Monthly Archives: September 2014

A narrow escape on the Kennet & Avon

AW Dundas Aqueduct (low res)

Jenny Mark-Bell reviewed her Anglo Welsh canal boat holiday, from our Bradford on Avon base, for Sussex Life Magazine and discovered a ‘genial sense of community’:

It doesn’t take long to adapt to the slow rhythm of a narrow boat, sailing the Kennet & Avon Canal between Bradford and Bath.

 If you’ve always fancied yourself as a sailor but don’t know your port from your starboard, you could do worse than a narrow boat.

These stately craft are so sedate – breaking the four mph threshold is strictly verboten – that there’s plenty of time to practise your nautical knots. And the best thing about this enforced slow motion is that it quickly brings a sense of peace and relaxation all of its own. Lapping water, wildlife and rising with the dawn made our trip a memorable experience.

Our journey along the waterways began at Bradford-on-Avon, a picturesque west Wiltshire town, with its traditional pubs and tea room all aglow with the buttery shade of the local Bath Stone.

We were only eight miles from Bath here, but our progress along the Kennet & Avon Canal would be leisurely, so after collecting the 58’ ‘Carol Ann’ we moored for the night, close to the town’s lock.

The Kennet & Avon Canal crosses the country in its 87-mile route from Reading to Bristol. This long stretch comprises two lengths of river linked by a canal. It was constructed in the late 18th and 19th centuries, later falling into disuse and dereliction when it was superseded by the Great Western Railway.

It is largely thanks to the work of volunteers that the canal has fully reopened, and although it no longer plays a vital role in transporting raw materials, it exerts a strong pull on tourists.

We saw a number of narrow boat novices gliding into the sides with a slow inevitability, and more experienced boat people like Will, Skipper of The Coal Boat, good-naturedly hauling them (okay, us) out. With such a long time to get to know each other – overtaking isn’t really an option – we became quite pally with the sailors we met, and everyone was keen to offer help when somebody ran aground.

While many of the craft were brightly painted with traditional designs, others were sleek and modern.

The first stretch of our trip was from Bradford up to Avoncliff Aqueduct. Despite unseasonably cold weather, and the boat’s natural propensity to act as a sail at windy points, this was uneventful enough. We spotted a moorhen with chicks, and ducklings galore, but sadly none of the apparently common kingfishers.

After unwisely snubbing pubs at Avoncliff and Dundas and putting off our lunch stop until Bathampton – it is impossible to overstate how slowly one travels by canal. We were ravenous.

At Bradford Marina our instructor had told us to allow a good six hours to get to Bath, but we’d clearly gone at a fair clip because at just under four hours we had plenty of time to spare. With the sun shining, Bathampton looked beautiful and the cosy pub was doing a roaring trade.

‘Carol Ann’ was small as canal boats go, but amply fitted out for our needs. There were four berths, a small kitchen and a seating area, as well as a basic bathroom with running water and even a shower. The kitchen was impressive too, with an oven and fridge – everything you could wish for, really, for a short break.

As we neared Bath, the number of festive vessels increased steeply. Birthdays of all ages, and pre-nuptial bacchanals seemed the most common.

For a short trip, it is wise to moor outside of Bath, otherwise you’ll find yourself caught in the knot of locks at the entry to the city. There is a turning place at the Marina of which we were happy to avail ourselves.

The short stretch from Bradford to Bath makes it easy for novices. There is just one lock – mercifully manned the first time we tackled it – and several swing bridges, which didn’t present any problems.

The canal was markedly less busy on Sunday, with fewer day-trippers traversing the water.

After two days, we had adjusted to life on the water. No longer frustrated by walkers on the towpath overtaking us at a brisk walk, we were sorry to leave the peace of the canal – and its genial sense of community.

A uniquely bonding experience

AW Edstone Aqueduct low res

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.