I've always had a thing about canals. I grew up near the Leeds-Liverpool, and I once had a canal at the bottom of my garden. I’d wave at passing boats while hanging out my washing.
So this week I was delighted to be at the helm of Lizzie-Jean, a splendid narrowboat belonging to David Fitch who has launched Airedale Cruising, offering people hands-on experience of boating.
“Many people are anxious about canal holidays because of the responsibility of taking on a boat,” says David. “I’ve seen people with hired boats get into trouble, particularly at locks, because they don’t know what they’re doing. I’m offering the chance to try steering and learn about canal boatmanship on a skippered cruise. It may give people the confidence to hire a boat.
“It’s also an opportunity to travel on a furnished houseboat. People can bring picnic lunches, help themselves to drinks, and relax with home comforts.”
David had the 57ft-long narrowboat built four years ago, and designed and furnished it himself. Inside it’s a lovely home-from-home, with pretty wood panelling. The cosy lounge has comfy chairs, a bookcase, TV and framed photographs; the fitted kitchen, or galley, has a cooker, sink and fridge; in the bedroom are pretty rag rugs made by David, and in the bathroom I’m amazed to discover a bath!
“I did courses in woodwork and plumbing at Bradford College. It took two years to fit out the boat,” says David. “I’ve always wanted a houseboat. I love the freedom of the water; life goes at a slower pace – you can’t rush anywhere at 4mph!”
David’s cruises run from Skipton to Gargrave along the Leeds-Liverpool canal. At this time of year, canals get busy and a couple of boats cruise by as I step onboard Lizzie-Jean. David leads me to the stern and starts the engine. The boat is powered by a 43-horsepower diesel engine and a propeller beneath our feet. David pushes her from the bank, hops on board, then we’re off cruising along the canal.
“Fancy a go?” he says, handing me the tiller. Suddenly I’m steering the boat! It feels strange ‘driving’ from the back and the steering is trickier than it looks.
I’d foolishly imagined it was a case of steering in a straight line, but of course there’s more to it than that. Whenever I feel the boat veering towards the left I have to pull the tiller to the left, then vice versa if it starts moving to the right. It feels odd – if my car was veering towards the left I’d steer to the right but with the boat I have to steer the back end, to move the rest of the boat outwards. Just when I think I’ve managed to get it fairly even, it veers to the side again.
“The wind is against us, it’s pushing the boat,” says David. “You can get the hang of steering pretty quickly. It’s calming, but you have to concentrate. I used to have a sailing boat and the tiller was the same, so when my wife and I first went on a canal boat holiday, I found steering wasn’t a problem.”
Before long, I start to get the hang of it and it feels quite relaxing. Travelling towards Gargrave, we have a lovely view of rolling hills and gambolling lambs. I manage to keep Lizzie-Jean on an even keel when I spot another narrowboat approaching us, I have a nightmarish vision of steering into it and nervously hand the tiller to David. He expertly steers past and we wave to the couple on board. It’s a friendly world on the waterways.
We pass a swan curled up on her nest. Her mate glides along behind us, protectively. Further on, a gaggle of geese gawp at us from the bank. We approach a swing bridge, opened by someone on a boat in front. We wave as we glide by. “It’s not exactly an unspoken rule to keep bridges open for other boats, but we generally help each other out,” says David. “The boating community is friendly, if you pass another boat, people wave. You don’t get that in a car!”
We’ve reached a turning area, known as a ‘winding hole’. It’s tricky turning a 57ft boat, especially with the wind against you. David steers towards the bank and leaps off, then pulls her in with a rope. I jump off and help, then we hop back onboard. When David manoeuvres the boat around, it’s like a three-point turn; he pulls the tiller to the left until she’s lying across the canal. I discover why it’s called a ‘winding hole’ – the wind is pushing against us, but David turns the boat successfully and soon we’re facing the opposite direction.
When we approach the swing bridge, he hands me a key and, after we’ve steered to the bank, I jump off and run across the bridge. I’m all fingers and thumbs unlocking the padlock, then I push the bridge out to let the boat through. Pulling it back and chaining it up is tricky, especially when it keeps swinging away from me. I end up on my backside. By the next bridge I’ve got the hang of it!
It was fun cruising along the canal, and I’d feel more confident handling a tiller – and the bridges – in future. Life on the waterways is appealing; spending all day in the open air then battening down the hatches.
Sitting at the bow, water gently lapping against the side of the boat, I soak up the tranquility. Passing a couple of moored narrowboats, I’m reminded of Coronation Street’s bohemian houseboat-dweller, Martha. Was that Ken Barlow I just saw, armed with a Shiraz and a rolled-up paperback..?
- Airedale Cruising offers half-day and full-day skippered narrowboat cruises from Skipton for up to six adults and two children. Cruises are from £75 per half-day. For more information, ring David Fitch on 07760 481821 or visit airedalecruising.info