Whenever the topic of traveling comes up, I will invariably go on and on about my all time favorite type of vacation – a drive through the canals of England. Not many people know that there is an extensive canal system that winds through the English countryside. The boats used on them are called Narrow Boats. They are large, steel houseboats, about seven feet wide (which is very narrow) and from 45-65 feet long. You drive the boats yourself and they can only go up to five miles per hour. It is a leisurely and relaxing vacation – or it can be.
In 1987, my family of four took a week-long canal trip with our close friends, the Millers, an English family of four. The kids were ages two (my daughter), six (their daughter), seven (my son) and eight (their son).
Our boat was 65 feet long, slept eight easily and had two dedicated bedrooms, a living area, eating area, kitchen and bathroom. It was surprisingly comfortable, even for eight people. The boat was driven, with a single tiller, from a small outside deck at the back of the very long-boat.
Our trip started inauspiciously. Our seven-year old son fell into the water just trying to get on the boat for the first time! Things improved for a while and we all enjoyed the beautiful scenery for the rest of the first day.
On the third day, our two-year old daughter ran in to where the rest of us were having breakfast and asked, “Why is it raining in the bedroom?” That set off alarms! Sure enough, water was pouring into the back bedroom, right where both families had stored their fabric suitcases. We had to make room wherever we could to dry out all the clothes that were soaked by this major leak.
We called the boat rental company and reported the problem. We had to pull over, in the middle of a field of cows, and wait for the repairman to come, by car, and fix the boat.
It was actually a lovely morning in a picturesque setting. Some of us took the bikes we had brought and rode along the path beside the canal. We also got up close and personal with some of the local cows. The kids were thrilled. The boys also played soccer in the cow’s field.
When we got underway again, we were heading to Birmingham, a city on our route. We were warned that the canal part of the city was not a safe or savory place to spend the night. We had to get through the large city and out the other side before dark.
We realized that we had reached the city when we started to see garbage and dead animals, including cats, floating in the water. It was getting dark. We began freaking out. We had to push on and hope to reach the city limits before we had to pull over (no lights, no night driving). We made it, with maybe a few minutes to spare. We were incredibly lucky and equally relieved.
Our next incident occurred when we stopped at a charming canal side pub for lunch. My ex husband, Larry, a lawyer, decided to call his office in New York City to check in. Big mistake. There had been a major crisis at work and Larry had to return to New York ASAP. We had to figure out how to get Larry from the middle of nowhere, back to London and onto a plane. That turned out to involve a taxi ride to a train, the train to a subway and the subway to Heathrow airport.
The rest of us had a wonderful afternoon exploring the ruins of an ancient Abbey in a beautiful woods.
One other aspect of this trip deserves mention. The locks. English locks have to be operated manually and take lots of time and effort. Everybody pitched in to master the 119 locks that we had to pass through over the course of the week. We had the kids ‘help’ and made it into a fun exercise. But 119 is a shitload of locks! We also had two ‘flights of locks’, which are numerous locks one right after the other with no space in between. We did as many as 43 locks in one day!
Near the end of the week the remaining Dad took the two boys on another bike ride. The four girls were left on the boat, tied, as usual, to a stake at the edge of the canal. I was washing dishes and looked out the window. I saw that the shore was farther away than it should have been. The rope tying us down had come loose and we were drifting into the canal.
The other mom waded into the water, got to shore and grabbed the rope. She tried to pull us back to shore. Instead, the boat pulled her into the water. The two little girls thought this was hysterical. We all ended up laughing as I also had to wade into the water to help my friend tie the boat down again.
Most canal trips are far less eventful. I’ve spent three weeks on the canals since then, and had next to no problems. But despite our challenges, we all loved the 1987 vacation. We still remember it fondly and talk about it often, thirty years later. It was even brought up in a toast at the Miller daughter’s wedding! It is definitely a fun trip – also interesting, different, exciting, sometimes relaxing and, above all else, memorable!