. On these canals, not terribly wide or deep, raised and lowered here and there by locks, long, narrow barges once were loaded with goods, towed by horses and steered by rudders.

But now, the old barges have been closed in to create comfortable cruisers, complete with galleys, beds, sitting areas, toilets, even showers and central heat. Due to the working width of many of the locks, these diesel cruisers, called narrowboats, are no more than 7 feet wide, and range in length from the mid-30s to no more than 70 feet.

Our family--my wife, Kathy, our son Andy and I--had visited the United Kingdom several times, but Andy was older now, more capable and open to new experiences, and we wanted a "different" English vacation.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 16, 1999 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
English canal boating--Due to an editing error, a map accompanying the story "England by Narrowboat" (May 9) incorrectly located the English Midlands. The correct area is northeast of the highlight box shown.

After learning of the canals through British travel magazines, we set about gathering a host of brochures from English companies that rent, or as they say in Britain, "hire" narrowboats. Most of the flyers described each boat in the company's fleet, with floor plans and inventories of on-board supplies--typically a full set of kitchen gear, linens and duvets for the berths, towels and other necessities. Most listed prices for weekly and longer cruises. We learned that rental rates vary widely with length of hire, size and quality of the boat, and time of year--from $350 to $1,400 per week in low season to $1,025 to $2,300 per week in the high-demand summer months.

We selected the 54-foot Juniper from Middlewich Narrowboats in the Midlands city of Middlewich (off-season rental rate: $850 for the week). Little did we know--and we would not have believed it if told--that we would so warm up to this mode of travel that we'd plan a second trip.

In late March, we found ourselves unloading our luggage from a taxi in Middlewich, a somewhat industrial town in the county of Cheshire, about a 30-minute ride from Manchester Airport. We were at the very hub of England's historic Northwest Canal System. From the Middlewich Narrowboats Boatyard on the Trent & Mersey Canal, three main narrowboating routes radiate, each leading to other canal choices, with numerous alternate routes and side canals. This was the area where English canals started. Where, after years of neglect and overgrowth, British Waterways took over and restored many of the canals to working order. Today, one often finds long, winding runs with undergrowth and overhanging trees creating a sense of natural isolation hard to find elsewhere in this sometimes crowded country.

Already I had made my first mistake: Even though I'm susceptible to jet lag, we hadn't allowed an overnight to recover before it was time to make our acquaintance with the Juniper. And, with our piles of luggage, we had arrived too early for check-in. Politely, the owners allowed us to stow it on the boat for several hours.

We were granted, though, our first glimpse of Juniper, riding in murky green water. At 6-foot-4, I found I had to enter the aft cabin door backward. The stairway forward past the bathroom and the double-bunk berth had to be walked sideways. However, the galley and sitting area and the double doors to the forward cockpit could be handled standing up.

Far more frightening was standing on the aft deck, where the tiller and rudder that pilot the boat are located, and looking forward along the solid steel hull and outer cabin structure. The bow of the boat seemed a long way off. My wife and I looked at each other and later verbalized our simultaneous thought: "What have we gotten ourselves into?"

Though dating back to Roman days, when it was a salt mining center, Middlewich is not one of the most charming of British towns, offering little by way of entertainment. We did find a nice pub and a supermarket at which to buy a few provisions for the trip.

At 4 in the afternoon, we re-boarded the Juniper and waited for an available employee to give us our "tuition" (training) on boat use. I had already concluded that having once rented a rowboat with a small engine to putter around a lake in North Carolina was not going to help much in steering a 54-foot narrowboat. Features vary widely, but virtually all such boats have a rear-tiller operation and an open-forward cockpit. Inside, most include a flush toilet, working galley, shower and dining area. Berths and storage space tend to depend on length.

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