How to find your way around the British Canals

I am getting excited now as we get nearer to returning to our narrowboat and travelling around the British canals this summer. We have been having work done on the boat including a new kitchen, but that should be ready soon, so hopefully by the end of the month we will be back.

The UK canal and river network is extensive – some 2000 miles – travelling through vast tracts of countryside, and connecting most towns & cities. Before the railways it was the best and fastest way of carrying goods from place to place, and despite falling into disrepair in the first half of the twentieth century, most of the navigations (the official name) are now open to traffic again. Volunteers and the Canal & River Trust keep the waters clear and the locks operating. It is somewhat easier than other countries because most of the equipment is self service and we can take our narrowboat anywhere we like, whenever we like.

Just a few of my guides

So of course that begs the question of how we know where to go. The answer is a mixture between 21st and 19th century technologies. There are some great apps and websites. One of our favourites is “Canal Plan AC” website, which is brilliant at working out how long it will take us to make a journey, and where likely stops are along the way. It takes account of fast and slow navigations, and time to get through locks, as well as how many hours a day we want to travel, and where are good places to moor. The other app on my phone is “Open Canal Map” which allows me to track our journey live and zoom in and out of the canal maps, for instance to see where a water point is, or a recent stoppage.

But I have to admit, despite the advantages of technology, I prefer to use proper paper books. There are two sets of canal books in common use in the UK – the Nicholson Guides and the Pearson Guides. Pearsons are more chatty and have simplified maps. Nicholsons are more comprehensive and have the detailed Ordnance Survey maps. Both guides have been around for over 50 years and are updated every few years. I had always thought that was done by hundreds of editors but by coincidence we have become friends with Jonathan Mosse, who lives on a boat near us in Scotland, and does most of the work to keep Nicholson guides up to date. When he started in the 1970s, he would spend his days boating and cycling along canals. These days he can do a lot of the research online, but he is still always grateful for updates from boaters like ourselves, who travel the canals every day, and can let him know when a bridge number has changed or a pub has closed.

This week, he kindly sent me the guides that have been updated for 2023 – covering the North West of England. They are shiny and new but it will not take long till they are covered in muddy thumb prints and hand marked updates. I feel privileged to play a small part in keeping everyone informed as we share the navigations.

If you have never had a narrowboat holiday in the UK, I recommend it. The slow pace of life will bring mindfulness and calm, even if just for a week. And don’t forget to get a copy of your local guides.

Is there any point in a static narrowboat?

This week we are back at the narrowboat, moored in a marina near Chester. The weather is very autumnal – strong winds and rain. So we are not travelling. We have the warm stove on, are watching Christmas movies and walking the dogs.

You may wonder what the point is in coming to the boat of we aren’t travelling. Well I don’t really understand why, but when we arrive we immediately relax. Even the dogs find a comfy spot and curl up. Years ago we used to part-own a static caravan and that had much the same feel. It is as if all the worries of the world are left at home and we can chill.

Some canal boaters never move their boats. I heard this week of a new “wide beam” coming to this marina, which is too wide to travel through the bridges from here, so will be marooned. The owners don’t care. They just like staying on the water. The marina owners also recently installed five floating pods which can be hired by anyone. They are booked out at weekends, even at this time of year.

So I do get it. And I am really enjoying this week. But I confess that a little part of me can’t wait till the spring, when we will be off on our travels again. It’s like people that enjoy cruise ships. Some just want to stay on the ship. Others enjoy the facilities but want to see new things, meet new people.

Which would you prefer?

How important is central heating?

It has been cold this week – around 3°C. Unfortunately our boiler broke down – no heating and no hot water. Fortunately we have a service contract and so were able to call an engineer out. Unfortunately his temporary fix only lasted overnight. Fortunately we have a wood burning stove. Unfortunately it is not working very well because the chimney has not been swept for four years. Fortunately, with new kindling and some TLC we have managed to light it. Unfortunately it does not heat the water or the radiators.

Error 43 – no continuous flame

When we are in the house we get very used to utilities always working. You turn on a switch and the lights come on, open a tap and there is fresh clean water, click on your phone and the Internet is available. And without thinking the house is warm when it needs to be, and you can have a shower whenever you like. It is all very easy and when something does not work we get resentful, angry, confused.

It is very different on the narrowboat. There are three ways to heat the boat – the engine, a diesel stove or the Webasto boiler. The reason there are three ways is that often one or two ways are broken or inconvenient to use. The electricity is always on our mind. The solar is great in the summer but not in the dark, cloudy winters. The engine charges the batteries well but only easily when we are travelling. There is a mains hook up where we are moored in a marina, but we have to remember to top it up, or we will be cut off. And water is not always available. We have to remember to find a working canalside tap every couple of days to fill up, and once a year to disinfect the tank. As to the Internet, things are massively better than even a few years ago. We have a mobile powered WiFi router and can also tether to either of our phones which we have deliberately contracted with different networks, to maximise coverage. But it ain’t “always on”.

I wonder, is it better to have the ease and comfort of living in a house, with the consequent panic when something does fail. Or to live off grid on a boat, where it is harder work, but you understand it better. I’m not sure. I just know I don’t like being cold.

Fortunately the engineer is back today with lots of spare parts. And if that does not work, we can go back to the boat.

What is your view? Perhaps you believe that with sufficient layers of clothes, we do not need heating?

Going on a road trip

While we have been travelling on the narrowboat over the past two years we got to visit a lot of friends and family we had not seen since lockdown. But there were a few we missed out so this week we set off on a road trip. I am writing this in a cozy pub hotel near Stratford on Avon. This morning we are off to Hove in Sussex to see one of our sons. Then from there we travel to Surrey to stay with our sister in law, and then on to a vast mansion on the south Devon coast, where some friends are house sitting. From there it is to the far end of Cornwall, to stay at the Pig Hotel, where our other son is working. Back via Salisbury to see my Mum, and then to a village near Cambridge where Mandy’s Aunt lives. Finally we stay with Mandy’s brother in Lancashire and then home to Scotland via our friends in the Yorkshire Dales.

It will be quite an adventure and a good run out for our new car. Our old Qashqai had served us well for five years but was costing us more to maintain than it was worth, so after much prevaricating we have opted for a 2019 Kia Sportage. It is absolutely fine to drive but petrol heads will be disappointed that the main criteria for purchase were space in the boot for our dogs’ crate, and lots of “toys” inside like sat nav, apple play, parking camera. Immediately after signing for the car, I felt a bit of post purchase dissonance – would an XC40 have been more sensible, could I have negotiated a better deal, would a 2020 model have been better? But now we have had it for a few days, I am happy. It will do us very nicely.

Some of the route aligns with canals we have traversed this year. Journeys that took us several weeks in the boat are completed in a few hours. I prefer boating because you see so much more on the way but I admit I am enjoying being able to go left and right as well as straight on, as we do on a canal. When we see friends from the boat, they sometimes suggest meeting at some pub in the countryside, and we have to point out that the narrowboat is not great across land!

So on with the trip. It may not be Route 66, or even the Highlands North Coast 500, which we enjoyed a few years ago, but I am excited. I quite enjoy this retirement lark.

What is a night at the museum really like?

Last weekend we spent a couple of days at a very special mooring. Ellesmere Port is a run down small industrial town, on the south bank of the river Mersey and next to the Manchester Ship Canal. It does not have much to commend it, but it does have one gem. It is home to the National Waterways Museum. The old port is at the end of the Shropshire Union canal, where is meets the ship canal to the sea. It was once a thriving area, employing hundreds of people loading and unloading goods. After years of neglect, in the 1970’s a group of volunteers got together to clean it up and turn it into a boat museum. They did an amazing job and today it houses several acres of old buildings, exhibitions, boats and history. And best of all, we got to moor overnight in the middle of it.

We stayed for a couple of nights, and during the day got to visit all the exhibits and look around the town. But even better, in the evenings, the staff locked up the museum gates and we were left all alone. We had a special key so we could get in and out, but I loved wandering around the museum with the dogs, taking a close up look at the old terraced houses, the heavy port equipment, the boats themselves. It was kind of spooky although I did not see any ghosts. I could, however, imagine the dock workers busy in the docks, and the boat owners, living in their tiny cabins, behind a large barge full of coal or grain.

We are nearing the end of our six month narrowboat trip for this year, and this was a great experience to add to the memories. A night at the museum may not have been quite like in the movies but it was something very special nevertheless.

Welcome to the wonderful city of Chester

This week we took the Shropshire Union canal down into Chester, an ancient city that grew up from a Roman garrison settlement called Deva. The Romans built it here because it was roughly in the middle of the area of the UK they had conquered, it had good Roman road connections, and at the time it had good access to the sea through the river Dee. After the Romans, it continued as a successful medieval port city, and the Normans developed it further with a castle, a large cathedral and extended city walls.

Along the city walls, overlooking the canal.

These walls are possibly what Chester is most famous for. I walked a couple of times all the way around them, there are fine views across the countryside up to the Wirral and down to Wales. You can look down on Chester racecourse. You can see the Roman amphitheatre and ruined columns in a garden. The north side has the canal running alongside, utilising what once would have been a moat.

We moored up in a basin near the city centre, and just across from Telford’s Warehouse, a large pub, based in the headquarters of Thomas Telford, who built this canal. We had a fine meal with excellent craft beers, and even more excellent company of two of our nieces and a new boyfriend, who had to undergo a full inquisition from me and Mandy, testing for suitability. He passed!

The weather has turned this week and it has become wet autumn. But we have slowed down our travelling as we near the end of our summer on the boat, so a bit of rain can usually be avoided. And that has given more time for visiting Chester. Next year we plan to do a little less travelling and a little more visiting. Perhaps after two years, we are realising that retirement is more a marathon than a sprint.

Lovely city, Chester.

Should pubs change?

As I have travelled the world I have been in many bars, but have never found anything quite like a British pub. There are caricature “Irish Pubs” in many a city, but they just aren’t quite the same. Perhaps it is the inclement British weather that means we desire cosiness and that is what is different. Perhaps it is our unusual taste for warm beer. But today let me tell you about my favourite pub.

The Anchor Inn, High Offley, Shropshire

In 1987 we were on one of our first narrowboat holidays, doing the Four Counties Ring with friends. We stopped one night in the middle of nowhere and came across this pub, the Anchor Inn. The postal address is High Offley, a little village in Shropshire, but in reality it sits by itself, next to the canal. Presumably it was a farmhouse that started serving drinks when the canal was built, around 1830.

Although it looks reasonably large on the photo, the pub itself is just two small front rooms in the house. When we first found it, all drinks were fetched from the cellar. Nowadays they have electricity and chilled lager and cider on tap, but if you want a pint of real ale or scrumpy, they still go down into the cool cellar to get it.

Since 1987, we have visited maybe ten times. It is far too out of the way to be a regular haunt. But a few times making a special effort driving, and of course whenever we travel the Shropshire Union Canal, we go to see if it has changed. Sadly, Olive, the landlady for over 50 years, passed away last year. But her daughter has taken over and it is just the same. This week, the conversation in the pub was all about narrowboating. Where have we been this year? What have we seen? And the Wadworth’s 6X was served perfectly.

I know that over the years British pubs have had to change to survive. Most now serve good food, and have light, airy spaces. I do like those pubs. But sometimes it is nice to find favourites that have not changed, and the Anchor is one of them,.

What day is it?

When you see a doctor in a British film checking on mental capacity, the two questions they always ask are “Who is the Prime-minister?” and “What day is it?”. I have struggled with the second of these questions this week. Indeed, for the first time in 20 months, I nearly missed getting my Friday blog out, because I thought it was earlier in the week. Does this mean I am getting forgetful in my old age? Or is it just that days are much like each other when retired?

We are back on our narrowboat and off on our travels. The next month or so will see us travel the Staffordshire & Worcester and Shropshire Union canals, hopefully making it to Ellesmere Port before returning to a marina near Chester for the winter. We do have a couple of days off each week, but because we are not working, there is no reason for these to be at the weekend, and we both lose track of days.

I have some coping techniques. I have an alarm on my phone on a Thursday afternoon to remind me to write a blog. When it is Grand Prix season, I am always reminded when it is a Sunday – race day. But still, during the week, the freedom to do what we want each day, can mean that any day is like any other. As Pooh says in the picture above – today is my favourite day.

Oh by the way, I think the Prime-minister is Boris Johnson, but based on his permanent holidays, I may well be wrong.

Have a great weekend!

Do we need libraries?

One of the things I have noticed travelling around the UK canals this year, is the increasing number of places to swap books. Often when we stop for water, there is an area in some building where people have placed the books they have read, so that other boaters can take them. We have so little space in a boat, that once a book is read, we want to get rid of it, and for most of us, we would rather share than throw away. The books can be very varied – popular thrillers, classics, fascinating biographies, even text books. It has made me wonder if this is the modern version of libraries.

I used to love going to libraries when I was growing up. Shelf after shelf of things to read, things to learn. All knowledge was here. But these days we have the Internet, and casual research is done with a quick google. Libraries also provided a community resource for meetings, or just getting out of the cold and wet, but is that a reason to keep them?

Over the years, cost cutting has led many local authorities to close libraries. One of my brothers is a librarian and I know he has been through tough and uncertain times. I have always argued to maintain libraries for people that cannot afford books. But if this trend towards sharing books continues, perhaps we don’t need the cost of formal libraries. Boaters have maybe set the trend because we have no space, but I am beginning to see old telephone boxes on high streets becoming book shares for everyone.

What to you think? Do we still need libraries?

Is mooring in town centres safe?

We are travelling through the East Midlands on the River Soar and passing through Leicester. A number of fellow boaters warned us not to moor in Leicester. It has a reputation for vandalism by drunk or drugged youths. But it is also a lovely historic town so we have moored here nevertheless. We have got lucky because the town has now installed a couple of secure pontoons for boats. We are moored up next to a beautiful park, and there is a gate onto the pontoon, for which only boaters have a key. At night they even lock the park, so we feel nice and safe.

A real peaky blinder in Leicester

City centres are often seen as dangerous by narrowboaters. Because canals were built to carry goods from factories and mills, they usually go through parts of town that are now quite run down. So you can meet some fairly insalubrious characters. But in our experience there are some lovely city centres and they are safe. We have loved Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester, Oxford, Stoke on Trent even though all have dodgy reputations. The trouble is in the stretches of canal between the town centres and the countryside. During the day they are often fascinating industrial architecture but at night the boogeymen come out. So tomorrow we set off and do not stop until we are back amongst fields and trees. And we will enjoy what we see along the way.

Tonight we will enjoy sleeping amongst the hustle and bustle.

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