Sunday, July 4, 2010

On the canal for our last week in England

Why would anyone look forward to vacationing in close quarters with 2 other people, maybe more, on a 7 foot wide, 62 foot long, 10 ton boat for a week?  I really don't know but I always do!  Canal boating is definitely unique and the rewards for the inconveniences are many, so let's go boating!

We left London on June 26th, just about 24 hours after Ellen and Philip returned from our house.  They had planned to come home a day earlier to have a couple of days between traveling - some recovery time - but the weather in Chicago and the airlines had different plans for them and their flight was a full day late.  We offered to put off the embarkation for a day but they were game so off we went.

We boarded our boat at a small marina at the end of a restored portion of the Somerset Coal Canal in Monkton Combe.  We were going to travel the Kennet Avon canal, reportedly the prettiest canal in England.  Our plan was to travel east for a couple of days and get to the base of the Caen Hill Flight in Devizes, a series of 16 locks that would take a lot of time to accomplish so we're not going to do it (!), turn around and return to our starting point and continue on to moor in the beautiful city of Bath.  Bahth as they say it here!

When you get on the boat initially, no matter how many times you have boated and how experienced you are, you must always go through the introduction with the boat lender so that you know where everything is and how to use everything correctly from the flushing of the toilets to the cleaning of the propeller.  That includes how to turn on the gas range and stove, where to fill the water tank - every day! - how to empty the tub after a shower, how to switch to a second propane gas tank when you've used up the gas in the first one mainly to heat the water, how to turn on the motor and mainly how to steer!  Then you are instructed on how the locks work (still an enigma to me but I'm getting it, just tell me what to do!), how the swing bridges swing and how the lift bridges lift!

The steering is possibly the strangest thing to get used to - it's by tiller, of course, which is attached to the large rudder (of course, again!) and if you want this behemoth to go left, you push the tiller to the right and if you want it to go right, you push it to the left.  Ellen is picking up the skill here but working the locks was her favorite part!

It responds fairly quickly, especially if you are going the top allowed speed of 4 mph (that's right, I said 4 mph!) and more slowly when you are cruising at about 2 mph which you do when you are passing other boats or fishermen, going under bridges and into locks and tunnels.  The problem is when you are inexperienced and you do exactly the opposite because it makes much more sense and you head for the shoreline which is always very close-by or another boat!!  Then you panic and yell "John!" who comes and straightens you out.  I don't do that much anymore.  After four trips, I would hope not.  The real fun part comes when you have to go in reverse because it has no steering function in reverse.  It just goes.  So then you have to put it in forward for a tiny bit to get the front or back moving the way you want it to and then flip it back into reverse to get it going back again.  Real interesting.

These boats are very long and very narrow, might be why they are called narrowboats!  (There are a lot of reasons for this - all historical and if you want to read some of the history behind the canals and the boats, refer to my blog of May 21st when we went on our previous canal boat trip with our friends, Ginger and Bill.)  Our boat here is on the right and was probably taken by John at the stern.  The boats moored on the left might be occupied by renters like us or they may be privately owned.  Privately owned ones may be pleasure boats for some or they might be someone's permanent home.  Many of the boats, particularly on this canal it seems, are private dwellings and people have decided to live this way most often because it's cheaper than buying a home or it's a preferred lifestyle.  Some live on the boat in a permanent mooring spot and commute off to work in the morning by walking the tow path, then perhaps catching a bus; some ride their bikes, walk their kids to school; others are retired or widowed and live on the boat because it's better than sitting at home alone or when the kids no longer come to visit.  Me, I'd like to live like a couple we met in Bath from Canada.  They are retired, own their custom-built boat and live on it April through September.  They travel from canal to canal taking in the sights and living their dream.  She told me they will continue to do this until the "locks get me".  I suggested she switch jobs then and let her husband do the locks!  The driving is easier from my point of view and certainly doesn't take the energy or tole on your body the locks do, just more skill!  Let those musclemen of ours do that job!!

The Kennet Avon canal has been reported to be the prettiest canal in England and was the reason it was on our list.  Frankly, I was very disappointed and might even write the British Waterways and let them know my indignant reaction!!  The bank-sides in other canals are trimmed and kept neat which is positive for two reasons for us - one, it's easy to moor the boat and step off onto what you know is secure ground and two, you can see the countryside.  On the KA, weeds have been allowed to grow on both sides without trimming and have grown into the canal bank making it difficult to see where to step as you get off the boat.  It's quite dangerous, I think.  The guys could jump off the boat on to what you know is solid ground but it wasn't so easy for me and Ellen with our short strides.  Also, I had to stand up on the seats at the stern or bow to see over the weeds to view the countryside.  There were more derelict boats on this canal than any we had been on and it's a shame because it reflects on the whole atmosphere of the canal.  Of course, trying to get a derelict 10 ton boat out of a 30-35 foot wide canal I'm sure is next to impossible and wouldn't be allowed if they were licensed anyway. 

Licensure pays for upkeep of the canals, British Waterways personnel who are very helpful, upkeep of the locks, etc.  It's expensive and annual and must be displayed in the windows of your boat.

Well, folks, it's our last day here - believe it or not - and I am getting the signal from John that he is almost ready to go to London and I am not!  We want to see the rest of the Docklands Museum and have dinner at The Dove.  Don't know if Ellen and Philip will join us but that will be okay.  So - if you are following our adventure, I will be finishing it up when we get home.  I still have one more day in Paris to do and one more day in London when I visited with Theodore and Winston and John and I had tea at the posh Brown Hotel.

I think John has his pinky up behind that cup!

We have to spend the first week - starting the day after we get home painting and cleaning up a rental house to get it ready to rent again (the management company's estimate was $2330 and we can do it for half that but we have to do it quick!) so keep checking and forgive me if it takes awhile.  It's been fun!  Thanks for the comments and return mail!

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