Our trip down the Oxford Canal

My friend Pete and I had been discussing a narrowboat trip for some time. It started out as a conversation in our local pub over several pints of real ale, and gradually evolved from a pipe dream into something more concrete. Pete has a background in logistics, making him ideal for planning the finer points of such a journey – and I’m quite practical when I need to be.

The crunch came when Pete rang up a boat hire firm near Rugby and got an affordable quote from them. We soon realised that unless we put our money where our mouth was, we would end up paying a lot more. ‘Let’s do it!’ I said. ‘Okay, I need to
get away for a while anyway’, said Pete. We decided to head down the Oxford
Canal towards Cropredy, uncertain of how far we could reach in the short time we
had. This is a compressed account of our water-bound odyssey.

Neither of us has much boating experience. I had a handful of dingy lessons on
the Norfolk Broads many years ago, and helped to crew a narrowboat during the
same period. I can tie several nautical knots and love to be around water. Pete
is a more even tempered character than me and a reliable problem solver. Little
did we realise that we would need all these skills, and more, during our four
day break.

Before I continue I can hear you thinking, ‘Four days! Is that all?’
Believe me, there were times when it felt a lot longer. And after all, how long
do two boating novices want to spend on the water together? Men are perhaps less
conciliatory than women and without knowing it, they tend to vie for control.
Learning to back down and hand over the reins is, I would argue, an important
part of boating. In fact your life may depend on trusting other people while
you’re afloat.

First steps

We rolled up to a small town near Rugby one drizzly Monday morning clutching
enough luggage to sink the Bismarck. ‘Have either of you been boating before?’
asked our weary looking instructor. I muttered something about having been
on a narrowboat holiday many years before, but my words sounded hollow. In fact,
I could remember some basic principles of rope handling and using locks, but the
trip had been unpleasant. The boat’s skipper was a control freak who made it
very hard to relax, and I ended up quarrelling with my (soon to be ex)
girlfriend. I don’t blame myself. I think you learn someone’s true nature very
quickly on a boat because there’s nowhere to hide. There are no lies on the
water.

After just an hour and a half of tuition we were ready to go, and because there
was just two of us to handle the boat Pete ended up steering, and I was in
charge of everything else. Pete – who likes his food and has a waistline to
prove it – was ship’s cook. He’s brilliant in the kitchen and I was really
looking forward to his chef’s delights.

As we chugged out of the marina I felt a ball of tension building in my stomach
coupled with the thrill of being on the water. Boats come in all shapes and
sizes: battered and neglected, short ones, massive 70 footers, garish coloured
beauties, pristine ‘live-aboards’. You name it. Some boats seem
to be an expression of national pride, flying naval colours. Others cry
rebellion and fly the jolly roger. One such boat belongs to the man who shoved
his head out of his bow doors as we cruised past. He was wearing a Che Guevara
style beret. ‘Dicks!!’ yelled Che with revolutionary zeal. I felt this was
unhelpful. ‘I think he has poor social skills’, said Pete. I tended to agree.

Bridges and brown trousers

Bridges are to the narrowboater what windmills were to Don Quixote. You can tilt
at the demons for all you’re worth but you’re not going to win any battles that
way. In fact it’s a very good idea to slow down and, when you meet one on a
blind corner, you’d better kill your speed or prepare to get hurt. We learned
this after ‘kissing’ the bank a few times; almost at the same time as we learned
that boats don’t always do what they’re told.

Even the narrowest stretch of water seems to have some sort of mysterious
current. Or perhaps it’s more to do with depth, wind direction and how hard
you’re concentrating. Either way, if you meet something coming the other way,
and they’re hogging the water, you’re probably going to take evasive action.
This happened to us several times, and I christened them brown trouser moments.

Our most memorable brown trouser moment occurred in Braunston, a town well known
in the narrowboat community as the nexus between the Oxford and Grand Union
canals. For this reason Braunston is often extremely busy, and its marina looks
like a kind of floating Glastonbury. Packed tight with gorgeous
looking boats, I thought of a Medieval floating fair sporting rainbow colours and
commerce.

But we wanted to turn right towards Oxford. Confusingly,
although the signpost we followed pointed to our destination, when I checked the
map after our change of course I realised were we on the Grand Union Canal after
all. ‘We’re going the wrong way!’ I said. We weren’t, but this seems to be the
nature of the canal network: understanding how one stretch of water joins to
another, and takes you towards your goal, is an acquired skill which is unlike reading a
road map. For one thing most canal bridges and locks have numbers, allowing you
to locate yourself with huge precision.

But what about our brown trouser moment? It happened as we were about to turn the
boat towards Oxford. To do this we needed to head under a bridge, but this meant
steering across a blind bend. As we did so a massive barge came tanking towards
us at what seemed like breakneck speed. At the helm was a cheery looking bloke
in his 20s – all blond hair, suntan and teeth.

Pete’s survival instincts kicked into play as he rammed the throttle hard
astern. There are no brakes on a boat, and you must either steer out of trouble
or reverse. Sometimes both. For an experienced boater this may be no big deal,
but for Pete it was a baptism of fire. To make things worse the barge was towing
another massive barge. As we reversed into the weeds the air was blue with my
curses, the water was the colour of cocoa as our propeller bit the mud
and I feared for my underwear.

Einstein was dead right: speed is relative. We were probably doing three miles
per hour when we met the psycho bargees, but they seemed to be doing eight around
a blind corner. The barge’s pilot killed his speed a little to avoid chopping us
in half and then – while we made mud soup in the corner – gave us a confident
little wave forward. Where was he waving us to we wondered?

As it turned out there was a massive passing point just around the corner which
we could have taken refuge in, had we known it was there. We didn’t – the
bargees did, forgetting that not everyone is used to the same stretch of water.
I felt a little cross about that for some reason.

In fact, we had already struck someone a glancing blow shortly after leaving the
marina. Most narrowboats steer using a tiller. Push it to the right and your bow
heads to port. Ease it to port and the bow turns starboard. Once this becomes
instinctive you’re fine, but if – like Pete – you happen to forget what to do
while you’re passing someone’s pride and joy you might just hit them. Pete did
this outside a picturesque stopping place. ‘You had plenty of room’ yelled the
impactee’s elderly owner. Oh well, we didn’t break anything.

A pubbing we will go

Pub visits were an important feature of our holiday, and there are many
wonderful venues along the route we took. Some of these are places you would
never go to, or even hear about, unless you were on the water. Most of them sell
excellent ale – albeit from ‘top pressure’ barrels which tend to make the beer
taste a little fizzy. Two men on a boat are unlikely to avoid frequent pub
visits, but we were careful not to pilot the boat when piddled.

While enjoying a few pints of Sharp’s Doombar, a barmaid with a slightly
Antipodean accent and an electric personality, introduced us to a pub game she
called ‘cheeses’. This involved lobbing a flat wooden ‘cheese’ at nine
skittles. I was unsure of the rules, but Pete decided to have a go. In fact, I
don’t think our host gave him much choice as she herded him towards the table. I
took a long pull on my beer and suddenly heard a loud SMASH from their end of
the bar. Snapping my head around I had trouble understanding what happened, but
it turned out that Pete had pitched his cheese so low it flew under the skittle table
into a box full of beer glasses. ‘He’s steering the boat’ I thought ruefully,
feeling this to be a bad omen.

A boat needs a name

Some narrowboats have wonderful names which seem to tell a collective story
about our canals, or else reveal something of their owner’s mindset. ‘Dragonfly’
is painted with different coloured insects, while ‘Rivendell’ tells me its owner
likes fantasy novels. ‘Piston Broke’ is a decent pun along the lines of ‘Well
Oiled’. ‘Moor in Peace’ is a nod in Tolstoy’s direction, while ‘Swan Song’
speaks of retirement and someone’s final home.

Each boat must have a name, and that name is part of its spirit. Boats must be licensed to ply our waterways, and I doubt that this would be possible without names. But think of it – each boat could simply have a registration number glued to it instead, and the unwritten subtext to all this is that it would be ill luck to leave boats unnamed. A boat with no name would be like a nameless person, stripped of identity and doomed to a sticky end. I know this sounds like wool-gathering, but is it really? Would you sail in a boat with no name? Me neither – our feisty little boat was a 54 footer called ‘Dukes’.

Get knotted

I’ve always enjoyed tying knots and our boating trip gave me a perfect excuse to
practise the gentle art of folding ropes into interesting shapes. I think of
each knot as a tool, allowing a perfect fusion of symmetry and force. Ropes resist
tension, holding the boat in its mooring while allowing a certain amount of
‘give’. If a rope is pulled too tight, that seems wrong to me. If it’s too slack
the boat will rock around the cut like a drunken sailor. Knots must also be good
enough to avoid jamming up – after all they have to be untied at some point or
what’s their use?

It turned out that I have an incomplete knowledge of boating knots, struggling
to remember how to tie a cleat hitch. I managed a figure of eight knot instead,
which never came undone and looked good on the bow. I found a round turn with
two half hitches to be invaluable for quick moorings, and I even used a
lighterman’s mooring hitch on several occasions. ‘You’re overcomplicating
things’, said Pete. I tried to explain that I like tying knots because I find it
relaxing. I wanted him to understand that poorly tied knots can come undone or
get jammed. Now that would be really complicated! ‘Ooo, look at that boat
drifting down the cut with no-one inside it. Ah – that’s our boat.’ A situation
I was anxious to avoid.

After a couple of days handling ropes I noticed something strange: the beds of
my nails became very sore and started to bleed. This was painful enough to wake
me up one night, but by the end of our break those small cuts had healed up and I
could feel my hands hardening.

Simple but effective knots allowed us to moor and cast off quite quickly, and
with a bit of experience we got this off to a tee, pulling into water points and
refilling our tank with a certain ease which made us feel less like tyros and
more like proper boat people.

Lock related angst

Our ‘boat 101’ trip included fewer locks than I expected. Of course I could have
checked our map before setting off, but as Pete was more interested in the finer
points of our destination than me, I left that to him… until setting off when
it became obvious that I was to be our lock operator. I must admit that this
made me slightly anxious after someone at the marina said, ‘You’ve got to make
sure that you lower all the paddles when you leave a lock behind, otherwise
you’ll drain the canal.’ Visions of irate boat-owners and a hellish future
filled with law suits paraded through my head. You can be damn sure I wanted to know how many locks lay in store for me after that!

The first flight of locks we had to handle was in Napton – a cosy little town on a hill with
a pub called The Folly nestling near the canal. The pub is rather traditional: the
kind with low doorways and horse brasses alongside prints of Rembrandt
paintings. An old scrapbook lay on a table next to the bar, and Pete decided to
flick through this. If it reveals the landlord’s mindset then I would say he’s
an ex military type with an interest in naked ladies and Edwardian couture. In fact
the less said about that book the better.

The Chickens of Doom

Enjoying a few pints of Old Hooky outside in the sun we noticed the landlord’s
chickens. They noticed us and made a beeline for our table. I’m not well
schooled in the ways of chickens so I was amused when they started pecking
Pete’s legs, boots and anything else they could reach. I was less amused when
they started on me and tried to peck my nuts, because it’s hard to fend off a
band of crazy hens without considering chookiside, spilling your beer and
swearing.

‘It’s a Pavlovian thing,’ said Pete. ‘They expect us to feed them, but because
we’re not doing it they’re pecking us instead.’ I was to have revenge (of a
sort) on the way back home when we revisited The Folly for a meal. The menu
included ‘Fresh local eggs’, ham and chips.

‘I’ve got to eat their unborn young, Pete. After all they’ve eaten me.’

‘That’s self cannibalism’, said Pete.

‘Yeah, and in a sense I’m also eating the DNA of everyone the chickens have
pecked. Maybe they’ll pass on their boating skills to me that way.’

The meal was delicious, and in fact the ham was a surprise because it was the best
I’ve ever tasted. Generous portions of thick tasty delight. I tried to pass on
my joy to one of the barmaids, but she just looked indifferent and said, ‘Oh…
right… thanks.’

The Napton flight

We took on extra water at Napton. This involved wrestling with a huge hosepipe
which, I swear, writhed around like a boa constrictor on acid. Water points are
just stand-pipes where the pressure always seems too low and things tend to
leak.

I had a bit of help from a friendly boater on Napton Bottom Lock, and I realised I had nine of
these to go through, with the first seven close together, and the final two locks further
apart. Every lock is slightly different: some gates open easily while others are
stiff. Some gate paddles run up and down as smoothly as winding a well oiled clock. Others are stiffer than a vicar’s collar. I remembered not to drain the canal and I ended
up tucking my windlass or ‘lock key’ into a leather belt I’d brought with me for that purpose.
I strongly recommend this approach because it’s very important to avoid losing your windlass in the cut. No windlass, no journey.

Boat people are a helpful bunch (friendly too) and I lost count of the times
people assisted me in my lockly duties. In return I helped other people, and I
realised that boating can be very communal and satisfying, enabling me to chat
to a wide range of characters. One such was a woman in her 70s with
osteoporosis. I marvelled that she was even attempting to wide some of those
paddles given how stiff they were. She became my inspiration: if she could do
this so could I! ‘It’s good exercise’, she said.

Operating locks may be a decent way to get fit, but consider this. If each lock takes roughly 20 minutes to negotiate, and you have nine of them to handle, that’s three hours. All very well if you’re feeling as fresh as a daisy, but on our return journey we decided to moor up at Napton about halfway down the flight. That way I didn’t have to face the final four locks until the next morning, giving us some time to relax. After all, we were on holiday!

Less inspiring was a group of young women out on a kind of floating hen party. They
tended to leave lock gates open in front of me – increasing my workload and my
worry. At one point they left a paddle raised which I didn’t spot. ‘Don’t drain
the canal!’ boomed a disembodied voice. I managed to rescue myself just in time,
but I least I learned a valuable lesson: never assume that the people in front
of you have done the right things.

Loss of power

Pete made a suggestion which I had to agree with. ‘I don’t think we should try to reach
Cropredy on this journey. Fenny Compton is far enough.’ Or words to that effect. He was right. It was completely obvious to both of us that, unless we wanted to kill ourselves, we should already start to think about getting back, while leaving ourselves enough time to chill out and enjoy the scenery. Besides which we had another problem to deal with, because suddenly ‘Dukes’ decided to go wrong. ‘I can’t get any speed up!’ said Pete. It was true. ‘Dukes’ could only crawl along at a painfully slow speed in both forward and reverse gears.

To make things worse, it’s quite a long stretch from Napton to Fenny Compton, and we were both feeling tired. Pete was red-eyed with fatigue and I started to feel like a character in the film ‘Deliverance’, expecting a band of dungaree clad hill-billies to emerge from the dense reeds and wooded areas on either side of the cut brandishing machetes, baying for our blood. Then I remembered that such events are rare in rural Warwickshire.

We had no choice but to ring the boat hire people and tell them what was happening. This is where a mobile phone becomes invaluable, because without one we would have been profoundly stuck. I spoke to the hire firm and they gave us some advice.

Open your weed hatch

‘Please check the boat’s weed hatch to see if anything is wrapped around the propeller’. I’d
seen this during our brief run-through of the boat’s workings before we set off. The weed hatch is a metal box with a clamped down lid on top, providing access to the propeller. One possible cause of our power loss would be a foul-up from something we’d picked up in Napton. Anything from a pair of trousers to a hank of barbed wire.

Pete and I felt this was unlikely because we’d spoken to a friendly boater in Napton on our way through. ‘I’m no expert,’ he’d said, ‘but it sounds like a problem with your throttle cable.’ All the same, the hire firm wouldn’t come out to help until we’d moored up and delved into the weed hatch.

I was less than enthusiastic about the idea because the boat’s manual contained a gloomy
proclamation: ‘Failure to reseal the weed hatch correctly may result in a sunk boat.’ It was
true. The weed hatch cover includes a gasket, and if you get under way without sealing it
properly you will probably sink. I wasn’t keen on dibbling my fingers in the canal either,
given that it has a healthy population of rats living next to it. I’d just seen a dead one
floating down the cut looking bloated and bubonic.

Once we moored up I went to work, ensuring that the engine was switched off and the keys out of the ignition. I’m quite attached to my hand and find it useful for a variety of fun and interesting activities.

Delving into the weed hatch, I could feel the propeller and – as Pete and I suspected – there was nothing down there apart from water. ‘It’s got to be the throttle cable.’

Shortly after this I needed to check my mobile phone for incoming messages, and I found that my weed hatch related efforts had broken it. ‘This really takes the biscuit, Pete. How’s this going to sound as a reason for not contacting someone? “I would have sent you a message but I bent down to check my weed hatch and broke my phone against the edge of an inspection hatch”. It’s too elaborate for words.’

We had nothing left to do but retire to a nearby pub and sink (ha ha!) a few pints of Old
Hooky. Possibly take on some food, and wait to hear from the hire people. On Pete’s phone. Mine is dead.

Waiting – just anticipating

We waited for quite a while. Now that the hire people knew the cause of our woes wasn’t weed or wire, they agreed to visit ‘Dukes’ to try and fix her. They reckoned they could be with us in thirty minutes, but we guessed it might take longer.

In the end we rang again to see where they were. ‘We’re on her now. You’re right – it’s the
throttle cable.’ It was around 8:30 pm at this point, so these were antisocial hours to be at
work!

‘It’s odd that they didn’t call us to say they were already working on the boat.’

‘Yeah. Perhaps they thought it was all our fault and didn’t want to confront us with that news face to face.’

‘Could be. Or maybe they have poor social skills.’

‘Maybe. Or it might be because talking to us would just waste time and money.’

Whatever the reason, ‘Dukes’ was soon back in action and we were ready to head back home after a good night’s sleep.

Sleep? You must be joking

Pete is a great friend to have and generally good company. We get on well and have much in common. He does, however, have one unfortunate trait which he can’t do much about. He snores like a chainsaw on full revs. I had no idea about this before we set off, but it made dropping off each night very hard.

The beds on ‘Dukes’ are at opposite ends of the boat. I bunked up in the stern, while Pete
slept in the bow end of the boat. Fortunately I had some earplugs with me (highly recommended on a boat trip!), but even these could not drown out the noise of Pete’s snoring which sounded like a TARDIS de-materialising or the onset of a nuclear apocalypse.

As the evening progressed the note of his snores became softer, sounding more like the purring of a big cat. That’s the only time I managed to sleep: from around 2 am onwards.

That’s when I realised. If you’re going to share a boat with someone you’d better know that you get on well together. Otherwise there’s likely to be friction!

Homeward bound

There is little to tell about our return journey except that it was quicker than going. After a
few days afloat we felt like old hands, although there were many things we hadn’t experienced: tunnels, swing bridges or aqueducts to name a few. This, we felt, was fine. There’s only so much excitement someone can experience, and we would have needed at least another week to take all that on-board. Boat hire is expensive and we felt we’d done rather well all told.

Some things – like steering the boat – are hard to master. Especially given Pete’s tendency to ‘lose’ the bow after passing another boat. This led to some minor (but very alarming) collisions, but fortunately these were at low speed. I felt that it helped to have me on deck most of the time as it seemed to boost Pete’s confidence.

Did we learn anything from our journey? We learned not to idealise life on-board a boat. It’s
not all castles and roses. Imagine pumping out the toilet on a freezing cold morning. Imagine doing that by yourself! Then having to manage a few flights of locks.

But also imagine how much independence you might have. There are around 3,000 miles of canals in the UK, a lot of interesting people to meet along the way and – if you enjoy pubs – you’ll discover places you would never dream of finding by other means.

We got back to the marina at 9:10 am on a dull looking Friday morning. ‘I think we did well.’

‘I think so too.’

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