It had never crossed my mind to hire a canal boat. Also I had heard about the locks but had no idea what they looked like or did, other than some kind of drawbridge. Well. Thanks to Harry’s parents who signed up for this adventure and took us along with them, a few weeks ago (October 2015) we had the opportunity to give it a go!
Harry and I finished work early on Friday and bounced out of the office to meet each other for the train journey to Worcester (pronounced wuss-ter). Why Worcester? We were hoping that being well out of London would be less busy and more picturesque. And it was! In fact it was the last week of long boating for the season so while we met other first timers like us and regular long boaters along the way, the locks were generally empty and there was no need for overtaking.
It took us a few hours and a train swap to get to Worcester mid afternoon. By then Harry’s parents (Shirley and Peter) had checked out the boat and were ready to get moving. But first! We were required to watch a DVD on how to operate the locks, followed by being shown pictures of what could go wrong and therefore what not to do. I was nervous! Thankfully most of the pictures were not recent. We also then had an engineer come and meet us at the boat and talk us through all the parts of the boat from the heating and light switches to how to operate the toilet, and of course how to drive the boat. Our must-do’s for each day included topping up the water, clearing any leaves or debris from the propellers and turning a peg to lock in grease and ensure no water could come in and fill the motor area of the boat.
As you can imagine by this time with the season changing in the UK, it was starting to get dark and we were not allowed to drive the boat in the dark. We’d done a quick check of the map for local pubs and though we had found one not far away, the engineer told us that it had recently closed. Not sure if it was permanently or for the season. Either way, no food nearby so either we stay in the harbour for the night and explore and eat in Worcester, or grab some takeaway and get the boat moving until it was dark. Option B! Harry and I did a mad dash for pizza and as I was finishing the phone order, we walked into the pizza shop… so we didn’t manage to save much time! We had a toe-tapping 15 minute wait, ran back and drove the boat for about 15 – 20 minutes before mooring for the night. Mooring involves one person jumping off with the rope and pulling the boat towards the bank. Then once steady, securing the boat to the shore with pegs – kind of like camping.
There’s something very relaxing about being stuck on a boat with nowhere to go, surrounded by cold darkness. Inside the boat suddenly feels very cosy, homely and warm and on this occasion filled with pizza, nibblies, drinks, good banter and card games. Perfect bonding opportunity! Not recommended for people who don’t get along!
On a mission. Though the boat hire was for 3 nights (minimum requirement), Harry and I had to go back to work on Monday. This meant we had today to get as far as we could along our journey, and Sunday to make it back to Worcester in time for our train back to London. Once we had breakfast and got ready, we set off on our adventure! Captain Peter was driving and so far so good. A rule for any future long boaters reading this is that you cannot start the motor / driving until 8am. This is because the canal is right next to houses and whilst the motor is not super noisy, combined with operating the locks and our excited chatter, I certainly understand! Also, for anyone thinking they can drive fast, nope! The guide is that if you’re making a ripple in the water, you’re going too fast.
The tricky bit about all of this (even before the locks) is that the long boat steers from the back. The brain teaser is that if you pull the handle to the left, it steers the boat right. Also it’s tempting to pull the handle hard in one direction (especially when headed for a bridge!) but then you have to correct it quickly afterwards and this can lead to zig-zagging! The best way of doing it is to keep watch ahead and use small movements of the handle to allow for smoother turns as required.
Not long into the journey we met our first lock challenge for the day. Captain Peter slowed down and pulled up alongside the canal so Harry and I could jump off and inspect the first lock. Pressure! Harry and I had our lock key handles ready. We each took a paddle at either side of the lock (and also canal), put the lock key handles onto the paddles and started to wind them up. As you wind them up, the water rushes through underneath the gate and the water on either side gradually becomes the same level. Once the water is the same level the gates start to open and with a bit of a push, they completely open so the boat can drive in. It was a bumpy ride for Shirley for the first ride into the lock, with Peter driving at the back of the 61 foot boat attempting to get into a very narrow space. It almost feels like you’re in a bumper car. During the morning we managed to knock the TV onto the floor (survived) and there were peanuts all over the floor. We were going uphill today, so once the boat was inside the lock and the gates closed at the back, we wound up the next lot of paddles which meant that as the water level was rising inside the lock – so was the boat.
As the day went on we got better and better at the locks. A few tips from a few experienced boaters also helped us save some time. We all took turns at all the different tasks except for driving the boat into the lock! Just as we got comfortable with the locks, we came across the 210m tunnel. Thankfully there was no one coming from the other side, but just to be sure, we drove through on the right side as instructed, turned our lights on and gave a few toots of the horn.
Harry and I had a go at driving and by lunchtime we were ready to moor the boat at Tibberton and find the nearest pub. According to the map there were two nearby, so we thought we were spoilt for choice. Unfortunately whilst the first pub – The Bridge Inn – had a very cute dog to play with, they were not serving food so we walked a few short minutes to Speed the Plough. There was a large chalkboard food menu so we thought we were sorted and after ordering drinks, found that they too were not serving food. Nobody seemed fussed so perhaps it’s normal on a Saturday? Who knows. Lucky we still had pizza in the fridge, chicken, bread and nibblies so that we could feed ourselves instead!
After lunch we got the boat moving again so we could get as far along our journey as possible, find a good spot to turn around and moor for the night. It was still quite early in the afternoon and it only took us about 1 – 1.5 hours to get to Eagle & Sun pub-restaurant in Droitwich and turning area from our lunch location. But, while our original plan was to continue on to Stoke Prior, we were a bit unsure about going any further due to going back to Worcester tomorrow and already boating for about 4 hours today. Also with it being Sunday, we were sure that the locks would be busy so thought it best to be safe and settle in for the night. And we had confirmation via phone call that the Eagle & Sun was serving dinner! Seems you have to take it when you can get it! This provided the perfect opportunity to have a nap. The gentle rocking of the boat is quite handy to help you get off to sleep!
Time for dinner. Upon entry of the Eagle & Sun, we saw a delicious roast buffet which is one of my major weaknesses in life. I entertained myself by reading the menu but of course ended up eagerly in line for the roast. It was a large pork roast complete with crackling, vegetables, Yorkshire pudding and smothered in gravy. Yeah. Baby. We played a few card games back at the boat before collapsing in a heap after our day of physical activity, stress and excitement!
We woke up to a mist surrounding the boat and lots of ducks swimming nearby asking for breakfast. I read somewhere recently that oats are better to feed ducks with, but with no oats on board – bread it was. Happy ducks. As we got ready and waited until it was 8am before setting off, the day became more clear and sunny and the sky blue, though the chill remained.
It was a much more carefree day today having mastered the long boat and locks. We were able to appreciate the views more including the beautiful autumn leaves, pretty English houses, grazing cows and rolling hills. We slowly made our way back towards Worcester. I made a few zig-zags in the water with my driving attempt and Harry successfully drove the boat into a few locks before lunch. Yesterday at the Bridge Inn pub we’d read a sign about Sunday roast at midday. We’d also asked the bar staff in case it another false hope! We moored out front and were lovingly met by our furry friend before ordering. Surprisingly I didn’t order the roast, but enjoyed a pie which is another of my major weaknesses.
Time was ticking so we made a quick exit back to the boat and continued our journey. There were so many friendly people and dogs along the way. And horses! The best part about getting onto land to open the locks is the opportunity to say hello and pat the animals. We were cruising for time and had even started a new ‘pick up’ system (there are stairs on the side of some locks that the driver could stop at) while getting out of the locks which was much quicker. We saw a few guys with long bags and wondered what was happening. Turns out there was a major fishing competition on today! It wasn’t long before we saw super long rods across our path into the reeds. They all kindly raised them for us when we got there, but only right before. The locks were slightly more busy today as expected but interestingly this worked in our favour as the boats were coming up, and we were going down. Which meant they filled up the locks with water and several times the gates were also left open for us to drive straight in! Another time saver!
A few hours later and we were back in Worcester, safely moored in the harbour. Today we’d made it back through the 12 locks and 210m tunnel we’d been through the day before. What an adventure! We packed our bags and took them with us into a local pub where we celebrated our success of not breaking the boat or each other, before parting ways. Back to London!