Gareth Butterfield picks the wettest week of the year to take his wife and his dog on a trip up the Shropshire Union Canal
THE wife and I were walking along a canal towpath a few months ago and noticed our dog seemed to have an urge to jump on every narrowboat we passed.
Rupert, our two and-a-half-year-old Cockapoo, isn’t fond of swimming, but he did seem to have a thing about boats. “Perhaps we should hire one, see how he gets on”, I almost jokingly said to the wife. She loved the idea, so the next day we set about finding a rental company that allowed dogs. It’s not a tricky thing to find, it turns out. There are plenty of companies that allow a four-legged friend on board and I got in touch with a firm called Drifters, which oversees a select group of privately-owned boat hire firms, to get us set up.
We settled on a small company based near Penkridge, bought the dog a little life jacket on ebay, procured a guide book, and counted down the days to our four-night trip along the inland waterways.
ABC Boat Hire, situated by a quiet lock at Gayley Wharf on the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal, had prepared one of their smaller boats, Bragi, for us and we arrived to collect her on a bright and sunny Monday afternoon.
In case you’ve never been on a narrowboat, I’ll talk you round it. There’s a “stern” at the back, which is where you sit or stand and operate the “tiller”, connected to the rudder. Beneath you is the engine, and then doors and a hatch lead you down a few steep steps to the cabin.
Narrowboats are usually always designed to be just over two metres wide, as the UK canal system is barely any wider in places, so the interior is cleverly laid out along this challenging tight space.
Bragi is 42ft long and in that space there’s a double bed, a bathroom with a full-size shower and a flushing chemical loo, a generous living and dining area with a spare bed and then a “galley” – or, kitchen, as the landlubbers usually call it.
There’s a bit of outside space at the front, but the large cruiser stern on Bragi has plenty of room for the four people she was designed to accommodate. It was certainly ideal for the wife, the dog and I.
After a thorough run-down of how everything worked, an explanation of a few engine checks we’d need to perform daily, some instruction on canal etiquette and the correct use of locks, we were ready for the off.
Miles and miles of inland waterways were open to us and we decided to head for the calm and peaceful Shropshire Union, a little way up from Gailey.
It’s a stretch that’ll take you along some lovely quiet countryside, through endless sheltered cuttings and past some pretty villages.
Ultimately, we figured, we had time to reach Market Drayton before we’d need to find a place to turn round and head back. Using a guide book, one of many essentials for any canal trip, we’d worked out how long we’d need to be cruising for each day, the miles we’d need to cover, how many locks we’d need to get through, and some potential stops we fancied along the way.
The canal network has a 4mph speed limit, and you might think this makes for simple planning but, in reality, it’s not that straight-forward at all. You’ll soon be given a curt reminder of the error of your ways if you pass moored boats at 4mph – it’s considered far too fast, as it creates a wake in the water that unsettles the boats you pass and can even damage them as they bash into the bank.
Of course, using locks will slow your progress considerably, and it takes a brave boater to thread their vessel through bridges at “top speed”. Most of the Victorian bridge channels, particularly on “The Shroppie”, are barely wider than the boat itself, so slowing down is a must.
Before we got to the junction that took us onto The Shroppie, we had to polish off a stretch of the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal. It’s very narrow in places, and notoriously twisty. It was also busy on the pleasant Monday evening when we set off so my wife, who I elected to be “skipper”, took the controls first.
She’s grown up on boats. Her father has always had canal cruisers, so she’s aware of the rules and the etiquette and she’s very competent at the basics of “driving”. But getting use to a more traditional boat with a tiller that feels as though it should be used in reverse, and managing the 42ft length of a boat she could barely see the front of, initially posed a real challenge for her. The first bridge went OK, but we “bumped” into the second one.
Before this, the dog was in his element. With his life jacket and his nautical bandana on he was lapping up the sights, sounds and smells of “the cut” and appeared to be settling in to boating life well. But bump number one left him feeling a bit nervous.
After bump number two he went and settled on his bed in the cabin and, by bump number three (my fault this time) he was a quivering wreck, so the wife had to go and sit with him in the galley. She put the telly and he soon calmed down. It had also started raining by this point, so it wasn’t long before I called it a day and we moored up. Rupert soon relaxed again.
Quite by accident we’d picked one of the wettest weeks in June to go off on our first boating trip. And it was raining on Tuesday morning when we woke up after our warm, comfortable sleep and it didn’t really stop until Thursday. But, undeterred, we donned the supplied waterproofs and set sail for the next leg.
The trouble with narrowboats in the rain, for the skipper at least, is there’s no escape from the the elements. The stern is exposed, brollies are cumbersome and will get caught by overhanging trees, so it’s just you and the drizzle. It was so wet on Tuesday I honestly saw some ducks taking shelter at one point – but we soldiered on regardless and made fairly good progress.
Wednesday’s rain was lighter, but still incessant, and we were running out of dry clothes. Thankfully the boat has diesel-fuelled central heating and even an airing cupboard, but it was still tricky to keep up with the drying schedule.
However, we were determined not to let the weather spoil our holiday. And neither was the dog, as it happened. He’d quickly shaken off his initial jitters, and really started to enjoy life on the boat.
He was fascinated by everything around him. He normally hates rain, but he couldn’t bear to spend any time in the warm and dry cabin in case he’d miss a duck floating by, or some passing livestock in a field. He spent the whole trip darting from one side of the stern to the other, sniffing the air and watching the world float by. By the afternoons, he had become so tired from refusing to sleep in case he missed the next heron that he was struggling to keep his eyes open. Despite my initial apprehension, he never once tried to jump off to chase a moorhen. We even took his life jacket off for some stretches, if only just to dry it off for him.
Our choice of heading up The Shroppie turned out to be ideal. There’s only two locks to navigate on the way up, then obviously the same two on the way down.
We passed a series of villages, including Brewood, Wheaton Aston, Gnosall and Norbury and stopped off at a few for supplies, a poke round, and to stretch our legs. Brewood, close to the Shropshire border, was by far the most interesting. It’s a stones-throw from Wolverhampton, but feels a world away with its interesting collection of old buildings and a quiet, rural charm. There was also a good selection of pubs, which helped us warm up a bit.
By Tuesday evening, the end of our first full day on the canal, we had to take some time out for some serious planning. We figured it was possible to reach our proposed destination of Market Drayton but, to get to it, we’d have to climb the five locks at Tyrley which could easily have taken a few hours. And, of course, we’d have then had to come straight back down them.
Instead, we opted to moor about eight miles short of the town, in a little place called High Offley.
We’d been relying on our guide book to help us work out our potential distances and cruising times and it served us well. It was the one recommended by the boat hire firm and it’s the one my father-in-law swears by, the Canal Companion series, by Michael Pearson. It was this book’s recommendation of a pub at High Offley that ultimately led us to settle on The Anchor as our final mooring point. “Wadworth 6X from the jug”, was what initially caught my eye. “Catering is restricted to sandwiches, but what delightfully innocent and simple sandwiches they are. Real pub, real ale, real treasure”. Mr Pearson concluded. How could we not try that out?
The Anchor really was a treat. It’s been in the same family for 100 years and its decor is best described as “unspoilt”, although spotlessly clean. It’s a public house, in the way the term was originally intended. I strongly recommend it if you’re ever in the area.
The next morning we turned around a little way up the canal and set out on a long day of cruising back the way we came. Initially I was disappointed we weren’t able to do a circuit, but the joy of canals is that there is so much to see, even at a 3mph pace, that you end up noticing plenty on the way down that you didn’t see on the way up.
And that’s what I love about a narrowboat. At 4mph you have time to drink it all in. The UK waterways pass towns, villages, cities, industrial estates, railways, fields and mountains. And stood by your tiller, with your wife and dog by your side, even in the incessant drizzle, it’s just a wonderful way of watching it all roll by.
Wednesday was a long, wet day but I’d loved every minute. The dog never left the stern, other than for the occasional brief bit of exercise along the towpath, and a drizzly marathon stint set ourselves up nicely for a slow, relaxing and relatively dry day on Thursday.
Nearing Gailey on the Friday morning the weather had finally dried up and we took the last few miles at a snail’s pace. I didn’t want it to end.
The weather hadn’t been kind, but our boat, Bragi, hadn’t missed a beat. The wife didn’t want to get off and I was reluctant to give it back. We’d fallen for our little, nautical home-from-home. And we’d loved every minute of our few days on the canals.
And the dog? He still wants to jump on every canal boat we pass when we take him up a towpath, which is no surprise. When we got back home he caught a glimpse of his life jacket being unpacked and he leapt up and wagged his tail.
I’ve a feeling he’d be just as happy as we would be to do another boat trip.
Perhaps we might get better weather next time.
Who to book a break with
Drifters Waterway Holidays offers 550 canal boats for hire from 45 bases across England, Scotland and Wales.
There are more than 3,000 miles of waterways for you to discover, all at your own pace and you don’t need to be an expert. Tuition is included as part of Drifters’ holiday packages.
Drifters’ 2019 hire prices start at £495 for a short break (three or four nights) on a boat for four people, £705 for a week.
Narrowboats range from 32ft to 70ft and can accommodate from two up to 12 people.
For more information visit www.drifters.co.uk or call 0344 984 0322.
For more information about visiting the canal network www.canalrivertrust.org.uk
Drifters Waterway Holidays is made up of a consortium of nine hire boat companies: ABC Boat Hire, Anglo Welsh, Black Prince, Countrywide Cruisers, Foxhangers, Kate Boats, Napton Narrowboats, Shire Cruisers and Union Canal Carriers.
Don’t set off without…
The JM Pearson Canal Companion series is arguably the best guide book there is for the inland waterways. The beautifully-written series has been helping boaters find their way around the canal network for more than 30 years and each book is regularly updated.
Along with detailed maps, and entertaining, comprehensive and often quite amusing observations about the things you’ll see along the way, it can even help with planning a route before you set off.
Each page’s map not only shows details of locks, bridges, pubs, shops and service points, but even places to moor up and an idea of the condition of the towpath. Above each page is a guide to how long that stretch will take, based on a 3mph cruising speed and allowing for locks.
For details of the full Canal Companion series, visit www.jmpearson.co.uk