Reminiscing about the halcyon days of summers past is one of the better ways to ward off the seasonal blahs of mid-winter, especially since back surgery has robbed me of the ski season. Keeping me warm beside the fire recently have been fond memories of our years as ‘narrowboaters’ on the canals of Great Britain.
For the uninitiated, narrowboats are essentially long skinny houseboats. (never more than 7 feet wide, and up to 70 feet long- ours was a 56 footer) They are descended from the working canal boats that plied the rivers and canals of the UK at the dawn of the industrial revolution. The canals, once the transportation backbone of the nation, re-emerged as a recreational marine network, as the commercial importance of the canals faded with the advent of rail and road transport, and people began converting the old work boats into pleasure craft. Modern narrowboats are purpose built for recreational living.
As a form of summer recreation narrowboating is sublime. With all the comforts of home packed between the gunwales, you perch on the small rear deck of the boat, and putter through the English countryside at a sedate 3 miles per hour; about the pace of a brisk walk. We seldom covered more than a couple of hundred miles on a two week cruise, and typically chose a ‘ring’ -a route along several intersecting canals that would eventually lead us back to our starting point without re-tracing our steps.
Although equipped with TV and radio, we preferred to keep them off, shutting out the modern world and slowing ourselves down to the pace of the 19th century, where the original narrowboats were horse drawn. The tow path, once reserved for draft horses, remains in the public domain enjoyed by runners, ramblers and dog walkers, and by boaters who are entitled to moor for free on the tow path. We would find a likely spot, typically a shady rural spot with pastoral views, pull into the bank, bang a steel peg into the ground fore and aft , and wind our mooring lines around them.
The canals meander through some of the most picturesque rural countryside that England has to offer. It glides slowly by all day, an ever-changing panorama of country life, from half timbered farm house to grand estates, quaint villages, and ancient canal side pubs.
It is hard to find a more deeply relaxing vacation than a fortnight on a slow moving narrowboat, unplugged from the internet, your body and your mind slowed to the tempo of life on the canal.