CANAL BOAT SHORT BREAK – Kennet & Avon Canal
When my husband's South African side of his family planned to come to the U.K. on holiday we were a bit apprehensive about what we were going to do while they were here. We also wanted to get together with his younger brother who lives in Sandbach, Cheshire as the siblings had not all been together under one roof for at least 13 years. In the end we decided to take a canal boat trip. Time was a constraint as we only had 4 days at our disposal. The party consisted of seven adults – 3 women and 4 men and we all paid our own way.
We met up on the morning of the first day in Salisbury, Wiltshire. As we were in the area and the S.A. contingent had not seen it, we toured Salisbury Cathedral before driving on to Hilperton to take delivery of our boat. At the marina we were met by the team of the hire company, at 3.00pm so that we could board our boat, which was called the Whistling Swan and was large by canal standards, at 10 berths. First of all we were shown a video to make us aware of what the trip would entail and to make us aware of safety points to be observed, and waterways etiquette (passing on the right). Also technical stuff about the actual workings of the engine, and the technique of pumping water to the toilet before flushing, the way the canal locks worked, (especially when there were two boats in the same lock as often it could be a tight squeeze), as well as operating structures over the canal such as swing bridges which needed someone to hop on dry land to wind them out of the way so that the boat could pass through, and then close it afterwards.
After that we loaded our luggage onto the boat and an on-board orientation took place with a staff member familiarising us with the layout and sleeping arrangements. We had expected that all cutlery, crockery, pots and pans, and cooking utensils would be supplied; but were surprised to see garbage bags and washing up liquid, had been provided as well. In essence, all that we needed to bring was the food, which we did in copious amounts and ended up taking a lot home with us. Tip: Make sure you work out a rough menu and only take what you are sure you are going to consume for breakfast and/or lunch, with a few packs of biscuits for morning and afternoon tea breaks. Initially we planned to eat only dinner at a pub and have picnic lunches along the canal. However, if you should plan to stop at pubs for lunch as well as dinner, then you need take along very little food. This was our first trip on a canal boat so we were over-zealous in our estimates on the catering. As a result we took lots of provisions home. This was not too much to worry about as we still had one couple staying with us on our return, and the excess food was soon eaten up – so no waste.
We left from Hilperton making for Bradford & Avon for the first night. What we tended to do was look at the map of the canals (a very good one is available from the little shop at the marina) and plan roughly where we wanted to end up for the night and head for there. We had a detailed map giving the tourist spots and points of interest as well as various pubs. We alighted at the Canal Pub for a lovely meal (best scallops ever for me!) where we were lucky enough to see the clog dancers and witness a bit of the culture of the area before returning to the boat to settle for the night.
On the whole the bunks were comfortable and the bedding warm enough. The living quarters, were divided in two halves by the kitchen in the middle of the boat, and each side has its own bathroom with shower, hand basin and toilet. The boat engine has to be switched on to supply hot water for showers and washing up. Tea and coffee was made by boiling a kettle on the gas hob. There is plenty of cupboard space in the kitchen as well as the sleeping quarters to stow things. I must admit everything was a bit strange on the first night, getting used to the slight rocking of the boat, and the sounds of wild life on the banks, so that we did not sleep that well. But on the second night we were well away. It is quite strange too, that although the rocking of the boat was not that noticeable, when alighted back on dry land we still felt as though we were “rolling when strolling”! It was wonderfully relaxing drifting along on the canal and looking out at the wild life, birds and flowers, etc on the banks. We stopped off at different pubs for dinner every evening (relieving the ladies of the chore of cooking and any arguments that may arise about fussy eaters), but for lunch we would find a pretty place on the river bank for a picnic. Breakfast was a doddle and was mostly muesli-based and the patriarch of the family, Colin insisted on cooking bacon and eggs in some form every morning. Home was never like that – a cooked breakfast every day!
We did not hurry along, but researched the previous evening places of interest along our route, such as the old pumping station at Claverton. It was just our luck that on the day we chose to stop there a special steam train of the merchant navy class Clan Line Number 35028, came through on the line running next to the pump station, sending one of the South African contingent, (Colin a keen model railway and steam railway fan), up to choo-choo heaven! Of course the rest of us enjoyed seeing it immensely, as it is not a very frequent sight in our busy daily lives.
We had great fun chatting to people along the way, watching customs such as the clog dancing at The Canal Pub at Bradford and Avon, and walking around Bath and the villages where we did stop. On the second night we stopped just before Bath where we moored up and walked into the town for a pub dinner. We planned to make an early start next day to explore Bath. We walked to the town centre the next morning and boarded an open roofed bus for £10.00 for a Day ticket to ride the tour buses for both the morning and afternoon tours of Bath. This was very good value. One of our party has osteoarthritis and with Bath being so hilly, we were able to relax and take photos at leisure from the top floor of the tour bus.
It was also very interesting to see how the canal folk live on their houseboats with their bibs and bobs carried on the roofs (even several bicycles, wheelbarrows, solar panels, children’s bicycles, etc) and many gardens flourishing in containers. We were able to identify different herbs, onions, potatoes and even corn as we passed by. We found out from a young couple of twin boys, who happened to be sitting outside a supermarket where we had bought more bread (for the ducks) and milk, that many of the families living on the boats cannot afford to buy their own houses (brick and mortar ones) and rather than paying out rent, they have bought a houseboat to live on with fewer overheads. This gives them an opportunity to save the required deposit to eventually buy a land-based home, and they can at that point sell on the canal boat, making at least a small return on their initial investment.
We often saw some folks with young families. In the mornings the parents would cycle the the children to school, go to their own jobs in the day and then collect them again after school to go back to the boats. With the rush and bustle of everyday life in most U.K. towns these days, I think that those children and their parents are living the dream, close to nature and content with just a few worldly chattels (that have to fit on the boat), with their parents fully involved in their school lives. It did occur to me that it may become a bit trickier when the kids reach their teens, but hopefully by then the parents would have a deposit saved for their own little home on dry land.
The holiday was marvellous, the boating company very helpful with tips and training, and we all got along very well; sometimes we were all on deck or if we were preparing lunch, the "girls" in the kitchen having a chinwag, or on some days we would hop off the boat and walk to our agreed stopping place just to keep the old legs and body fit. It did help that one of the party, Bernard was used to handling his own boat back in South Africa (albeit a big motor boat) and he was instantly appointed the Captain. An added advantage was another body on board Chris, was our dedicated baker, and he baked mouthwateringly delicious, fresh bread for our lunch every day. We were extremely lucky to have four days of very good weather, but had gone prepared (should it have rained) to play mini-Trivial Pursuit, various card games, etc. Most evenings after returning to our boat after our pub dinner, we would have a slide show on the TV supplied on the boat, of the pictures of the day. Just about everyone had a camera and it was fun to see what they had photographed while the others were seeing something different. Many of the photos were the wildlife (mostly rabbits), birdlife, cows, sheep and horses along the waterways and of course the people!
Too soon it seemed that we were at the end of our trip. I would heartily recommend this type of holiday to Silver Traveller members for a relatively cheap, totally relaxing holiday. If you are a bit nervous about handling the boat, don't be as pilots are available from the company hiring out the boats. Being such a large party of seven, we had a boat which could accommodate 10 but even that large size was ably handled by our Captain and I am sure would not pose a problem to others with a bit of training from the company. Just to say we all had a go at steering the boat, even I (though I insisted that the Captain remain alongside of me in case I got into trouble)! We are so pleased we could share time together with my husband’s siblings who are still fostering fond memories of the holiday as borne out in a Skye conference on Wednesday!