Tales of exotic adventures, humorous anecdotes,
and musings from The Traveler... The adventure awaits...
June/2004 * 06/25/04
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There is no way in the world that Red Duke is going to get through that gap under the bridge.
"Can you see the boat coming toward you?" My husband David, is trying to be casual but not quite succeeding. "There's no room for two boats to pass under that bridge."
I holler to our friends relaxing in the galley before their turn to bash comes up. "Hang on to your coffee!" Then I throw the gear into reverse, and rev up the engine. The whole boat convulses and ever so slowly shimmies to a halt. The only problem is that the front is starting to skew around to the opposite side of the bank now, effectively barricading the whole canal. A few curious cows looking for a laugh trot down to the bank.
"You take it now." David knew I was going to say that. I retreat into the cabin for coffee and concealment. We had originally thought the standard 7' width of these boats was ridiculously narrow. It¹s not narrow enough!
Canal boating on the Oxford Canal in England's south midland country is fun, believe it or not. It's more than fun, it's a personal development and crisis management course thrown in. This canal is one of England's most historic and picturesque waterways. Finished in 1790, it was for many years an important commercial artery as horse drawn barges carried goods from towns like Banbury to Braunston, from Oxford to Coventry. Now the activity centres around recreational canal boaters, gypsies and tourists who rent canal boats from the many shipyards en route.
The four of us rented our 46 foot canal boat from Red Line Cruisers at Eynsham on the Thames for two weeks last September, when the charter prices dip considerably along with the traffic on the canals. It was something we always wanted to do, to experience a small slice of Britain on a canal boat with good friends. While you can charter deluxe boats with soaker tubs, washer and driers, carpets, and central heating ours was the basic model. We wanted a boat that we could handle comfortably, and 46' seemed plenty long enough. We needed private space for two couples and Red Duke, which slept six, gave us this. She wasn't new but we had a shower, toilet and holding tank, a propane fridge, four burner stove, oven and grill, a TV with bad reception, a table that sat four, and best of all, spacious stern and bow decks. The stern was ideal, 46' back from the noisy engine and the ongoing crises at the tiller, it was everyone's favourite off duty spot. Red Duke was battle scarred, something that didn't please us at first, until we realized how she got that way, then we were relieved. The company wouldn't be able to differentiate between old and new carnage.
Our first night had been spent at the boatyard, stocking up on groceries, getting lessons from the proprietor, buying our license for operating in the Oxford Canal, reading our guide to the waterways, confirming our itinerary and fighting for the one double bed. Today we are in the Thames River, about to confront another lock and planning to plow into the historic university town of Oxford. We are averaging 15 miles a day, which means that in two weeks we can't quite do the Grand Circle Route which takes in the Thames and The Grand Union Canals, so we¹re sending ourselves to Coventry and back instead.
In the end, it proved to be just as much fun coming back as going. We stopped in at the places we missed on the way up: sipped country teas, wandered in village museums, ancient ruins and churches, drank ale in 16th Century thatched roof pubs and got goose bumps at the bombed cathedral at Coventry. For miles, the skeletal manor house at Hampton Gay, hunkering high and lonely in a farmer's field, reminded us of how leisurely our pace was. The windmill at Napton, where the Oxford Canal leaves the Grand Union Canal and winds southward marked the site of a once booming industry. Napton used to be synonymous with clay, which shipped from there in canal boats like ours. Now the pub at the lock is probably the most commerce this sleepy village ever sees. We spent a rainy night there, took our dominoes into the pub, ordered our jug of ale and sat playing by the coal fire well into the night, while the locals looked curiously at our version of the game and smiled at our strange accents.
It wasn'¹t easy choosing overnight spots. We wanted to stop everywhere. Eric chose a secluded spot in a willow forest, hammered in mooring stakes at the front and back and lowered the plank. Then he poured his drink and took his book out to the stern to feed the swans and wait for the sunset. He never opened his book. I chose downtown Banbury. We tied up to posts thoughtfully provided by British Waterways, then headed into town to look for that famous Banbury Cross, to shop, and to find bangers and mash. We were successful in all three. David, who is vaguely British, chose a spot outside a country inn that served real ale and proper meat pies. We returned to the boat that night with flashlights. One of Heather's choices was beside a farmer's field, where we spent the evening feeding horses windfall apples from an overhanging tree we'd collided with earlier. One cheeky mare poked her head into our kitchen window to check on the supply after following David back from his evening stroll and trying to butt him into the canal. Never feed the animals.
We quickly ran out of film. Some holidays are like that. The early fall weather was perfect and at every curve of the canal colours spilled from houseboats, canal houses, and the countryside. The gleaming red houseboats wore rainbows of primulas on their roofs. Even the rotting hulks of abandoned boats posed picturesquely against England¹s cloud speckled skies. Every village was vying with one another to win coveted 'country in bloom' honors.
I wonder how many Britons have seen this part of England? We snapped the Victorian iron bridge at Isis Lock near Oxford, the wood lift bridges in the Cherwell Valley, the fishermen with their telescopic mile long rods and picnic hampers and the riot of birds: kingfishers, waterhens, coots, herons, cuckoos and grebes.
Interested readers should consider doing weights a month before they arrive. With over 40 locks on this 77 mile canal, that's a lot of upper body work. The legs keep busy too. The captain pulls up alongside every lock at the black and white posts and the crew leaps ashore and heads up the hill to open the gates. With luck, the lock is ready for you to enter if someone has just passed. If you're unlucky, you wait in line with several other boats ahead of you, although in September this rarely happens.
Then armed with winch handles, the crew open and push forward the first pair of gates. The boat goes in, the gates are shut behind it, and the sluice gates ahead are opened, allowing the Oxford Canal to boil in. After the boat bobs to the level of the water outside the gate and the pressure is equalized, the gates are ready to be opened, and out the vessel squeezes on its way to the next adventure. Working these locks is fun. All kinds of people congregate here: boaters waiting their turns, dog walkers, strollers, fishermen. It can become so sociable, in fact, that sometimes your skipper may remind you he's still in the lock.
You¹ll want to keep going, of course. We did. Who would have guessed that going in circles could be so much fun.
Costs of budget and deluxe boats, off season and peak season. (This would need updating.) The peak season is from July 14 to August 24. Avoid this time if you can, as locks will also be more crowded. June 30 to July 13 is a little cheaper but still busy. Good times to go are from April to mid May, or September 15th onward. Costs for the same boat can vary as much as 300£/week from high to low season, so it really pays to go off season. A basic 42¹ narrow boat for 2-6 people in low season will cost approx. 456£/week. A similar size boat from Adventure Fleet or Alvechurch will be approximately 75£ more.
Licensing. Each waterway has its own license, and depending on what boatyard you use, this license may already be included. The boats are licensed for the waters where you hire them. In our case, we had to pay an additional 60£ license fee for Oxford Canal for two weeks as our boat was licensed for the Thames. Water bailiffs will check you, so be sure you are licensed for the areas you intend to travel in. You can obtain these licenses at the boatyards.
How to get there from Heathrow, UK - Flight Link, a handy and frequent bus service from Heathrow Airport, makes getting to Oxford a breeze if heading to Eynsham. Pick up a bus or taxi from the Oxford bus station. It¹s a 15 minute trip to Red Line Cruisers from there. If heading to Braunston, take the train to Rugby, and the taxi to the boatyard, approximately a 7 mile trip. If heading to Alvechurch Boat Centre at Gayton, take the bus or train from Heathrow to Northampton, and the taxi from there, a 5 mile trip that will cost about 5£. Blakes will give you all travel details from Heathrow for any of the shipyards
Services. All boats on the waterways are equipped with holding tanks. Pump out charges vary from 10£ upwards, and pump out stations are found regularly along the waterways, at boatyards and in villages. However, you may not require this. In the two weeks we were out, the four of us did not. Many water points are available along the route at no charge. Garbage disposal also does not pose a problem as receptacles or bins can be found at nearly every lock, in every village, and at most moorages. Groceries and drinks can be obtained along the canal at small shops and large supermarkets in the towns. Just ask where the nearest shop is. Diesel fuel is provided by the boatyard, and your full tank will certainly last two weeks. Fuel is also available at all marinas, if you should need to fill up.
Waterways - runs all of the canal and river networks
in Britain, sponsored by the Department of the Environment.
It maintains the locks, bridges, towpaths and the waterways
and protects the 100 nature conservation sites and 2500
historical structures on or beside the waterways. Website
address is http://www.british-waterways.org/
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