It was a quiet Sunday morning and the mist was just lifting over the fields alongside the unmoving waters of England's Stratford upon Avon Canal. The adults were clearing up after breakfast and getting the narrowboat ready to set off through the next set of locks. The children were scampering back and forth across the six-foot gangplank between the boat and the grassy bank.
"Jonathan, watch your step," I started to warn my 3-year-old son as he ran across the Bee's gangplank, which was only about eight inches wide. I got as far as "Jonathan -- " when he lost his footing and fell in. It was only about a three-foot drop, but he went in head first. I hit the water just as he was bobbing back up, dog paddling for all he was worth. I handed him up to waiting hands and then pulled myself out of a couple feet of mud and onto the bank.
Within half an hour, we were both showered and in clean clothes, our wet stuff was laid out to dry on the roof, and the Bee was once again gliding along at a stately 3 mph.
With things back to narrowboating normal -- that is, extremely genteel, if not downright dull -- the 10 of us on board, including Jonathan, sat back and laughed about the misadventure. "I fell in. And Dad jumped in after me," Jonathan marveled.
England's canal system and its traditional narrowboats are undergoing a revival. From the late 18th to mid-19th centuries, the long narrowboats, pulled by horses along canalside towpaths, were the principal way of moving fuel, raw materials and goods across much of England. Sir Josiah Wedgwood even shipped his fine china on the canals, since narrowboats offered a smoother ride than coaches drawn over the rough, rutted roads.
The canal network, in effect the first lifelines of the Industrial Revolution, had grown to 4,250 miles by the time people started sending their freight on the new railroads. By the 1950s, the commercial canal era was all but dead, though even today a few rural villages depend on narrowboats for bulk shipments such as coal or animal feed. Many waterways fell into disuse and disrepair and eventually dried up.
By the late 1970s, the canal network had shrunk to 3,000 miles. Today there are 2,000 miles of fully navigable canals in England.
But over the past decade, the number of weekend and vacation boaters has grown dramatically. The number of licenses for new boats, built and fitted out at a cost of from $60,000 to more than $100,000 depending on size and elegance, has been increasing at about 5 percent a year. Narrowboating has once again become a thriving concern -- but more for recreation than for commerce.
Of the more than 20,000 narrowboats now in use on the canals, only a few actually carry coal or raw materials to rural villages. Most, like the Bee, are privately owned and used only for weekends or vacations. About 1,400 are rental boats. Besides new and expanded marinas, the canals are being served by new pubs and shops, and canalside sites have become prime investment property. As interest in narrowboating has increased, the government-funded British Waterways Board has expanded and improved the old network, repairing and refilling old canals and opening the towpaths for hiking and fishing. The Waterways Board is also coordinating a series of festivals this year to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Britain's canal system.
During our eight years in London, we've made several trips on Britain's canals, savoring the serenity and the chance to peek into England's rural past. On our most recent trip, a six-day, 68-mile jaunt on the Grand Union and Stratford upon Avon canals, our family -- my wife Nancy, son Jonathan and daughter Lizzie, 6 -- joined our English friends Peter and Deborah, who own a quarter-share in the Bee, and their children, Grace, 6, and Eve, 3. Also along was our friend Tom from Madison, Wis., and his 19-year-old stepdaughter Jessica. I wondered whether they'd be bored spending a week on the quiet canals instead of under the bright lights of London, but Tom was enthusiastic. "Going out in the countryside sounds great," he said. "Besides, they have pubs along the way, don't they?" Oh yes, they do. But more on the pubs later.
Jessica, who was about to start a monthlong course in London on British studies, agreed that something as uniquely English as narrowboating might help her appreciate the culture. "Besides," she said, "they do have pubs along the way, don't they?"
The Grand Union Canal, one of England's biggest and busiest, links London and Birmingham, Britain's two largest cities. From our starting point, a small marina near the village of Napton on the Hill in Warwickshire, we could have headed in either direction toward those cities, or taken other canals on various routes toward Oxford, Northampton or Leicester. Cities, however, are not ordinarily a big part of narrowboating. It's interesting to see the urban underbellies, literally gliding through the industrial backwaters. But the junk floating around is a reminder of just how dirty the canals are, whether from urban pollution or the agricultural runoff from animals and fertilizers. (That's why Jonathan and I headed so quickly for the Bee's shower after his spill.)
Away from the cities, however, the water doesn't look particularly dirty. And the rural scenes are what make narrowboating good for the soul. So we typically moor the Bee alongside idyllic little stands of woods or gently rolling, lush green pastures -- sometimes for picnics, sometimes to stay overnight, sometimes for no reason other than to let the kids run around or nap on blankets.
On this trip, Peter decided to head west, to Stratford upon Avon. It would be an ambitious trip -- more than 34 miles of canals and through 82 locks each way. "But all Americans have to go to Stratford when they come to England," Peter grinned.
It took us a couple of hours that Friday night to unpack, stow the food and extra clothing, and make up the eight berths -- a pair of smaller bunks built into either side of the boat amidships, and a pair of adult twin beds that folded out from the walls both fore and aft. Peter and Deborah pitched a pup tent on the bank and gave up their usual berths to Tom and Jessica.
We were up early the next morning for pancakes. Peter packed up the tent, tossed it on top of the Bee, fired up the boat's Rolls-Royce engine and eased us out of the harbor -- no small feat with a pencil-shaped boat 57 feet long and a mere 7 feet wide. A narrowboat is flat-bottomed, with no keel and a draft of a mere foot, and it's hard enough to keep this 20 tons of steel going straight in a forward direction, let alone to jockey it back and forth between moorings that leave only a few inches to spare even if everything goes perfectly.
Peter did it smoothly as usual, and for the rest of the day we did what we always do on the canal. Someone handles the bronze tiller and the throttle that never lets us get above 4 mph. One or two other people stand around the helm, watching to see how Peter and Deborah do it or, if one of us novices is taking a turn, listening to their suggestions. One or two others work the locks.
The locks come up on an average of about once every mile, but in fact they are bunched together as the canals go up and down hills, usually in "flights," the common term for a group of locks of anywhere from two or three to a couple of dozen. As the boat approaches a lock, those of us on lock duty use special canal windlasses -- "winders," we call them -- to wind the big wooden paddles on the lock gates up and down and let water gush into or out of the lock. When the water level in the lock matches the water level outside the lock, we push the first gate open, the boat sails into the lock and then we close the gate. After filling or draining the lock to match the water level on the other side of the lock -- the narrowboat rising or sinking with it -- we swing open the second gate and the boat sails out of the lock, about 10 feet above or below where it had been a few minutes earlier.
While some of the adult crew are at the helm and some on lock duty, others keep an eye on the children. The kids play down in the boat's lounge and on the berths, crawl around on the decks or the roof of the boat, and are hefted onto the bank to play, hike or "help" with lock work by lining up and pushing the heavy gates. On the long stretches when there are no locks, the adults not at the helm or dealing with children find ample opportunity to read, chat or share a drink.
Everyone seems to take at least a few idle moments each day to simply daydream while the countryside slips slowly past. My favorite stretches are the most remote, where the canal water is still and overhanging trees from both banks make a green canopy for the buttercups, foxglove, primrose, Queen Anne's lace, violets and other wildflowers on the bank.
Each season has its own rewards on the canals. In the spring, the fields feature snowy lambs. On this early summer trip, we saw dozens of families of swans, geese and ducks, each with up to a dozen tufty babies paddling for all they were worth to keep up with their parents. Late in the summer and into autumn, juicy blackberries are thick along the banks, making it easy to pick them from along the towpath or, sometimes, by merely positioning the boat along overhanging bushes. Throughout the year, we keep bird and flower books handy for afternoon-long games that focus on finding and identifying the many species we encounter.
On the first day of this trip, we moored for lunch. It was a beautiful sunny day, so we moved the fold-up dining table and the lounge benches off the boat into the field where we had driven metal spikes and tied up the boat. The lounge is comfortable enough, but it's still only six feet wide inside the Bee (or any other English narrowboat), so we eat outside when we can.
Deborah, working her usual miracles in the narrowboat galley -- which includes an oven and range with a grill, cupboards, a mini-fridge and a small sink with hot and cold running water -- served up cheese, sandwiches, salad and her homemade pate. Sunshine, fresh air and the physical labor of lock work had made us ravenous.
Later that afternoon, we stopped again -- in Warwick, to let a small excursion disembark. Warwick Castle is one of England's finest, so Deborah led Tom and Jessica, the visiting Americans, on a tour. Because of the way the canals wend their way haphazardly through the countryside -- and because canal boats typically move so slowly that even small children walking on the towpath can outpace them -- people often jump off for cross-country rambles and then catch up with the boat later at some appointed bridge or pub.
After the Warwick tourists and their newly acquired postcards rejoined us a few hours later, Tom and I tackled the Hatton Locks, one of the longest flights in the entire canal system. Fueled by occasional beers, we cranked, pushed and pulled until Peter and Deborah had guided the Bee through the two dozen locks. Studying his maps, Peter announced that we had covered 20 miles and negotiated 46 locks -- the Bee's longest day ever on the canals.
By then the sun was starting to set; we needed a place to moor and a pub, not necessarily in that order. We finally settled on a brushy spot along the towpath near a pub called the Tom o' the Woods, which our Tom appreciated.
Peter led Tom and Jessica off to the pub as Deborah and I shuttled the kids in and out of the shower in the larger of the Bee's two bathrooms. While the kids were getting stories and being tucked in, Nancy worked on the adult supper, featuring roast duck breasts.
It was fully dark by the time Peter, Tom and Jessica came tripping down the towpath from the pub. The only light on the canal was glowing golden from the Bee's windows, the only sounds our laughter and clinking wine glasses, the only smells that of roast duck wafting up from the galley. Our narrowboat seemed like the homiest place on earth that evening.
The next morning Jonathan fell in. And that was our only mishap of the trip, unless you count running out of water, which was easily solved by pulling up to one of the many designated canalside water points.
In general, the people encountered along the canals -- whether hikers, fishermen, shopkeepers, people who live on their boats or those who get out once a year -- are among the nicest you could ever meet in England or anywhere else. People who are hot-tempered or aggressive just don't seem to go for this sort of low-key leisure. Boat people are more likely to be relaxed and friendly, and small children are a common sight.
Among boat folk, there's a premium on competence. At first, the tough part is getting used to the idea that just a small movement of the tiller will shift the boat's direction -- eventually -- and that even a big movement of the tiller won't make anything happen quickly. But handling the boat isn't that hard. Most people pick it up easily, either through tips from experienced friends or brief, casual lessons from rental agents. Many first-timers start by hiring shorter, more manageable two-berth or four-berth boats before moving up to something as big as the Bee.
Pubs feature prominently in narrowboating. Canalside pubs, many of them dating back a couple of hundred years, often have their own peculiar nautical flavor, with names such as the Navigation, the Barge and Barrel, the Grand Junction Arms, the Jolly Boatman and any variety of names involving the words Lock, Bridge, Boat, Wharf, Ship or Swan. On the Bee, we stop at or near a pub at least once a day, sometimes for lunch, sometimes for a pint before supper and sometimes to moor overnight. Canalside pubs, unlike many other British pubs, usually have good homemade food, and they welcome children. Many have playgrounds.
On Sunday night, we sailed over one of the nearly 400 aqueducts on the canal system, gliding across the elevated steel and concrete passage as if the boat were on a cloud, 30 feet above the highway below. We moored for the night alongside a pasture just outside the village of Wooten Wawen, where we patronized the cheerful pub, bought provisions at a well-stocked little grocery store and spent a quiet half-hour looking around St. Peter's, the village's Anglican church.
Trips on the Bee typically mean visiting almost as many village churches as village pubs: quiet, old, quaint, all with stories to tell inside and out. St. Peter's was one of the best we'd visited, dating to the 11th century, with interesting architectural and religious touches added through the Anglo-Saxon, Norman, Tudor and Victorian eras. There were even a couple of old knights entombed, complete with full-armored likenesses.
Outside, Lizzie and Grace, the 6-year-olds, practiced their reading on the faded old tombstones dating back over the centuries. Finding the oldest tombstones or the most interesting epitaph is a popular game for them in village churchyards.
The next day, Tom and I went ahead into Stratford and toured Shakespeare's birthplace. We got to the Stratford boat basin just as the Bee was sailing in. It happened to be a holiday Monday, and thousands of people in the surrounding park were picnicking, listening to music, soaking up the sun and watching the narrowboats come and go.
Tom and I hopped aboard and our whole crew exchanged waves with the children onshore while their parents, obviously impressed, watched Peter's expert maneuvering as he turned the big boat around, back and forth, gunning the motor as he just missed other boats with no apparent concern about actually hitting them. We stopped only long enough to buy ice cream cones, and then we headed out of the Stratford basin, back through the locks the Bee had just negotiated, to do the whole trip again in reverse -- but without the excitement of Jonathan's unscheduled dip.
In fact, for the rest of the trip, whenever he ventured on the gangplank he did it on all fours, taking no chances. As one old boatman told us, "No one ever falls in the canal twice."
Timothy Harper, a London-based American journalist and lawyer, is the author of "Cracking the New European Markets" (John Wiley & Sons).
"Canals 200," a program of festivals, exhibitions and other special events to mark the canal system's 200th anniversary, will be held throughout the summer at various locations along Britain's canals. The celebrations are being coordinated by the British Waterways Board (see below). Specific events include:
Cosgrove Village Festival, June 19-20.
Waterway Artists' Weekend at the Canal Museum, Stoke Bruerne, June 26-27.
Open House Weekend at British Waterways' bases along the Grand Union Canal, July 16-18.
BOAT RENTALS: No experience is required to hire a narrowboat, and there's no testing or licensing requirement. But it's always helpful to have had at least some boating experience. Some marinas have established training sessions for novices who rent their boats, but others simply send an employee along for the first hour or so to make sure the customer gets the hang of steering and working the locks.
Narrowboats can be rented at marinas along England's 2,000 miles of canals in a variety of sizes and degrees of luxury. UK Waterway Holidays Ltd. (1 Port Hill, Hertford, Hertfordshire SG14 1PJ, England, phone 011-44-992- 550-616, fax 011-44-992-587-392) arranges weekly "self-skipper" rentals throughout the canal system, with typical prices starting at around $525 per week for a two-berth boat during the low (spring and autumn) season, and up to $2,450 per week for a 10-berth boat during the summer high season. The company also offers "hotel boat" cruises with a crew that sails the boat and prepares meals; prices begin at about $750 per week per passenger.
Visitors to London who want to sample narrowboating without renting a boat can take short trips on Regent's Canal between Little Venice and Camden Lock, including stops at London Zoo. Two firms that make regularly scheduled trips are:
Jason's Trip (60 Blomfield Rd., London W9, England, phone 011-44-71-286 -3428, fax 011-44-71-266-4332). Fares for 1 1/2-hour cruise are about $7 round trip for adults, $5.25 for children 3 to 12; free for children under 3.
Jenny Wren Cruises (250 Camden High St., London NW1, England, telephone 011-44-71-485-4433, 011-44-71-485-9098). Fares for a 1 1/2-hour cruise are about $6 for adults, $3 for children under 16.
INFORMATION: For information about marinas in other areas of England, or for general information on canal boating, contact the British Waterways Board (Willow Grange, Church Road, Watford, Hertfordshire WD1 3QA, England, telephone 011-44-923-226-422, fax 011-44-923-226-081).