Four days of coaxing all 54 feet of an unwieldy 6-foot-wide narrowboat from Bradford to Bath along England’s Kennett & Avon canal -- at 2 mph -- can be challenging. And that’s not counting locks, aqueducts requiring right angle turns and well established waterway etiquette.
Plus the embarrassment of being overtaken consistently by walkers along the towpath and even some folks in wheelchairs!
“You’re probably not going to make it to the seven stair-steps of locks at this pace,” the volunteer worker yelled down after we had muddled into the double lock that dropped our boat and a second craft at least 20 feet early in the voyage -- after only a modicum of instruction at the marina.
As it turned out, shivving the pencil-shaped narrowboat turned out to be not quite as difficult as starting up a nuclear reactor -- empty the bilge, check the tiller and don’t stand in its path or you could be swept off and suffer the fate of the Piltdown man and be lost for centuries, heat up the diesel glow-plugs, pause a few seconds between forward and reverse, turn on the water pump and, if you leave the boat, turn off all the unnecessary electricity to ensure that the boat starts in the morning. Oh yes: make sure the mooring ropes are secure.
Add to that, however, we enjoyed the unexpected pleasures of feeding swans and their begging cygnets off the bow rail in the mornings, reveling in the sweep of greenery that lined our path, watching the moon glow through a canopy of weeping willows in Corkwell Wood or simply exchanging boaters' pleasantries along the way.
Georgian estates lined the bluffs surrounding us, silhouetted by the ever-changing backdrop of silvery clouds scudding in from the Channel. The sounds of the canal included bellowing and bells of dairy herds trudging toward the barn at eventide.
At the Avoncliff aqueduct to carry us over both the river Avon and the railroad, we discovered the cliff-clinging Cross Guns pub, est. 1610. They serve bangers and mash (look it up) to compare with anything found in a half century of pub crawling.
Final task: fire up the coal stove, which I could never accomplish in the two years of living in postwar Germany and I continued that futility on this voyage.