Lucy Cavendish reviewed her canal boat holiday from our Wootton Wawen base in The Daily Mail:
Narrowboats are bobbing gently. The sun is even shining. In fact, it’s pretty much how the brochures show it, as my family and I — four children, one dog and a male partner — prepare for a week on the Stratford Canal.
I am hoping it will be glamorous in a sort-of a Calista Flockhart-Harrison Ford type of a way. If you remember, a few years ago, the golden couple hired a narrowboat on the Llangollen canal in Shropshire. Ford was quoted as saying he couldn’t wait to return — but there’s been no sighting as yet.
Narrowboats are a relatively cheap way to spend time together — and that’s just what you do. There’ll not be much escape.
In fact, I know it sounds ambitious to stick all of us together in a tiny space. My children are aged from six to 17 and are usually active and noisy. Actually, this could be a disaster.
We turn up at the Anglo Welsh narrowboat hire base in Wootton Wawen, just outside Stratford-upon-Avon, laden down with everything we think we need for a week away; bicycles, waterproofs, packs of cards, Monopoly, Cluedo, not a Wii or Xbox in sight. Thank goodness, our 65ft boat, Silver Spirit, has lots of storage.
But how on earth are we going to get this behemoth along the canals of Stratford?
Before we set off, the man from Anglo-Welsh shows us around the boat.
‘Only a television?’ says my teenager. Then we get to the complicated bit, which revolves around a set of tasks to perform at the beginning and end of the day. The boat needs to be put to bed every night and woken up again in the morning — electrics need turning off, water needs pumping back in.
Then, after a quick driving lesson, we are off, heading towards a narrow aqueduct. I’m nervous. But my partner doesn’t turn a hair. He sails over the aqueduct in a perfectly manly way. Maybe we’ll be fine.
First night, we moor up at Wilmcote, a beautiful spot where Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden, lived. I start to relax. Three of the children leap off the boat and begin kicking a ball around the towpath. My 17-year-old plugs in his iPod. My partner gets the barbecue out. ‘Best way to cook,’ he says. Minutes later, he’s hopping around in agony. ‘I’ve been bitten five times,’ he shouts. It seems we’ve moored next to a wasp nest.
The next day, we rise ridiculously early to tackle the endless locks that lead down to the Stratford-upon-Avon basin. I manage to persuade my 17-year-old to get up with me in order to help.
We chug towards Lock No 1 which we negotiate with aplomb — only a tiny bit of bumping. We carry on through the next five.
By Lock No 6, I’m getting fed up. There’s lots of winding and unwinding involved. Then, just as the smaller three children appear bleary-eyed, we glide out of a narrow opening straight into the Stratford Basin.
It’s an incredible thing to do. One minute we are on a narrow canal, the next we are slap-bang in the centre of Stratford. We’re a cork popped out of a bottle. Then we try to moor up. This is almost impossible in a 65ft boat. We bash in to everyone, rocking a boat selling ice creams back and forth.
The man shouts at us. People on the side of the basin stand and watch. It’s embarrassing, but eventually, we manage it.
Time for a look around Stratford. We see Shakespeare’s grave and inspect the theatre. It feels special to be moored in the middle of such a beautiful, historic town. The children love it, but they soon want to get back on the boat and set off again.
Post-Stratford, we’re in a rhythm and feeling confident. Some days we are lulled into a sense of calm by the river. We spend the mornings drifting down the Avon watching the world go by. We moor up for lunch and have a swim. My daughter gets the nets from the boat and her minnowing jar and the children spend a happy hour or so catching small fish and finding river snails.
Even my eldest son seems to be adjusting. He reads books and watches his siblings swim. Gradually, we all start to slow down and enjoy each other’s company despite being so hugger-mugger.
Disasters do happen. We run aground at Evesham and have to be pushed off the bank by a set of men from the local rugby team; we inadvertently cruise through endless fishing lines which earns us a torrent of abuse; we lose a lock key which flies off and nearly brains our dog. We also end up travelling down a wrong river channel and, instead of finding a lock in front of us, we go down a weir.
By the time we get to Pershore — some 20 hours of sailing time since we set off — we have to turn around and do it all in reverse.
But we all agree it has been a uniquely bonding experience and one we will never forget.