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Thursday, 19 June 2014

Getting afloat - Part 11

Peter Underwood looks what turns ordinary people into boaters.

Now where are you going to take your new boat?
Now you have your boat, how can you get the best out of ownership? You are not a hirer rushing around a 'ring' any more so how should you plan your boating. We take a look at some of the boating events throughout the year and what a new boater might get out of them.

EVERY boater has their own favourite canal or stretch of waterway. You will hear people raving about the Thames and arguing about the best section. Other rate the Kennet and Avon, the Shropshire Union, the Grand Union and the Llangollen. The northern waters, especially around Skipton, have many fans and there are even those boaters happiest on the urban backwaters of the Birmingham Canal Navigations.

Of course, if you moor in the South East it will be next to impossible to reach the Leeds and Liverpool and return in the couple of weeks you can take as a holiday.

The way to get over this is to change your base of operations every year or two, once you have comfortably explored an area and feel ready for something new.

When we lived in Lancashire and owned holiday boats we tried to moor around a two hour drive from the house – a reasonable journey on a Friday evening to start a weekend break on the boat.

That meant we could explore the Yorkshire Ouse, with weekends tied in the wonderful city of York, or exploring Ripon with it's attractive cathedral.

After an epic two week holiday that brought us south on the tidal Ouse and onto the eastern canals at Selby, through Leeds and around the Leeds and Liverpool to Cheshire, we established another base that allowed us to explore the Shropshire Union, with weekend breaks in Chester, the Trent and Mersey and the Bridgewater.

The Victorian Incline Plane at Foxton is the real fascination.
It is easy to visualise how this once slid boats down the hill in 12 minutes?

 Another move to a Stafford base gave another set of canals, and tying our boat in central Birmingham enabled a completely different experience. Eventually of course you may have to travel further than a couple of hours drive from home, but that could be a decade in the future.

When you want to make longer trips you can always link a two week holiday with several weekends, perhaps making a long initial trip and then hopping the boat back to base over several weekends.

It may be inevitable – and we were certainly guilty as novice holiday boaters – that you will try to go too far, too fast, in that initial burst of enthusiasm. With the benefit of hindsight I would advise against travelling 12 or even 14 hour days, non-stop, to an ambitious fixed schedule.

Not only will you return needing a holiday you will also miss some of the things that help people fall in love with the waterways.

Give yourself time to stop and explore the areas through which canals and rivers pass. Not only will you find some great little pubs and eating places, you will begin to understand the history of the waterways and how they have changed, and been changed by, the towns and villages of our country.

The museum at Ellesmere Port gives a real insight into the world
of working boats, from the engines upwards.
There are so many examples I can only mention a few that impressed me. In Skipton, you will find an historic town dominated by it's castle overlooking the market street. A stroll along the Springs Branch of the canal will take you to the back of the castle where limestone was mined and loaded into boats through long chutes. You have to wonder whether the castle would have survived if the landowner hadn't been able to make money by exporting the limestone in his back yard.

The Skipton bonus is several great pubs serving the local Copper Dragon beer and fish and chip restaurants only surpassed in Hull and possibly Whitby.

At the other end of the country you see a very different aspect of Stratford-Upon-Avon if you walk the towpath – this is not Tudor Stratford that brings foreign tourists in their millions, but industrial Stratford, built to serve the industries that provided work and prosperity before tourism became central to the town's economy.

The Shropshire Union and the Llangollen canals are some of the most popular in the country, with wonderful scenery and some great canal architecture, but stop and explore and they get even better.

Brewood has a great old-style butcher who makes his own faggots. At Norbury you can see the start of the now derelict Newport and Shrewsbury canal. A walk into Market Drayton will take you to the home of gingerbread. There is a former nuclear bunker to visit a bit north of the lovely village of Audlem and a mile or so from the canal at Nantwich you will find a Cheshire market town well worth a few hours to explore.

Many of the excellent guides will give you an insight into what is just beyond the towpath, so invest in those that cover the area you are planning to explore and I would suggest buying Ordnance Survey maps as well to enable you to check out what may be behind the hill.

Our waterways take us through the heart of Britain and enable us to explore its nature, its history, its commerce and meet the people who make the communities bordering the water so interesting.

Take a drink in the pub or eat in a restaurant and you will find you are also part of interest of that place. People will want to know what boating is like, where you are heading, how long you have been doing it and probably whether it is cold in winter.

Landmark places
Around the waterways there are some landmark places that most boaters aim to visit at some time. I suspect my list may miss places others would have but this is essentially a personal thing and influenced by taste.

Some are great feats of canal engineering, others places of interest from the days when the waterways were places of work and some simply places where you can gain a greater understanding of the system.

Lets start with those feats of engineering. Top of my list is the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct
on the Llangollen, the most famous aqueduct in Britain as it's the longest and highest. It's a World Heritage Site.

The Anderton Boat Lift, which links the Trent and Mersey with the River Weaver at Northwich, Cheshire claims to be the first successful boat lift in the world. The experience of travelling 15 metres up or down in the large tanks is one to be savoured.
The Barton Swing Bridge on the Bridgewater Canal heading north from Manchester, is another tank, this time the only swinging aqueduct in the world. It carries the Bridgewater across the Manchester Ship Canal. The aqueduct regularly swings open to let large ships pass underneath.

Then there are the lock flights. The Bingley Five Rise and three rise on the Leeds and Liverpool canal are impressive to travel through, wide locks that raise the canal over 18 metres in five giant steps.

My fascination for the Caen Hill Locks at Devizes, Wiltshire, on the Kennet and Avon comes from having seen them more than three decades ago when they were disused and more in grass than in water, with the beams climbing a grassy hillside. I can only marvel at the persistence that got them working once more.

The double staircase of narrow locks at Foxton Locks, Leicestershire are unique but for me the Victorian inclined plain, off to one side is the real fascination. It is easy to visualise how this once slid boats down the hill in 12 minutes and I remain hopeful of seeing it restored.

Others on my list include the newest canal in the country, the new section cut across the front of the Liver Building in Liverpool to give canal vessels access to the restored docks.

Limehouse Docks in the East End of London, now restored as a destination for boaters and a route out onto the Thames, has echoes of wartime bravery by working boatmen.

Glasson dock, on the Lancaster Canal is another of those unusual places where the inland waterways link with the sea and the cries of sea-birds and rattle of rigging give a taste of a different watery world.

Finally canals are about industry and along with the wonderful museums at Ellesmere Port, Gloucester Dock and Stoke Bruerne which help us understand canals I would add the Black Country Living Museum at Dudley where the reality of a working boat dock in the industrial Midlands is brought to life.

The Black Country Living Museum in Dudley where the reality of
a working boat dock in the industrial Midlands is brought to life.

Get a grip on how canals used to be and you will start to enjoy and understand the gaunt and crumbling mills you pass as you boat through Burnley and Blackburn and the gaping wastelands of Tipton or Walsall where the pits, power stations and metal works have been pulled down.

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