After three days of pootling placidly along the bucolic canals of Lancashire, I realise there’s a whole other world out there. One of living on a narrowboat while cruising the waterways of England. Apparently there are now over 30,000 registered boats, a number that’s soaring year after year. Such popularity is hardly surprising given the pressures of urban life. On the canals you can forget traffic jams, mortgages and noisy / obstreperous neighbours and move at your own sweet pace, experiencing ever-changing scenic backdrops. It makes the fixed view from my London window seem decidedly boring.
I was lucky enough to be the guest of my mate Paul Miles, an expert in all matters green, whether architectural or travel. You get the picture – he’s actually living according to his ethos, an approach many more people should adopt. Anyway, it’s well worth reading his inspiring blog about his canal travels, insights and encounters; he’s strong on wildlife, climate and history, as well as characters that he meets on the way. And that, as he explained to me, is the beauty of narrowboat living: you can be as sociable or as anti-social as you want – it’s just a question of moving your boat. Easy.
At the moment, in the vicinity of Lancaster, Paul keeps crisscrossing the boat of a certain Bob, a man seemingly afflicted with Tourette’s syndrome. This leads to the interjection of wanker! (or worse) every other sentence. I was eager for a meet-up but unfortunately, while I was there, Bob motored blithely past us towards better things.
Anyway, back to narrowboats themselves. A bit of history: they were developed in tandem with the extensive canal network in the late 18th century. This was an essential element in Britain’s Industrial Revolution before railways and then roads took over. Today the cargoes of coal, limestone or timber have long gone and in their place are people of all ages and social backgrounds who have opted for this pastoral, peripatetic way of life, transforming the interior of their steel boat into a kind of luxury caravan – kitchen, bathroom, living space and bedroom all fit in. And with over 3500km of navigable canals and rivers to choose from, the world, or at least the narrowboat, is their oyster—
As the maximum width of a one of these boats is 7 feet (2.13m), at times I had a strong sense of déja vu – propelled back to a narrow gauge train (the Transcantabrico) in northern Spain (precisely where I usually am in late summer). You end up developing the same technique of walking sideways. But I really appreciated this swap of place, transport and company – which, apart from Paul, extended to two black Labradors. Bit of a squeeze at times, but we managed, and the boat is long enough for everyone to have space to stretch out. Here’s a snap of the front interior showing a dog’s bed – and beyond, the semi-outdoor cratch, a word coined for narrowboats, with Lloyd Loom chair – perfect for passenger contemplation while on the move – and, on the prow, an exuberant garden of potted plants.
From the towpath, narrowboats look cramped, but in true Alice through the Looking Glass style, they are much bigger, as a chunk of the boat remains invisible below the water line. Some are more decorative than others with traditional hand-paintings, some very green (solar panels, wind turbines, bikes, logs), some chic-ly sober, some kitsch – in fact just as idiosyncratic as houses.
After a 2 1/2 hour train ride from London, my aquatic journey started in Carnforth (I was there in 2008 – read about it here), from where we cruised southwards to Hest Bank, just inland from Morecambe (overlooking the bay above) a faded seaside resort that’s seen far better days. The exception is its spiffingly renovated Midland Hotel – giving a burst of Art Deco glamour to the promenade. Inside are Eric Gill bas-reliefs and a dizzying grand spiral staircase (below) topped by a Gill mural. Typically northern in style, ‘afternoon tea’ is served at 1pm (second sitting 3.15pm) – in an elegantly curved sun terrace, so that’s where we headed for finger sandwiches, scones and cakes. Boaters need toughening up after all.
The views across Morecambe Bay towards the distant hills of the Lake District may be spectacular, but the backstreets have taken a sad turn, with grimy shopfronts and dejected people. But Lancaster, a few miles further, has plenty of charm with solid limestone houses reminiscent of Edinburgh, an imposing castle and an ace café, a recent offshoot of a venerable coffee company. The Hall, with a minimalist though quirky edge, industrial-style lights, sacks of coffee and wooden floors, wouldn’t look out of place in London’s Shoreditch. It’s even received a ‘best flat-white in the UK’ award, so things are clearly going well.
But what I loved above all about this trip was chugging through the countryside past towering sycamores, ash and oak trees, families of swans (one couple trailed seven cygnets), herons that would flap loudly across our path, horses, cows and sheep grazing in pastures beyond huge banks of wildflowers, humped bridges, many from the late 18th century when the Lancaster Canal was built, and the extraordinary Lune Aqueduct that saw us cruising nearly 20m above the Lune River – a surreal moment only bettered when we did the same high above a motorway.
Did I say it’s a whole other world? It’s more like another planet – and definitely one worth the time-travel, even with the pitter patter of rain.