Smooth operator... and that's just me!
Ever dreamed of getting out of life’s fast lane and relaxing in style? Confirmed land-lubber MIKE BRAMHALL did, and went overboard for a slow-paced canal boat break amid some delightful English landscapes
ON a short break deep in the heart of the Warwickshire countryside, I lost my heart to a sleek, steely temptress.
Don't worry, my wife and friends did too. We couldn't help it, because this slinky, wilful and captivating lady cast a spell over us as soon as we met her. And now all of us can't wait to see her again.
So who was this tantalising creature, whose shapely form and headstrong antics so bewitched us?
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Meet Simone, a 69ft narrowboat belonging to canal holiday specialists Black Prince, who introduced six confirmed landlubbers to the delights of cruising Britain's wonderful waterways.
These historic arteries, carved out of rolling countryside to provide transport links between the country's trading centres at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, were once the motorways of their day.
But now, they are a wonderful, peaceful and relaxing way to explore the hidden delights of rural hideaways and charming, welcoming towns and villages well away from the hubbub and haste of modern living.
Canal cruising is simply a fantastic way to unwind by exploring tranquil backwaters and the heart of urban centres on board luxurious, comfortable, safe and inviting narrowboats which are easy to operate and moor.
Don't be put off by the thought of being at the helm of a steel vessel the length of several cars and weighing many tons. And don't be terrified by the thought of operating the fiendishly clever canal locks which enable boats to traverse the topography of our country's hills and valleys.
Because like me – someone who had never been in charge of a rowing boat, let alone a diesel-powered queen of the waterways – in a matter of hours you will have got the hang of the steering, mooring and manoeuvring required to make the most of this gentle and slow-paced holiday with a difference.
Let's start with the narrowboat itself. Black Prince's modern, plush and award-winning fleet comes in a variety of sizes, ranging from the 47ft long Princess 2, providing two to four berths, up to the 70ft Duchess 8, which can accommodate up to 10 people.
All are fitted out to a luxurious standard which will satisfy the most demanding of crews, from family groups to friends like our six-strong party.
Simone, a Duchess 6, easily coped with three couples. Each had a roomy double bed and their own sleeping area which could be easily partitioned off at night for privacy. But Black Prince can also provide boats with double and single bed combinations, depending on the make-up of your group.
Our spacious floating home during our four-day break boasted two toilets, a shower, double-glazed windows at the front, hot and cold running water and central heating throughout, complete with airing cupboard. If that was not enough, all the diesel-powered boats also feature electric lighting, a full-size gas-powered cooker, fridge with small freezer unit, flat-screen TV, radio and CD and DVD players.
But it is the impressive list of on-board equipment that comes with your boat which will really make you feel at home – and save on the packing. There is more than enough cutlery, crockery, glasses, cooking equipment, towels, duvets, bedding and pillows to cater for everyone.
Add in useful additions like carpet sweeper, dustpan and brush, boating equipment including boarding plank, boating pole and hook, umbrella, windlasses (more of them later) and essentials like lifejackets for everyone who wants one and all you need to bring is your clothing, your provisions and yourselves.
Simone, like the rest of the fleet, is cleverly designed to make the most of every square inch of space. There are wardrobes, cupboards and drawers everywhere; meaning there is more than enough storage areas for your clothes and kit.
Non-sailors like me will perhaps be apprehensive about taking to the canals or tackling the lock system, but there is no need to be. Before you begin your holiday you get an informative and interesting step-by-step guide to manoeuvring your boat into canal locks and how to operate the opening and closing mechanisms safely.
Then, before you set off on your water-borne adventure, a friendly and informative staff member takes you on board your boat and talks everyone through all you need to know – from where the fresh water is piped in, to how the engine and throttle works.
Don't be frightened about asking questions about the basics, such as which side of the canal you should sail on. Our genial guide Geoff answered everything with knowledge and good humour, and even joined us as we set off to help get us started and used to the steering mechanism.
I'll be honest, for the first 20 minutes at the helm I was extremely nervous. But once I had got used to the length of the boat, how she reacted to the steering tiller, operating the forward and reverse thrust and the quirks of controlling a waterborne craft, I quickly relaxed and began to enjoy the experience.
Cruising along at a maximum of 4mph helped, as did watching the wonderfully peaceful countryside slip slowly by. And even when I encountered an approaching vessel, the canal was wide enough to safely allow us both to pass like narrowboats in the night.
Depending on which stretch of canal you choose to holiday on, you can encounter as few or as many locks as you wish. But wherever you go, the chances are you will have to tackle some.
Don't worry, though. My party was apprehensive about the thought of steering Simone into a confined space while other members of the crew operated the lock gates. But having done it once, guided by a friendly passer-by, we realised that taking things slowly, step by step, was the key to traversing locks safely and efficiently.
The opening and closing of the locks, to allow water to flow in and out, is done by those windlasses – L-shaped metal handles which slide onto a fitting allowing you to turn the cleverly-constructed machinery by hand. It can be strenuous, and the opening and closing of the lock gates is made easier by a couple of people working as a team to swing them closed or open. But everyone, including the females in our party, coped just fine on their own when the occasion demanded and the experience added to the fun of our canal adventure.
Each of us took turns steering and being on lock duty and we thoroughly enjoyed the involvement. Best of all, there is a camaraderie of the canal fraternity which meant that strangers happily offered advice, help and a useful extra pair of hands when needed, guiding us through the procedures and sending us on our way.
This fantastic trip was a delight for us all and would be ideal for groups of friends or family get-togethers. We saw some gloriously unspoilt countryside at close quarters, all gliding by at a relaxed and leisurely pace. We pulled together as a team, mastering the steering and locks together and enjoying the combination of physical activity with spells of just sitting back and admiring the landscape. And best of all, we enjoyed being able to moor up whenever we felt we wanted a stop, breaking open the wine, cheese and goodies – and raising a toast to a slow-paced holiday which is guaranteed to relax, chill and delight everyone who tries it.
THE EASY WAY TO A GRAND DAY OUT
DURING our four-day break from Saturday to Tuesday, we explored a wonderful stretch of Warwickshire and Northamptonshire, starting from Napton on the Hill, a four-hour trip up the M5, M42 and M40 from Plymouth.
Our trip on the Oxford and Grand Union Canals took us through the charming village of Braunston, where we moored overnight outside the brilliant Boatman pub and enjoyed a value-for-money meal and drinks.
Then it was on through a series of locks and through the 1.87 kilometre-long Braunston Tunnel – a fascinating 25-minute experience in pitch darkness which left me wondering at an incredible feat of engineering from the 18th century. Canal tradesmen of old used to propel themselves through it by lying on their backs on their boats and ‘walking’ along the roof. Thankfully, we just switched on our headlight and allowed our trusty diesel engine to do the donkey work.
You can travel as far, or as little, as you wish in the time allowed, and Black Prince operates a host of short and long routes across the UK which can take you into the centre of cities like Manchester, Birmingham and London; the Peak District, Ely in the Fens, Wales and Scotland; or through English rural backwaters which have been unchanged by time.
You pay for the amount of diesel fuel used (our trip cost us £58), which varies according to driving styles, distance travelled and how often you have the heating on.
And cars can be left safely free of charge at the marinas which are the start and end points of your trip, which can run for a week or more or be a short break like ours. Helpfully, free trolleys are available at these bases to transport gear from your car to your waiting boat.
Children and pets are welcomed – they get their own lifejackets and buoyancy aids – and Black Prince staff are friendly, accommodating and knowledgeable, ensuring you end up with the trip which best suits you.
A SHORT break with Black Prince from the Napton base for the same period in 2013 starts from only £480 (three nights from October 19 on a Princess model sleeping up to six people). To book, check out other dates and options or for further information, log on to www.black-prince.com or call 01527 575115.