Oxford: A week on the canals

After months of walking on towpaths and watching the narrowboats ply the canals last fall, we were finally ready to board our own boat and try our hand at maneuvering around England’s waterways. We took the train from Glasgow to Coventry and then grabbed a cab for the short ride to the Coventry Basin, the home of Excellence Afloat at Valley Cruises, our boat rental company (see circle 1 on the image Our narrowboat journey, below).

I had checked the company’s arrival information before booking our train, noting that boat pick-up would be 4:00 pm. Our best train option had us arriving at 4:30 pm, and I informed Valley Cruises of this by e-mail. We were, thus, a bit surprised when we were greeted with a comment along the lines of us barely making it in time. Thinking the reference was about being later than 4:00, I indicated that I’d e-mailed about our arrival time. The response was that most people headed out at about 1:00 pm. Hmmm. Everything settled down after that and moved smoothly through the check-in process, but today I reviewed the website again to see where I might have gone wrong.

What time should I arrive? The earliest permitted time of arrival at our marina is 2.30pm. Short break hirers take over their boats at 2.30pm and all other hirers at 4pm.

Since we were not a short-break hire, this tells me that we could only take over the boat by 4:00. All this to say, if you hire a boat, confirm arrival time (and be sure they respond to your e-mails!).

Graham, a retired character who was managing things while owner David, who we had spoken with during our planning, was vacationing in Australia, invited us into the office where we signed papers, discussed our planned route, purchased the correct Pearson Canal Companion (which was to be our key reference for the week), and received Graham’s recommendations for his favorite pubs along the way.

Graham walked us through the boat’s operations and then off we went, with Graham aboard coaching and Ken steering, to just past the first bridge. Satisfied that we had things under control. Graham hopped off and sent us on our way.

Our narrowboat journey

We were a bit anxious about the time as we knew we had at least an hour to go before we could stop at Tesco (grocery store) to pick up provisions for the first few days, but it was still fun to tootle along the canal. We had expected the first section to be industrial, but the trees along the banks provided a surprisingly scenic passage. The Tesco was in what felt like a sketchy area, so we didn’t want to tie up the boat and leave it on its own. Instead, Janice (our nominated quartermaster) and Ken (representing this duo) headed over to do the shopping while Mike and I stayed on board.

On the boat, we watched nightfall closing in and texted our shoppers, hoping they would arrive very soon so we could get to a nicer mooring spot before dark. Narrowboat newbies navigating unknown waters with little light—not recommended! We found a decent mooring spot a little short of our planned stop and tied up for our first night aboard the Dove Valley. On the other side of the canal was a pub, but our focus was on unpacking and setting up our rooms, a very late dinner, perhaps a little wine (probably scotch, too, for the others if memory serves), and a good night’s sleep. The pub closed at 11:00, leaving our little home on the water quite peaceful for the night.

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Locks

Our next challenge was to get the boat through our first lock. We had read The Boater’s Handbook, watched the companion video, and carefully observed Graham’s demonstration on a lock model in the office. Before we pulled up stakes, we discussed the procedure and each of our roles. We were aware of the risks and took the safety of our boat and ourselves very seriously. When we approached the Hawkesbury Junction lock (see circle 2 on Our narrowboat journey, above), one that our Canal Companion described as amusingly toy-like, it was sitting open and a fellow standing nearby swinging his windless (a steel tool that is the master key to all of the locks) waved us in.

The Hawkesbury Junction lock dates to 1777 and was put in place as a stop lock between two competing canal systems where tolls could be collected. It is believed that an engineering error allowed for the 7″ difference in water levels between the two canals where a level passing was expected.

While Ken negotiated the tight squeeze into the lock, the rest of us jumped off and chatted with our assistant, Terence. Offering his help because he had nothing else to do, Terence told us he was a canal artist (canalarts.com). Also known as Roses and Castles, his style of folk art has its roots in the decorations used on canal boats and paraphernalia in the 19th century.

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Photo credit: Terence Edgar, Canal Art by Terence

Painting and decorating boats is part of the canal culture of today, as is selling wares from the waterborn craft. We saw boats displaying braided rope bow and side bumpers (there are likely proper names for these), canal art objects like watering cans and shutters, and offerings of cappuccino, ice cream, and stainless-steel toys.

Having passed through our first lock with little involvement, we were all eager to get to the next set of 3 locks and try out our skills. When we arrived, a canal volunteer already had a gate open and signalled that we should head in. We told him that these were our first real locks and wanted to operate them, and he kindly stuck with us to the second one, tutoring us through the procedure. We were on our own for the third and managed with just a bit of uncertainty and second-guessing. Captain Ken handled the boat with skill, threading the 7-foot wide boat into the 9-foot wide lock with nary a scrape or bump (a few of those came later!).

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Mike and Ken checking the map

After a post-lock debrief, we realized that we had intended to do a bit more grocery shopping earlier in the morning when we stopped for water near a large grocery store, but had been so focused on the upcoming locks that we completely forgot to visit it. A scan of the maps for the rest of the day showed no grocery stores at all. There was a convenience store marked with a footpath to it, so we made that our next target and our mooring spot for the night. Once we were tied up, we walked over the footbridge, through the fields with goats and sheep alternately bleating and staring at us, to the church at the top of the hill. We turned left down the sleepy High Street, checked in at a pub, and were directed to the convenience store 200 yards farther along. We were able to pick up most of the provisions that we needed before tromping back down the hill to the canal and our boat/home.

With my multi-talented (and camera-averse) sister running the galley, our meals turned into events beginning with cocktail hour complete with an amuse bouche followed by gourmet fare for dinner. Throughout the week she managed to pull together amazing meals, sometimes seemingly out of thin air when we were unable to find markets or stores to replenish the larder.

Engine troubles

My miscalculation had us believing that we were at our half-way point in the trip mid-day on the third day. We wanted to go through another 6 locks and a 2-mile tunnel but knew we wouldn’t have time to get there and back before nightfall. So we changed direction (circle #3 on Our narrowboat journey, above), thinking we could meander a little way down a different canal before finding a winding hole (a widened area in the canal designed for turning) and turning around. (You can’t turn a 58-foot boat just anywhere.) Shortly after we headed out, a red warning light lit up on and a continuous squealing alarm sounded.

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Mike ready to move a pedestrian swing bridge out of the way

We tried to interpret the symbol beside the light and dug into all the documentation we could find on the boat without success. Our two phones didn’t have any cell service in that area so we were unable to call for assistance. Ken wandered down the canal and chatted with the captain of the next boat coming toward us. He very kindly pulled over and came to our boat to check out the problem. It was the water temperature gauge, he advised, and then he opened the engine cover to a cloud of steam with water all over the pan below. There had been some water there when Graham oriented us to the boat, but we couldn’t tell if there was now a lot more or not.

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A contrast in travel velocity as a high-speed train zips by

Our new friend advised that we shouldn’t go anywhere without getting the rental company’s mechanic to come and check the boat out. He tried to use his phone to call but only reached an answering machine. He pushed off, and Ken and Mike headed up out of the canal toward the nearest town to try to find phone service. They came upon a marine supply shop with more friendly folks who helped them connect with a maintenance person. His advice was to check that the engine’s radiator reservoir was filled with water and, if it wasn’t, he suggested that filling it might turn the light and alarm off. Ken and Mike returned to the boat, filled the reservoir, and the lights went out and the alarm stopped. Big sigh of relief. Obviously, there was a leak somewhere, but we topped up the reservoir each morning after that and heard no more engine alarms, thank goodness.

By the time the engine was sorted, I had realized my calculation error and determined that we actually had one more day on the water than we originally thought. To explain, a 7-day trip less 1 day at either end (late departure and early morning return) does not equal 5 days on the water. Friday to Friday is actually 8 days minus 2 at each end, which leaves 6 days on the water.  Halfway through 6 days comes at the end of the third full day, not mid-day. (And I always considered myself to be good at math!) However, now that we had been delayed by engine issues, we still didn’t have time to do the 6 locks and 2-mile tunnel. We were a little disappointed, but all agreed that the scenery was so beautiful and putting along was so pleasant, that we really didn’t need to go through a bunch of obstacles to consider this a great trip.

Our remaining days passed without incident. We returned through the 3 locks (expertly this time!) and through Hawkesbury Junction’s little stop lock (no Terence this time), but took a right to extend our trip up the canal a little bit. Finally, we turned around, moored at the pub from our first night, then headed back into Coventry Basin very early on the last morning.

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The wee stop lock
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Pub at Hawkesbury Junction

Critters

A delightful surprise, as we meandered along the waterways, was all the fauna we passed by. In agricultural areas, grazing fields often came right up to the canal, and livestock wandered to the banks to drink. Birds flitted about in the marshes and trees. Ducks and geese, fluffy offspring close by, swam up to the boat looking for handouts. In one mooring spot, two free-range horses came up to our boat for a sniff before heading off to play with their tethered friend.

What’s not to like?

It surprised and bothered us that our boat’s grey water (from the kitchen and bathroom sinks and shower) drained directly into the canal. If the canal didn’t support life, this might be acceptable. But we saw people fishing, animals came to the water’s edge to drink, and birds were everywhere. Rather than prohibiting grey water dumping (which several sources deem not to be a problem), it would be nice to see an effort to encourage (or require) boaters to use eco-friendly cleaning products to reduce the grey water’s negative impact. The article, Eco Friendly Canal Life, on the British Waterways website provides more information.

The one other unpleasantness was the odour emanating from our two toilets. We tried keeping the lids closed, adding more water, closing the bathroom doors, opening the bathroom doors and windows, and even cloaking one toilet with a bath towel, with little improvement. This is probably solvable with a different toilet system and/or additives, so something to ask about for future trips.

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A day and a half in London

After returning the boat to the Coventry Canal Basin and saying goodbye to Graham, we loaded into a taxi and headed to the Coventry train station to catch our ride to London. We had booked 2 nights in a 2-bedroom apartment in the Battersea Park area, a short walk from the similarly named train station, so fairly easy access to the areas we wanted to visit.

Since we only had one full day in London, we decided the best way to spend it would be on a hop-on-hop-off bus trip. We had booked The Original Tour, which combines the bus, a boat trip on the Thames, and three walking tours into one 24-hour ticket.

We knew we would have a busy and tiring next day so, on the afternoon we arrived, we decided to take a walk to nearby Battersea Park, the second largest park in London after Hyde Park. Following a snack break at the Pear Tree Cafe by Boating Lake (where gulls and herons hang out on the tables, hopeful for a few morsels), we wandered toward the Thames.

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I had been struggling with a painful right knee since the time we left the train in Glasgow two weeks before, and then I made it worse with a fall down the stairs inside our narrow boat. Every step in the park was slow and painful, and then I rolled my foot off a curb, landing on my knee and slamming the side of my face to the ground.

We had booked a live-music-and-dinner event for the evening, but everyone kindly decided, after getting me home and cleaning me up, that staying close to home was a better idea. Later that evening we walked (I hobbled) across the street for a lovely tapas meal at Boqueria, a restaurant recommended by a fellow tenant in our building.

Though Ken and I would normally walk till we dropped in a city like London, our decision to book the bus and boat tour became an even better choice given my further-decreased mobility. We sat at the top of our double-decker bus and enjoyed the sites and our guide’s bad jokes, disembarking only a few times. We alighted at Piccadilly Circus for a quick peek at Leicester Square and to grab the best fish and chips in London, as correctly recommended by our guide, at Poppies Fish and Chips.

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Later in the afternoon, we stopped to walk by Buckingham Palace. Earlier in the day, the buses couldn’t get near it as the Trooping the Colour celebration was in full swing. (Our little party didn’t know about the event but unanimously decided not to stand in the throngs for a glimpse.) By the time we got to the palace, the barricades were down, and I saw only a few stragglers in tea dresses and frothy hats. The other folks milling about appeared to be standard variety tourists like us. Since Ken and I had enjoyed the palace before (and Ken was kind enough to stay with me), we parked ourselves at the edge of the fountain while Janice and Mike took a look around.

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At Buckingham Palace, hiding a developing black eye behind sunglasses

We caught one of the last tour boats down the Thames and tried to get back onto a bus to get closer to home. We were thwarted by traffic tie-ups caused by the day’s royal celebration event, protesters, and likely several more issues that delayed all of the tour buses. Giving up, we grabbed an Uber and headed home.

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Up next: A flight to Vancouver and feet on home soil for the first time in 9 months.


TripBits

  • Train from Glasgow to Coventry: £33 ($59.40 CAD) each with Two Together railcard
  • Narrowboat rental: £1,400 ($2,520 CAD) for the week for 4 people, from Excellence Afloat by Valley Cruises, Dove Valley (boat)
  • Train from Coventry to London: £5.95 ($10.71 CAD) each
  • The Original Tour (hop-on hop-off bus tour), London: £32 ($57.60 CAD) Adult, £29 Concession regular price but online prices are a little less and there are frequent promotions. I found a 20% off promo code (LP05), which reduced the price a little more than the already-reduced prices the day I booked.

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