The immaculate 5* cruise boat moored up on a crystal-clear evening, with hardly a breath of wind to ripple the tranquil water, reflecting many more than five stars in the sky and lighting up just how good life can be.
We were relaxing on the open-top deck of the Lady Teal, a wide beam, super-luxury hotel boat, sipping pre-dinner drinks with nothing breaking our hushed conversation except the occasional hoot of an owl.
The rolling, rural scenery in the fading light was stunning, with still largely-bare trees silhouetted against the deepening orange sunset and mirrored in the canal – cutting through what was once part of the industrial heartland of Northern England.
OK, we were in what is known as God’s own county by the often-dour residents of Yorkshire, but this visiting Lancastrian is happy to admit that the mile after mile of marvellous countryside on the ‘wrong’ side of the Pennines is something to be celebrated, just as much as on the Lancashire side.
You get a glorious view of both counties from the historic Leeds and Liverpool Canal, once a major industrial artery and now a precious leisure asset – especially from a privileged vantage point as comfortable as the Lady Teal, at 65 feet long, 13ft wide and as stable as you like.
The sumptuous boat was specially designed by owners Nick and Gina Mead and fitted out to their exacting specifications, with a mission to provide the very best of all-inclusive care and attention to detail that they would expect themselves on any 5* break. They both used to have high-powered, high-pressure careers, but decided to go for a quieter life on the canals and their love of the new, more rewarding lifestyle certainly rubs off on the guests they play host to.
We joined them for our five-day voyage just outside Skipton, the self-styled Gateway to the Dales, at a popular canal-side hotel appropriately called the Rendezvous (more of that later) and set off with Nick at the helm to moor up for our first night at the nearby village of Bradley and enjoy the first of five superb dinners conjured up by Gina in the compact galley. We paved the way with aperitifs courtesy of the open bar, then sat down with our fellow guests – the Lady Teal takes a maximum five – to a starter of grilled asparagus and prosciutto with baby vine tomatoes; then natural smoked haddock in a prawn and cream sauce with potatoes, carrots and fine beans; followed by a perfect panna cotta; all helped along by a very pleasant ‘house’ – or boat – white.
Days didn’t seem to matter any more, but I was assured it was Sunday when we tucked into a hearty cooked breakfast and set off on the first leg of our journey to Leeds along ‘The Cut’, and it didn’t seem long at all before it was time for elevenses and then a pre-lunch aperitif in the sunshine on the upper deck, with a Bloody Mary setting the seal on the way we meant to go on, and with skipper Nick mooring up while we had a spot of risotto and salad, followed by yoghurt and fruit.
Talk about being spoiled! Lovely to be waited on, and it was smiles all round when cheerful Girl Friday and part-time crew/deckhand/sous chef, Glenice, picked up en route to also lend a hand with some of the 20 swing bridges on this section of the canal, also showed her talents as a brewer of fine coffee and teller of canal tales.
Suitably fuelled, we headed gently along Airedale through Silsden and on towards Keighley, easing our way through the countryside at a tranquil 3 or 4mph before nibbling some baked-on-board lemon cake with afternoon tea and later mooring up near Riddlesden to take a gentle walk before dinner as the light began to turn golden.
Did I say dinner? Another treat in store from the galley, with Gina producing a starter of courgette fritters with a sweet chilli dip; before a main of chicken breast stuffed with Stilton, accompanied by roast potatoes, mange tout and Brussels sprouts and a red wine jus; followed by pots au chocolat and oat cookies; and cheese and biscuits. And port. Phew!
Monday dawned with coffee and fresh orange juice, another great breakfast (with a ‘special’ each day, such as eggs Benedict or scrambled eggs with smoked salmon) and beautiful weather as we set ourselves up for a day of 11 locks and five swing bridges, starting with a descent of the justly-famous Bingley Five – the steepest flight of riser locks in the UK, with a rise of 59ft 2in in a distance of just 320ft, equivalent to a 1-in-5 gradient. The amount of water being moved is vast, and it was an exciting experience to tackle them aboard one of the widest and most impressive boats on the system. Even more exciting for me when Nick let me take the helm soon after we emerged from the bottom chamber of the following Bingley Three, under the shadow of the huge Damart mill. Granted, the canal is fairly broad there, but it was an awesome, Pugwash feeling to be in command of such a huge, pristine and attention-grabbing vessel.
Next on the easy-rolling agenda was a lunchtime stopover at the huge mill and village complex of Saltaire, a lasting monument to Victorian industry, vision and philanthropy, founded in 1851 by woollen magnate Sir Titus Salt on the banks of the River Aire to be next to canal and rail links.
Salt moved his business of five mills in Bradford to this new site near Shipley and as well as building what was once the biggest factory in the world in lovely, honey-coloured stone, he built a village with modern homes for his 3,000-strong workforce, along with wash-houses, bath-houses, a hospital, school, recreation institute and a sprawling park along the river – but no pub, as befits a socially-responsible, paternalistic employer and man of his time.
There is a pub there now, and a dedicated ice cream narrowboat, but one of Gina’s lunches beckoned, so we adjourned for a tuna and pasta bake with salad before continuing on our way, making the most of the weather by lounging on the upper drink with a glass in hand, no sound apart from birdsong, cheery greetings to canal-side residents, towpath walkers and occasional boaters and the muffled ‘thrum’ of the engine. What a joy, such a gentle, relaxing way to travel through yet more striking countryside, heading towards a tranquil overnight mooring near Baildon, opposite Buck Wood, within sight of the following day’s first treat, the Field 3 Locks.
Another towpath stroll to take happy snaps of the locks and an old railway bridge reflected in the glass-smooth water and dinner was upon us – and to make you even more jealous about the food, we started with pear poached in red wine and served with a Rocquefort dressing; boeuf bourguignon, carrots, asparagus and herb mashed potato; raspberry crème brulee; and cheese and biscuits.
Lifestyle being the name of the game, Nick and Gina cleared away dinner and then joined us in the Lady Teal’s comfortable lounge to wind down after work, while we wound down after a hard day of doing nothing apart from indulging ourselves in nature, dining, drinkie-poos and we were barely halfway through the trip.