In June 2015, Emma and I spent a week on a narrowboat, travelling from Etruria outside Stoke-on-Trent, up the Macclesfield Canal to Marple, and then onto the Peak Forest Canal where we voyaged all the way to Whaley Bridge and Bugsworth Basin. Then we had to come all the way back again. They were seven exciting, tiring, occasionally stressful, and always adventurous days, and here are some thoughts that sum up what it was all like:
I’m at the sink, rinsing potatoes for the evening meal, when there’s a weird noise to my left. For a moment it’s hard to process, until my brain finally sorts it out – Oh, it’s ducks. And then the weirdness really hits, because these ducks aren’t distant, in a nearby park – these ducks are about five feet away, out the window. They’re at a proximity and an angle that ducks simply shouldn’t be.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. I’m on a boat, after all. It’s the first day of my first extended period on a narrowboat, so there’s going to be lots of moments like this, lots of acclimatisation to do. But it’s at that moment that the sheer oddness hits me. The world I’m now in – the world in which me and Emma are planning to live – doesn’t adhere to everyday rules. We’re heading off the map into strange new territory, heading past the crumbling ruins of Britain’s industrial past.
Here be mysteries. Here be dragons.
And ducks. Lots of ducks.
Steering is a game. It’s the only way I can do it. As someone who’s always had problems with physical coordination (Emma has informed me that I apparently qualify as dyspraxic), steering the boat was always going to be a challenge. It’s sixty feet long. It’s slow, it has momentum, and takes time to react. It steers from the middle, rather than the back or the front. And, just to make life interesting, you steer by standing at the back of the boat and operating the tiller – a large lever attached to the rudder that not only steers backwards (you steer right to go left), but is also behind you.
The first time I steered, on a trip boat at Crick Boat Show, it was utterly terrifying. And that was on a smaller, shorter boat. Thankfully, longer boats are actually heavier in the water, so in certain respects this was actually easier to steer. But getting my head around the whole ’steer backwards on a lever behind me’ aspect was going to be tough.
The solution was gaming it. It didn’t become about steering the boat. It became purely focussed on the small black rectangle right at the front of the boat, a digital TV aerial sticking up into view. That became like a sight on a gun, and after a little while, I found what to do. The trick wasn’t to try and get the boat to go where I wanted it to. It was to get the boat to stop going where I didn’t want it to.
That rectangle became my world. That was the marker of where the boat was going, and the minute it drifted, I knew what to do and how to react. If I actually had to say which direction I was doing it in, I would get flummoxed and confused. It became instinctual, more than anything else.
After a while, it became relaxing. For most of the time. Emma has described narrowboating as ’90% relaxation, 10% terror’, and it’s not an inaccurate description. Within seconds, you can go from a wonderful, calming progression through a lush green landscape, to suddenly wondering why the boat doesn’t want to turn away from the other boat you’re heading towards no matter how hard you push on the tiller. The depth of the canal can affect how the boat handles. The width can affect how the boat handles. The shape of the stern can affect how the boat handles. It’s a changing process.
And it’s one I slowly got used to.
Tunnels. They’re dark, they’re noisy, they’re intimidating, and they are long. Harecastle Tunnel is 2600 metres, and that isn’t even the longest tunnel on the network. The first time through Harecastle Tunnel, only a few hours after we’ve gotten the boat, we’re given weird advice – speed up, keep up with other boats – and the result is that we keep slamming into either side of the tunnel, bouncing around for almost the entire length of the trip. The ceiling frequently closes in, damp slimy surfaces drip stalactites, and it was enough to stress the hell out of Emma, who piloted all the way through the first time.
Then, second time, we took it slowly. Tickover speed, around 2 mph. Result? Pretty much a perfect run, only a slight bump as we left the tunnel at the other end.
Still intimidating, but maybe just a little less scary.
Locks are a strange process. We had it even stranger thanks to doing Bosley Locks, a non-stop run of twelve locks. It’s all about knowing what order to do things, remembering which bits you have to close before you open other bits, and also helping people out (especially if they’re heading the opposite way to you through the locks). The mechanisms themselves are tough, especially on the large lock gates. They can be challenging to get through, but weirdly exciting as well. Second time around, by the end of Bosley Locks, I was actually kind of enjoying myself, even if I then had to go lie down for a very long time. And I was still relieved when it was all over…
The view changes. Always something different outside the window. Sometimes this works against you – like the two nights where we ended up with major traffic noise. The point where we went from being moored in a pleasant country village, to being moored opposite a large industrial building with a big sign saying ASBESTOS.
Some areas of the canal are trickier than others. The Peak Forest canal turned out to be harder to navigate, especially when dealing with other boaters. We pushed ourselves further than we expected, which meant going further on the way back. But we also saw so much. Cows. Ducks. Herons. Geese. A seemingly endless amount of nature. When it rained, it was a little miserable – especially since we’d gone so far that we had to continue the journey back, and didn’t have the option of just stopping and waiting for the weather to clear.
But overall, there was that feeling I’ve gotten from all the canals I’ve visited – of being suspended away from the normal world. Of visiting a place where the rhythms of life are different. A place of lush, overgrown vegetation, and history, and eccentricity, and occasional outright weirdness.
A place I can’t wait to explore more fully.
Now we’re back from the holiday, and being on a busy road feels bewilderingly fast. It seems impossible that all these vehicles are in sight at the same time, and that everything’s happening at such a dizzying velocity.
When we stagger back into the flat, weighed down with our bags, the layout feels huge and strange. Windows point in the same direction all the time, and the views don’t change. Rooms don’t have to be all in a line. It takes me several minutes to realise that my feet are still doing that very slight rolling motion that I’ve ended up developing to cope with the gentle rocking of the boat.
I’m reacting to movement that’s no longer there.
Getting used to the real world again is going to take some time. But we’ve had a hell of a week. Intense, gruelling at times, but also rewarding.
At times, I’ve been waiting to hit the point where I think “This isn’t practical. Moving onto a narrowboat isn’t going to work out.”
I still haven’t hit it. The plan is on.
And I’m rather looking forward to it.