Four adults on a relaxing, 4-night canal boat cruise. What could possibly go wrong?
Unfortunately, when three of the adults are Slaters, things are bound to get interesting…
It’s always been a dream of ours to try living aboard a narrow boat, and drift along the English countryside on the canals, occasionally winding a lock up or down. It all sounds so relaxing…
So when Tony’s parents, Ian and Carmel, had some time off while we were in the UK, we decided to go for it. We booked an out-of-season, midweek, 4-night cruise with Anglo-Welsh Canal Boats, as it was the cheapest possible option: £750 between all of us.
None of us had ever been on a narrow boat before so we turned up at the wharf in Middle of Nowhere, Wales, with no idea what to expect. We were quite surprised to see eight boats tied up together under one bridge. They really did look narrow…
To get onto our little boat, the ‘Henley,’ we had to climb over and across the boat closer to the towpath… and we had to do that A LOT, as we started unpacking the cars and loading the boat. To be honest it was quite embarrassing the number of trips we made… the other boat was ready to be off long before we’d loaded everything, but with us being tied to them, it was hard luck, really.
Getting our stuff distributed around the Henley was pretty tricky, because the peculiar thing about narrow boats is this: they’re narrow. The Henley was an amazing 19 metres long – but only 2.2 metres wide! You had to climb across the first boat and take the short step to the ladder from Henley’s stern, descend 7 steps, squeeze around the first double bed, wait for the person coming towards you to duck into the toilet so you could carry on squeezing down past the second double bed, to where the front of the boat opened out into a small kitchen and sitting area. This living room was wide enough for two easy chairs, leaving just enough space to walk between them and get through the front door onto the bow.
Once we had locked up the cars we received our official Boat Handling Instruction. Now, I don’t know if you’ve met the Slaters, but when they’re nervous they have a habit of making jokes to lighten the mood… so our course on how to prime and start the engine, use the tiller and keep the batteries charging was full of quips about how we were totally grown up enough to handle this, it couldn’t be that different to a car, and HELL NO, we would never sink the Henley… honest!
Our instructor had the option of taking a $1000 safety deposit off us, but must have been convinced we were mature enough to be careful. It might have helped that Tony mentioned having been a professional sailor before. And that he neglected to mention he’d ‘worked’ on precisely one yacht – and it sank.
The dude from the boat office promised to accompany us across our first obstacle to be sure we had the hang of things… and we were glad about that. Because our first obstacle was the longest, oldest and highest aqueduct in the world! The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct – no, don’t bother trying to pronounce it, because it’s impossible – is basically a giant tin bathtub that’s 307 meters long, standing on a series of massive stone arches that stretch 38 meters down into valley below.
“I bet I can hang off it!” Tony boasted. After a few seconds of stunned silence, this was met with a three-throated chorus of, “NO!”
We cast off our ropes and finally freed the other boat from the yard (sorry guys!). Ian took the helm and set us off on a slow cruise towards the start of the aqueduct. Amazingly, there were no other boats queuing to go over it.
Because the boat’s top speed was 4 miles an hour. We crawled towards the aqueduct at the same speed ice-caps recede, praying no-one would reach it from the other side first. The aqueduct is exactly as wide as a narrow boat, so it’s one-way, single-file. If a boat gets to it before you do, you’ve got to wait for it to cross the full span. If six boats reach the far end while the first is still crossing, and they follow it, you have to wait for every one of the buggers.
Ian and Carmel were at the stern (back) controlling the Henley, while Tony and I were miles away at the bow (front), taking pictures and videos of our extreme height above the valley. It felt like we were floating in mid-air. Hang on – we WERE floating in mid-air! Literally. No guardrails or barriers separated us from the drop – one step is all it would take for a quarter of a mile free-fall. Not a great place to be drunk! Halfway across the aqueduct, the yard bloke decided we knew enough. He hopped off onto the narrow towpath and strolled casually back towards the yard… We were on our own!
We felt like professionals as we chugged slowly along the aqueduct, smiling and waving at the tourists walking along the towpath. But then we reached the other side and all hell broke loose…
Tune in next weekend for Part 2 – Will we survive?