The rain patters down on the tonneau cover as we sit watching hardy narrowboaters gliding past through the deluge.
It’s the second time in two weeks that we’ve been afloat on the canals. Last week we hired a 67 footer to navigate the delightful Kennet & Avon waterway from Bath to Devizes and back, and this weekend we’re visiting Dave and Ju on their own boat near Leighton Buzzard on the Grand Union.
The weather pattern has been similar on both trips, with warm and sunny August days transposed with days of torrential rain which makes lock working somewhat less attractive. But hey, this is England and who needs a suntan anyway?
Especially when you’re enjoying the pleasures of the English waterways.
I’ve had a fascination with our canal system ever since Sue introduced me to it in the mid 1970’s. A journey by narrow boat offers a unique and highly intimate perspective on our countryside, towns and cities, as well as a window into our recent industrial past.
The rise, fall and regeneration of this man-made network of communication is the story of the industrial revolution and the subsequent technological advances that rendered canals redundant. The engineering prowess of the early canal pioneers is there for all to see in structures such as the Dundas Aqueduct a few miles out from Bath, with it’s elegant solution to spanning the River Avon below. But it is also testament to the sheer physical efforts of the thousands of navigators – ‘navvies’ as they became known – who formed the pathways for the canals to run on with their bare hands. Embankments, cuttings, bridges and tunnels were created without the benefit of the huge earthmoving machines that seem to construct modern motorways with hardly a human to be seen.
The accumulation of knowledge was rapid as canal-building technology improved. The early ‘contour’ canals followed the lie of the land, resulting in stretches such as the South Oxford taking it’s leisurely, meandering path from Coventry down towards the Thames. In one place, at Wormleighton, a mile long sweeping bend brings the cut within a few yards of itself as it seeks to avoid the need to bridge the rolling hills and hollows of the land.
As the canals became more profitable and those profits rose with rapid journey times, later engineers such as Thomas Telford found ways to forge straight through the countryside, compensating for the contours with huge earthworks and dramatic structures, of which the most striking example has to be the amazing Pontcysyllte Aqueduct near Llangollen.
Of course, like any arterial route, the joy is in the travelling of it, and the canals bring such joy in spades. The locks, an early engineering solution to hills, have matured into quaint and picturesque places of beauty, activity and camaraderie. Boaters and bystanders alike gather at the side of locks, still inspired by the cleverness of it all, and sharing a friendly acknowledgement and often an interesting anecdote.
If you enjoy this country, are happy to be outside, and relish the opportunity to explore, try taking a trip on a narrow boat.
There’s just one thing. Make sure you take your raincoat.