The Canal Adventure
The start of the Saga
David Whitby conceived the idea of arranging a canal cruise for old salt water sailors. We
all thought it would be a complete walk in the park – 4 knots and steer down the middle.
Forget it. To accomplish the Warwickshire Ring – comprising of the Grand Union,
Birmingham and Fazely, Coventry and the Oxford canals., 102 miles long and 97 gruelling
locks, in one week was a big ask, an intensive delivery trip involving miles of walking,
relentlessly and remorselessly working lock paddles with a handle known as a windlass.
We didn't know any of this to start with. Yacht cruising is a walk in the park by comparison.
Doing the ring is a two week job. We accomplished it in one. Most were out of their comfort
We had just a week. On the Saturday we foregathered at a sweet country pub, The Folly
Inn at Napton, prior to our induction by Calcutt Boats. A tasty meal was had by all.
We found Calcutt boats, not far away from the Folly Inn, well organised and they gave
comprehensive hand-overs in a most pleasant manner. This is most probably why they
were selected to manage the RN HMS Nelson narrow-boats. Their proprietor informed me
the Royal Navy used to have two recruiting narrow-boats, one of submarine appearance
and another a warship – with full crew. Wow! We started off with full water tanks and were
entreated to replenish water every other day. We were also told that we would not need a
pump out of our black water tanks. They lied. The two black-water tanks were
interconnected. My wife Fran and I had the forward bathroom. Tony and Carol Henwood
had the stern bathroom. We were trimmed by the stern as the week went by. Everything
was OK our end of the boat.
The disposition of the team was as follows by boat:-
DAVID WHITBY/SUE WEST/JAMIE SHAW/SHIONA SHAW
IAN WILLIAMS/DOH WILLIAMS/PETER ROLFE/GILL ROLFE
JUNE BERRIDGE/ BOB GARDNER/ GARY MCKENZIE/GAYNA MACKENZIE
WILD BURDOCK II
TONY HENWOOD/ CAROL HENWOOD/ CEDRIC LOUGHRAN/FRAN LOUGHRAN
Veterans who have served the crown in the team and their provenance. Heavy on the
It had been decided by those in the know that we should complete the ring in a clockwise
direction completing the hardest work towards the beginning.
This narrative will reflect on our boats progress, Wild Burdock II. We were lucky as Tony
and Carol were seasoned in narrow-boating a lifetime ago. This helped greatly. We were
never far from the other boats and passed through the Hatton Looks in pairs. Not all of the
locks are suitable for wide beam boats. Some can only handle a single narrow boat being
only seven feet wide. Our boat steered like an inflatable pig, throwing out water from the
prop in a cavitating maelstrom. I learned early that the tiller should be used a little but
often. I also found that big alterations could bring you back on the straight and narrow if
moved to midships early. The turning point of these boats is around midships
longitudinally. No seagoing vessel I have ever steered was so bizarre. However, you do
get used to it. Thankfully the side rubbing bands on our boat were solid steel, we were
grateful for this. We also learned that Steel is the real deal. GRP is considered infra dig by
the canal aficionados.
After receiving our briefing, we set off and completed 4 hours steaming. We stopped just
short of the Hatton flight of locks and made a tasty meal on board.
This is where, we, the uninitiated, learned how to manage the boat and a lock system. One
steered the boat while the other three crew went ahead and worked the next lock,
preparing the one after. Entering the lock was easy. If you were the first to arrive the boat
was pulled to one side using the middle rope, attached to an eye on the cabin top. The
other partner boat just snooks in. The boats are not tied in any way whilst in the lock but
stem up to the gate ahead to ensure one is not broached on the cill astern. The little 40mm
diameter hard fenders that I imagined would be used in locks – are not used in locks at all
– no no no. If used for such they get ripped off by the masonry in the lock.
By the time we had completed the Hatton flight and a short passage it was time for
dinner. An early night was had by the worn out crew.
The voyage proceeded along the leafy glades of the canal until we arrived at the village of
Catherine de Barnes, known locally as Catney. We had imagined, having researched in
detail that that we would be going to a bijou bistro. Unfortunately it was not open on
Monday evenings. The pub opposite did acceptable pub grub, so we were well fed.
The next morning after breakfast Cedric had to leave for a meeting in the Foreign Office –
joy surrounded the remaining boaters like the tender fragrance of spring. The flotilla
proceeded through the most industrial part of the ring and passed through Spaghetti
Junction. Cedric arrived back at Minworth as the flotilla were securing (RN) or tying up
A delightful meal for everyone was had at the Ferry Inn Minworth. Levitating Pimms
glasses were sliding off tables onto the floor of the pub. Beer mats is the answer.
After a hearty breakfast, again, at the Ferry Inn we proceeded. At one point we passed
and old colleague of mine from the MCA who is now the Inspector of Lights for Trinity
House. I had forgotten he was a narrow-boater. I know of another inland boater who loves
the Thames, Commodore Rob Dorey now head of Operations at trinity house and past
Commodore of the RFA. How many more master mariners have we inland? After a long
day we stopped in the middle of nowhere , not far from Polesworth (no offence to the
residents of Polesworth). Trying to get alongside we ran aground. Some of the canal areas
could do with a good dredge. As an aside the canals are no longer BWB but are Canals
and River trust.
After a strong cup of tea we had breakfast on the hoof and proceeded towards
Hawkesbury Junction, It was apparent that many people on the canals were residential.
Landowners on the opposite bank had boat berths often with the berth-holder having car
parking spaces, a garden, a shed and a wood-store. At lunchtime we came to Hawksbury
junction where we had to turn 150 degrees in the opposite direction. The aficionados
informed that we must have a pie lunch at The Greyhound – an old canal pub. Not overly
keen on pub pie lunches I was persuaded to have a pulled pork pie: this was at the price of
a pub steak, I hasten to add. When it came – fantastic. A complete shortcrust pie
absolutely full of meat. The gravy was provided separately in a jug. This was not the
British Standard bowl of slop with a puff pastry lid. Shortly afterwards my carer, the mem
sahib, metaphorically delivered me back to the boat in a wheelbarrow.
Proceeding apace, off to Bruanston we went, securing in mid afternoon. We had passed a
large chandlery. As we all know a chandlery is a yachtsman's toy shop. Now here is the
rub. Like for like the inland boater pays between 10 and 15% less for there bits and pieces.
Just as we had secured, Prunella Scales and Timothy West the actor and actress went
past in their own narrow-boat. I thanked them for the joy they gave people with their
thespian work. All of the boaters had an excellent meal at a pub in Braunston.
We were up with the lark and had a quick breakfast. We had a couple of hours to go to our
destination. We passed a goodly number of boats heavy with students. I was amazed that
in our week, I had only seen one person wearing a life-jacket. On arrival at the top lock,
the staff took over the boat and brought her Mediterranean mooring fashion. We were able
to hand over the boats. Make our goodbyes and proceed home.
A very good week had been had by all. It was pleasant to have only a few hours home. I
am often sailing on the South coast or Argyll which takes over twice the time.
No life-jackets. I only saw one person wearing a life jacket during the week. Where
are the elves and safety?
Safety Pins through sheet pile longitudinals are used more often rather than pegs sledged
into the bank.
Centre rope on Cabin top around the pivot point. No springs or breast ropes are used.
Only head and stern ropes. People were spellbound when I was springing off in a narrow
space. This was unheard of.
There is no keel on these craft.
Steering unlike any seagoing craft. She steered much better when the black water tank
was full. A joke comes to mind – but not for the journal. The Calcutt boats could do with
more ballast. Ballast generally consists of 3' X 2' concrete flags under the bottom boards in
craft of this type.
You can only turn the vessel around infrequently as the canal is far too narrow.
Half of the canal on the side opposite the tow-path was overgrown sometimes allowing
only one boat to pass. The canal authority are responsible for the tow-path side only.
On the ring I would estimate that people living aboard by comparison to cruising
people s were 6 to 1. Many static boats had gardens and shed. On the bank opposite
Standing in the rain steering is the norm. Bring an umbrella – we did and it paid off.
Sailing Foul weather gear is too heavy for canal walking and windlass winding. The
old lightweight cagoules of the sort we had in the scouts is about the right weight
for unrestricted winding. If you wear a cagoule and shorts you can keep
Chandlery is about 15 percent cheaper than yacht chandlers.
People tend to be reticent not as gregarious as those at sea.
Steel is the deal. Fibreglass is looked upon as a much poorer relation.
Steel boats are more durable especially in locks.
A new Canal has been built in Liverpool to connect the Leeds and Liverpool canal with the
Albert dock complex. It passes on the esplanade in front of the world heritage Pier head
buildings to a new salt water inland marina in the Salthouse Dock.
No fenders are used in locks.
Very few traditional wooden boats were seen.
High speed engines now the norm as opposed to the old slow speed donks.
People do take narrow-boats to sea.
The Navy through HMS Nelson have three boats managed by Calcutt Boats of
Napton. Our own hire boat was also ex Navy.
Necessary for an informative and successful cruise.
A canal map guide
A motoring atlas for the big picture.
So maybe you will try it. It has taken me 65 years to get around to it. You will get very fit.
You need a crew of at least 4 able bodied people to make the lock system work efficiently.
WOULD WE DO IT AGAIN
Possibly on the Caledonian Canal where the locks are operated for you.