Going in Circles

April 22nd, 2009  |  Published in Hot off the press  |  2 Comments

Marco Polo Magazine
          text and photography by Cherie Thiessen

Canal boating in Great Britain

There is no way in the world that Red Duke is going to get through that gap under
the bridge. Oh dear.

"Can you see the boat coming toward you?" My husband David, is trying to be
casual but not quite succeeding. "There’s no room for two boats to pass under that
bridge, you know!

No kidding!

I holler to our friends relaxing in the galley before their turn to sweat comes up.
"Hang on to your coffee!" Then I throw the


into reverse, rev up the engine so the whole boat convulses, and ever so slowly shimmy
to a halt.

The only problem is that the front is starting to skew around to the opposite side of
the bank now, effectively barricading the whole canal. A few curious cows start
trotting hopefully down to the bank to see if we’re offering handouts.

"Here you take it." He knew I was going to say that. I retreat
into the cabin for coffee and concealment. We had originally thought the standard
7′ width of these boats was ridiculously narrow. It’s not narrow enough!

Canal boating on the Oxford Canal in

England’s south midland country is fun, believe it or not. It’s more than fun, it’s a personal
development and crisis management course thrown in. This canal is one of England’s most historic
and picturesque waterways.  Finished in 1790, it was for many years an important commercial
artery as horse drawn barges carried goods from towns like Banbury to Braunston, from Oxford to
Coventry. Now the activity centres around recreational canal boaters, gypsies and tourists who
rent and panic in
canal boats from the many shipyards en route.

The four of us rented our 46′ canal boat from Red Line Cruisers at Eynsham on the Thames for
two weeks last

September, when the charter prices dip considerably along with the traffic on
the canals. It was something we always wanted to do, to experience a small slice of Britain
on our own canal boat with good friends. While you can charter deluxe boats with soaker tubs,
washer and driers, carpets, central heating and you get the picture, ours was more basic.

We wanted a boat that we could handle comfortably, and 46′ seemed plenty long enough.
We needed private
space for two couples to fight, and Red Duke, which slept six, gave us this. It
wasn’t new, and it didn¹t have all the bells and whistles, but we had a shower, toilet and holding
tank, a propane fridge, four burner stove, oven and grill, a TV we never looked at, a dinette
that sat four, and best of all, spacious stern and bow space. Sitting in front was wonderful, 46′
back from the noisy engine and the ongoing crises at the tiller. Red Duke was
battle scarred, something that didn’t please us at first, until we realized how she got that
way. Then we were relieved. How to tell what carnage was new and which wasn’t?


We spent our first night at the boatyard, stocking up on groceries, getting lessons from
the proprietor, buying our license for operating in the Oxford Canal, reading our guide to the waterways,
confirming our itinerary and fighting for the one double bed. Our first day would be spent in the
wide Thames River, confronting our first lock and heading into the historic university town of Oxford.
We planned on averaging 15 miles a day, which meant that we wouldn¹t quite be
able to do the Grand Circle Route which took in the Thames and The Grand Union Canals. Three
weeks are recommended for that. Okay, we’d send ourselves to Coventry and back instead. Just
as well, really, because it proved to be just as much fun coming back as going. We stopped in
at the places we missed on the way up, and there were plenty of those: country teas, village museums
and churches, 16th Century thatched roof pubs, ancient ruins, the bombed cathedral at Coventry.
the skeletal manor house remains at Hampton Gay seen for miles along the river, hunkering high
and lonely in a farmer’s field, and the windmill at Napton, where the Oxford Canal leaves the Grand
Union Canal and winds southward. Once Napton was an important source of clay, shipped by canal boats
from here. Now the pub at the lock is probably the most commerce this sleepy village ever
sees. We spent a rainy night tied up here, took our dominoes into the pub, ordered our jug
of ale and sat playing by the coal fire well into the night, while the locals looked curiously at
our game and smiled at our strange accents.

So, no, there was no problem coming back the same way we went!

On our first day we suffered a captain shortage, so I volunteered David. After all, he’s a sailor,
he’s vaguely British, he knows what a lock is, and it was his idea to do this in the first place!
After that, we were all forced to take two hour stints each. I definitely recommend this
as a trip you plan with good friends, not only for extra relief at the tiller, but also for
sharing "lock duty", because once you leave the manned locks of the Thames you¹re
on your own.

You won¹t believe how narrow the Oxford Canal is. You’ll be ducking willow branches and
collecting berries as you bump from branch to branch. You also won’t believe how shallow
it is. This is not water you¹ll want to wade or bath in, although the swans love it and
will be keeping you company many a mealtime. The anglers love it too, and you¹ll be nudging
their long, telescopic poles near every village.

It wasn’t easy choosing overnight spots. We wanted to stop everywhere. Eric chose a secluded
spot in a willow forest, pulled up, hammered in mooring stakes at the front and back, tied up and
lowered the plank. Then he poured his drink and took his book out to the stern to feed the
swans and wait for the sunset. He never opened his book. I chose downtown Banbury.
We tied up to posts thoughtfully provided by British Waterways, then headed into town to look for
that famous Banbury Cross, to shop, and to find the perfect meal. We were successful in all
three. David chose a spot outside a tidy village which featured a country inn that served real ale
and proper meat pies. We returned to the boat that night with flashlights. One of Heather’s
choices was beside a farmer’s field, where we spent the evening feeding horses windfall apples from
an orchard we’d collided with earlier. One cheeky mare poked her head into our kitchen window
to check on the supply. I’m sure she’s the same one who followed David back from his evening
walk and tried to butt him into the canal. Never feed the animals!

By day 2 we were all out of film. We had been clicking away furiously. Some holidays are like that.
The early fall weather was perfect during that first week, and at every curve of the canal
colours spilled from houseboats, canal houses, and countryside. The gleaming red houseboats
were vivid contrasts to the pots of primulas many of them carried on their roofs. Beautifully
crafted "canal art" watering cans, flower pots, chairs and other works were
jumbled on houseboats and private cruisers. Even the rotting hulks of abandoned boats loomed
picturesque against England’s famous verdant countryside and innocent cloud speckled sky. The
lockkeeper¹s cottages all supported window boxes exploding with radiant blooms.

You’ll see a part of England that some Britons haven’t even seen in years. Traditional village Sundays
and history galore as you bash and chug your way along the canal. Check out the Victorian iron
bridge as you go through Isis Lock near Oxford, and the wood lift bridges in the Cherwell Valley.

And did I mention birds? While the gorgeous kingfisher with its metallic glinting blue was the
highlight of our bird watching, there are plenty of other birds to delight in: the waterhens,
the coots, the herons, the cuckoos, the grebes.

I had thought this holiday might be a little inactive. Wrong. There are over 40
locks on this 77 mile canal. That’s a lot of upper body work. Here’s how it works: you
pull up alongside the lock at the black and white posts and your crew leaps ashore and heads
up the hill to open the gates for you. Sometimes you can be lucky and the lock is ready
for you to enter if someone has just passed you. Or you can be unlucky and have to wait
in line for several other
boats ahead of you, although in September this rarely happened to us. Some of the locks, such
as Somerton are very deep and you feel a little like a frail matchbox as you stare up at 12
feet of unrelenting walls, and forward at the leaking wooden gates, and pray the water won’t
come in too fast.

The first pair of gates are opened with winch handles by two of your crew and then pushed forward.
In you go. Your crew shuts the gates behind you and then attends to the ones ahead. The sluice
gates are opened and the Oxford Canal boils in to join you. After you¹ve bobbed up to the
level of the water outside the gate and the pressure is equalized, the gates are ready to be
opened, and you squeeze out on your way to the next adventure. Working these locks is
actually fun on a nice day. You meet all kinds of people up there: boaters waiting their
turns, dog walkers, strollers. It can be so sociable, in fact, that sometimes your skipper may
have to holler to remind you he¹s still in there. What’s in like in there? You¹ll
re-experience a small surge backward as the water enters, and a forward movement as the water
ebbs. You can do it!

You’ll want to keep going, of course. We did, even though the weather turned rainy in the second
week. When you consider that you can travel through all of England and much of Europe on
these narrow bits of history, it opens a lot of possibilities!

What’s wrong with going in circles anyhow?

Side bar

Shipyards.Many different companies operate on or near the Oxford Canal, from the more basic
Red Line Cruisers at Eynsham to the higher quality Adventure Fleet at Braunston or Alvechurch Boat
Center at Gayton. For information or to organize your canal trip contact Blakes Boating
Holidays in America or Britain:

  Blakes Vacations, 38455 N. Sheridan Rd., #876, Beach Park,
  Illinois 60087, telephone: 847-244-5998, FAX: 847-244-8559


  Blakes Holidays Boating
  Wroxham, Norwich
  Norfolk NR12 8DH
  Bookings: 1603 739400
  Brochures: 1603 739333
  email: boats@blakes.co.uk

Costs of budget and deluxe boats, off season and peak season. The peak season is from
July 14 to August 24. Avoid this time if you can, as locks will also be more crowded.
June 30 to July 13 is a little cheaper but still busy. Good times to go are from April to
mid May, or September 15th onward. Costs for the same boat can vary as much as 300£/week
from high to low season, so it really pays to go off season. A basic 42′ narrow boat
for 2-6 people
in low season will cost approx. 456£/week. A similar size boat from Adventure Fleet or Alvechurch
will be approximately 75£ more.

Licensing. Each waterway has its own license, and depending on what boatyard you use,
this license may already be included. The boats are licensed for the waters where you
hire them. In our case, we had to pay an additional 60£ license fee for Oxford Canal
for two weeks as our boat was licensed for the Thames. Water bailiffs will check you,
so be sure you are licensed for the areas you intend to travel in. You can obtain these
licenses at the boatyards.

Boating experience required:  Although the companies are always happy to welcome
experienced boaters, no canal knowledge, boating experience or operating licenses are required.
You will be provided with ample hands on training and theory.

Books  Nicolson Ordnance Survey, Guide to the Waterwayse.
For information you can write Customer Services, British Waterways, Willow Grange, Church Road,
Watford, WD1 3QA, telephone 01923 226422, or email

Website address is http://www.rscom.com/boat


  1. Gary Rupert says:

    October 1st, 2009at 4:21 pm(#)

    Nice to see you still at it & still creative. Drop me a line some time.

  2. Cherie says:

    October 7th, 2009at 9:39 pm(#)

    Great to hear from you. Yep, still creative and still moving around the country/world. Talk about a late life career change; I’m busier than ever. Still at UBC?

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