Our Narrow Boat Holiday

In July, an Esk Valley crew headed to Anderton Marina to commandeer the Black Necked Swan narrow boat for a week cruising the canals of Cheshire.

As the name would suggest, a narrow boat is in fact quite narrow. There are four bunk beds at the front and four at the back, each is about as wide as a stretcher. Two double beds are constructed by dismantling the eating and sitting areas on either side of a galley kitchen which is very well appointed if a little tight on space. A central walkway passes through all these spaces, and must be kept clear while the boat is cruising – so privacy is not an option.

While the crew stowed their luggage, grateful for the advice not to take ridged suitcases because there is nowhere to store them, those of us willing to drive the boat had a brief handover from the engineer. It must have quickly become evident that we were novices because he decided to accompany us on the first section of our journey. I’d been on two previous narrow boat trips while at university but couldn’t remember much of those voyages when someone else took the helm. This time I was the skipper, so I was very grateful for the crash course in cruising.  

What a narrow boat lacks in width it more than makes up in length. It is a colossus. A 70-foot hulk of steal powered by a small diesel engine at the back. It has the turning circle of an oil tanker and is controlled counter-intuitively by a rudder that steers in the opposite direction to which you push it. But we got the hang of it quite quickly, and after depositing our guide on the towpath we began chugging to Chester.  

Canals are the freight routes of times gone by and take you through the rusting bowels of forgotten factories in areas of post-industrial decline. Then, round a corner, you’re suddenly in the most beautiful pastoral countryside. Life moves slowly on the water; the speed limit is 4mph and you soon grow accustomed to the pace. The two Eds, Tracey and Jack took up their positions at the front of the boat where, 20 meters from the engine, they could sit in relative silence and watch the moor hens bobbing by. Herons barely looked up from their hunting as we passed, and Jack spotted the turquoise steak of a king fisher.  

From time to time, we came to a lock; a marvel of engineering that allows the canal to travel up or down hill through a clever system or gates and sluices. At these moments it was all-hands-on-deck. Anna and her team would leap off the boat and run ahead to ‘set’ the lock by using their windlasses to wind open the sluices. Frank would grab the centre line and hold us in position from the towpath until the lock was ready. Then I would maneuver our vessel into the tight concrete channel with only a couple of inches of wiggle room on either side of the boat. All this would usually take place under the amused gaze of several silver nomads who’ve given up their houses to live on their narrow boats, and mostly begrudge the bungling tourists clogging up their waterways.

The locks were a particular favourite of Ed Sharpe who has a love of water features, and these were the biggest he’d ever seen. He was in his element as the water gushed through the sluices and raised or lowered the boat by up to 11 feet at a time.

As we cruised, the cooking team of the day prepared meals below deck and if the weather allowed, we moored up for a picnic on the towpath. We usually stopped for the day at about 6pm and the evenings were either spent in a canal side tavern or onboard, squashed around the table playing raucous rounds of Uno. It was a joyous adventure all-round, and we’re planning another cruise next year.