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 It was constructed in the late 18th and 19th centuries, later falling into disuse and dereliction when it was superseded by the Great Western Railway.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.