Travel review: One narrowboat, five women and a big adventure

There's an attractive, old-fashioned charm to narrowboats.
There's an attractive, old-fashioned charm to narrowboats.
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Sometimes, you don’t have to go far to have an adventure.

Thrilling times can be available to you practically on your doorstep, you just have to know where to look.

I found such an adventure a mere twenty minutes or so from home. In terms of distance I travelled a few, short, convenient miles - but in terms of experience I might as well have been in a different world.

The trip involved a narrowboat, Rochdale canal, and a female crew of five.

Narrowboats have an old-fashioned charm that attracts many. They are quaint, compact, portable, and slow.

When you are driving a narrowboat, people walking on the towpath will overtake you. Two miles an hour is an acceptable speed, three miles an hour is really rather fast.

So a break on a narrowboat forces you to slow down, to experience the world differently. And those people walking on the towpath, they will chat to you, as will other boaters. The world of canals and narrowboats is a fun, sociable one. You are not just boarding a boat, you are entering a community.

Our entry into that community began at Sowerby Bridge, near Halifax, where we took charge of our boat, courtesy of Shire Cruisers.

We arrived feeling, to be frank, a little nervous. There had been much discussion about our trip and much gung-ho talk, but come the day we were beginning to wonder just what we had taken on.

We need not have worried. Susan Stevens, who runs Shire Cruisers, took charge and calmly saw us through the formalities .

All the crews taking boats out that day assembled in reception for a general talk on boats, canals and safety.

Another boat had been hired by seven men celebrating a 40th birthday, another by a couple and their two young children, and yet another by a young couple. We were all raring to go, in a slightly worried sort of a way.

After our talk we were left in the hands of Colin, who showed us round the boat. Ours was 52 feet long and was a miracle of clever design.

There were four separate beds plus another that could be turned into a double, a kitchen equipped with cooker, microwave and all the kitchen equipment you could need, two toilets and a shower.

Next came the technical bit, with information on checking oil and water levels, filling up the water tank and switching gas tanks. Don’t worry, it’s all easy.

Then we were on to sailing - and locks.

Ah yes. Locks. Some areas of the country don’t have them, but how boring that must be. Locks add spice to a canal trip, and they give you a great workout too.

Locks enable a canal to travel through land that is not flat, basically, so the steeper the incline the more locks there will be.

Our journey was to be from Sowerby Bridge to Hebden Bridge, involving nine locks.

By car this distance can be swallowed in minutes, by train it passes in a flash. It can be walked faster than a narrowboat can sail it, but that is not the point.

A narrowboat journey may not cover many miles, but it is epic, believe me.

Our instructor Colin took us though the first three locks, including a manned lock that is twenty feet deep, and then left us to our own devices, so we moored for the night, ate a good meal and saved our strength.

The next day was impossibly, incredibly hot and sunny. The canal lay ahead of us glinting in the sun, the trees dipped vibrant leaves to the water, ducks and geese swam around us. Wind In the Willows came to mind. It did for a while, anyway.

Then we discovered why all-female crew is a novelty on a narrowboat trip: it is because there is manual labour to be done. Since my sister was at the tiller, it was my job, along with my daughter and niece, to work those locks.

By the time we had opened the sluices and gates all the way to Hebden Bridge, we had a sense of real achievement. Yes, it was hard work, and yes, I had had to take a post-lock lie down after each lock towards the end, but it had also been a big, fun adventure. And journey’s end was the colourful, lively town of Hebden Bridge.

Hebden Bridge, once an old mill town, has become a magnet for those who want a more relaxed, alternative way of life, making it a fun destination. We headed for a central cafe to sit at an outside table, catch our breath and enjoy the sights.

Later, we ate a meal at a restaurant only yards from our moored boat and looked back on our day.

After a night’s sleep, it was time to turn the boat, fill up the water tank, and head back down the canal.

We expected Sunday to be a breeze, we were a well-oiled team, we had the measure of those locks and nothing could go wrong... famous last words.

Our boat became grounded, a victim of the low water level after several weeks of dry weather and, in an effort to push it from the side, I ended up in the canal.

It was only waist deep and only my dignity was hurt, but I had to get out pretty smartish to avoid any possible contact with the boat.
Falling in the canal isn’t to be recommended, but I was entirely unharmed and provided much hilarity for family and passers-by.

We returned to Sowerby Bridge on Monday hardenerd adventurers, a slick, top team of canalboat cruisers - well almost.

All we know for certain is that we had had the time of our lives.


Shire Cruisers:

Routes: Along the Rochdale,Leeds-Liverpool and Huddersfield Narrow canals, plus the Calder and Hebble and Aire and Calder waterways.Boats: There is a wide choice of accommodation and layouts*

HOLIDAY LENGTH: From a short break (Fri to Monday) to 21-night routes.

EASE OF USE: Holidaymakers do not need a driving licence, or boating experience

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