For a long time when I should have been studying for my second year exams, I was actually looking at travel brochures and day-dreaming about having a holiday on a long, narrow canal boat. I wanted a lazy, relaxing holiday with the wonderful company of close friends and to enjoy the clean air and to bask in the sun and a canal boat holiday seemed to fit the bill.
While juggling my exams, I managed to organize the holiday on a canal boat called the Oliver Cromwell on the Oxford Canal. I had hand picked James, Katherine and Julie to be my crewmates as the close confines of a canal boat is one that you wish to share only with people you got on well together.
We picked up the boat on Lower Heyworth with great excitement. Spent an exciting hour learning how to handle the boat and then we were off. Within 5 minutes we were having a great big argument. On a canal that only runs north and south, the crew were split on whether to go north or south! It appeared as if the cramp quarters had already made everyone snappy and crabby. The decision was finally made on the call of a coin toss and we headed north.
Ah, soon the bickering was forgotten as we cruised along at 4 miles per hour. The anticipation of the next 7 days intoxicated us even more than the beers in our hands. It was as I had imagined. This illusion, however, only lasted until we reached the first lock. We had been briefed about locks which are the means by which canal boats can be raised or lowered between sections of the canal which are at different heights. Locks are fascinating bits of engineering history. They can also be back-breakingly hard to operate. First you have to maneuver these heavy wooden gates and then you have to use a key to open the paddles that control the water levels. Did I think this was going to be a lazy holiday? It was hard work. A Good Samaritan who witnessed our pitiful efforts of trying to push the gates open and close, advised us that it was actually easier to sit on the beams of the gates and to push with our legs. Bouncing on the beams on our behinds also helped if the gates were stucked. We tried it and it worked like a charm and we happily operated several gates that first day, only to discover in the evening that our buttocks had turned blue-black and was covered with painful wooden splinters!
My other illusions about the canal trip were similarly exposed before long. Clean fresh air was replaced by miles of farmland reeking of cow dung. Basking in the sun? Did I forget this was England where rain is like a friend that drops in unannounced all the time and often outstays his welcome. And when night came, so did the mosquitoes.
Yet despite all these setbacks, it was one of the most enjoyable holiday I have ever had. The fun was in the people that you met along the way; the fellow novices, the old salts and the local characters. There was freedom in deciding where to go and when to stop. The historical pubs along the way were great places to stop and sample local hospitality, food and beer. It was away to learn about the history of the country especially around the period of the Industrial Revolution for which these canals were built to serve by bringing coal from the Midlands to London.
It was the surprises that awaited you at every bend. A water vole. A heron. It is waking up in the morning to the sound of cow bells in the adjacent farm or sleeping with visions of the stars and the sound of the crickets. It was having picnics on the boat or in the fields with close friends. It was terrific.
In the end, the holiday came to an end too quickly and I have been enamored with canal boats, their history and associated crafts and culture ever since. The Oxford Canal is not even one of the more interesting canals. I would love to go on the Llangollen Canal with its Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in which the canal boat would glide across the valley more than 40 m above the Dee River and to glide into Llangollen town during their celebration of Celtic culture in music, poetry and dance, the Eisteddfod Festival. That would be so wonderful.