I left home on Friday morning, aiming to reach Nantwich around 1.45. It took an extra half-hour because of the speed restrictions on the main roads. At least it shows they are doing upgrades, not just repairs. I still arrived before Mig and Barney because they were caught in the same traffic on the M6 as I was.
When they say narrowboat, that’s just what they mean. It takes a while to get used to, especially as there is only the smallest ledge (I seem to remember, from far ago boating on the Broads, that this is the gunwales) around the outsides, so getting on and off needs good timing. One is not a mere passenger, I’ve been learning the ropes, though actual ropes have little to do with it. I knew the theory of locks of course, but it’s far more fascinating to actually operate them and see the way they work. Mig and I get off the boat, each bearing a windlass to operate the winding mechanism, wait for the water levels to equal each side of the lock if necessary (it depends on which way the last boat was travelling) then open it to let Barney drive in, then close the gate behind him and go to the other end to level the water again. You’re opening the gate into the higher channel so can’t open it against the weight of water until they’re completely equal. We came through a staircase of three locks today which was an interesting amount of to-ing and fro-ing and raised us quite a lot. There was a mother with two small children watching with interest and some excitement, increased when Barney offered to let them ride in the boat for the last two locks. They were lovely little girls, big grins on their faces – which isn’t at all surprising, going through a lock for the first time is great fun. That third one in particular rose a good deal and, when the water rushed in and splashed onto the bow of the boat, it must have felt quite dramatic.
I was given a turn at steering on the first day. I caught on quickly to the direction to turn the tiller – some people instinctively turn it the wrong way but I didn’t often do that because I’ve spent a lot of time in boats, though not much for some years, and I learned the principles of them before I was old enough to to realise I was – but I still made a lot of mistakes. Going under bridges is still, after the second day, my tricky problem. Indeed, I was too close to the right-hand bank and grounded the boat once, to my embarrassment. Barney used the pole to shove us off – you need someone strong on a narrowboat. I’ve finally worked out what I’m doing wrong, I think, and that’s a consequence of my lack of height. I can’t see how close I am to the side, lean out to look and in those few moments, the tiller might go anywhere. In correcting my direction, I lose my nice straight line. So what I think I have to do is decide on a line and believe in it. You can’t just head for the centre as there is a towpath on one side under the bridge, and there really isn’t much room to spare, maybe a foot or two each side. In addition, there is also quite often a bend in the canal just before or after a bridge. If before, you have to line up fairly smartly and if after, it’s a challenge to know the moment to start turning without catching the end of the boat against the narrow channel. I haven’t mastered it.
I’m not bad at managing bends, though. I like bends. Pushing the tiller in the direction you don’t want to go, correcting it as soon as the boat starts to respond, then doing it again – I seem to have gained the knack of that reasonably well. I can lose confidence when passing a moored boat on a bend with another one coming in the opposite direction, though.
Then there are the locks. Barney would quite like me to master going through locks because then he could have a go at working them. Mig isn’t fond of steering, largely for the same reason I find it tricky: a lack of height. What makes going into them awkward is that one doesn’t have a steady approach, one has to wait while the others open the lock and it’s easy to lose the line and drift, especially as there’s an overflow channel at the side which catches the boat and pushes it across – though this will not be a problem on the return, downward journey. Once in the lock, you have to go into reverse fairly smartly so as not to hit the forward gate and come to a halt resting gently on the gates which the others have closed behind you. You would think that the rushing water from the upper level would keep you pushed back, but that only happens until it hits the back gate, then it starts to force the boat forward again, so you have to keep the reverse thrust going. Eventually, the water levels and then you just wait for the forward gate to be opened, drive out and then come across to the towpath bank for the others to get on.
The differences between a river and a canal that keep surprising me are that the water is still, pretty well, because of the lack of current, and that there are areas where the water is higher than the ground beyond the towpath. I’m not sure I’d like to live in one of those low-lying houses. Not that there are many houses, we are going through lovely rural countryside. The water is also shallow. These are narrow canals, which make the locks less hard to push open and closed.
On the first night, we went out for supper at a nice pub and it was quiz night. We acquitted ourselves reasonably well, coming second, and also sank a lot of alcohol. I’d not entirely like to tell you how much. The second night we stopped at Ellesmere and Mig cooked a chicken curry which went down rather well. And we only had a couple of modest glasses each. All three of us are equally keen on food, in quality and quantity, which is good.