Years ago we planned a vacation to London, England. We planned on using our time-share to stay at a condo but inadvertently we booked a reservation to spend a week in a canal boat at the Grand Union Canal. As the main line from London to the Midlands, the Grand Union Canal was once one of England’s busiest. It leaves the River Thames at Brentford and ends in Birmingham. It is 137 miles long and features 166 locks.
I am writing about this vacation because it was one of the most memorable and fun vacations ever. We visited in the early spring, and London’s weather was cool, but the leaves were starting to bud and there were spells of sunshine and warmth. The canal boat company we rented from was located in the suburbs of London, and we were able to tie the boat to a dock, and take day trips to London. We were also able to explore the English countryside as we navigated through the waterways.
For the uninitiated, a canal boat is often called a “narrow boat”. It must be no more than seven feet wide to permit navigation on very narrow canals. The maximum length of a canal boat is 70 feet long — the length of most locks. In the past, the primary purpose for the boats was the delivery of cargo, and now they are used for recreation. Our particular boat was not fancy but it was comfortable. It had sleeping quarters, a toilet and a kitchen, and was very similar to a small travel trailer.
I used the term “locks” in the previous paragraph. A lock is an ingenious device that opens and closes and is used for raising and lowering boats between stretches of water on different levels of a canal’s waterways. The basic construction of a lock is a bottom gate, a top gate and the waterway in between the gates. The canal boat’s navigator has to open and close the locks unless a boat is immediately approaching you and has already completed the task. Opening a lock at first is intimidating, but it isn’t hard and after a few tries, it is done without fanfare and is a lot of fun, particularly when you team up to do it.
Navigating the boat was challenging, because there was very little leeway to make mistakes due to the narrowness of the canals. The really tricky part was navigating through so much black space, as the night tunnels could be long. My husband, who has a much better spatial sense than do I, navigated through the darkness without any trouble at all. It helped to use your voice to alert other boats that you, too, were in the dark tunnel.
My two middle-school level children loved operating the locks and walking up and down the sides of the canal boat. The canals are not very deep (hence the need for locks) but I was still worried that one of them would fall into the dark, cold water. Despite frequent warnings that were ignored (heavens!), my son fell in the canal one cold day. When my husband rallied to grab him, I said “wait, let me get a picture!” I grabbed the camera, and took a great picture.
For a time my son had a new nickname: “Splash.” Before you doubt my parenting skills, my son was a good swimmer. At first he was pretty mad at me for having taken the picture but we enjoyed a good laugh after he got dry and comfortable. I don’t think that I said, “I told you so” but I can’t be sure!
Of course, while we were on the boat we did not have a television. We did not have a smart phone or access to a wireless computer either. Instead we played cards, listened to music and visited with one another.
It was a real getaway and presented an opportunity to see London and the surrounding rural areas from a much different perspective. I highly recommend canal boat vacations for adventurous Go Girls.