Monday, 28 July 2014

Canal Boating: Running the Gauntlet of Humilation

I know I have intense bad luck with holidays. It is now six years since I wrote: and in that period I have only had one holiday which has lasted more than 2 days before something has led to it being terminated. The last week-long holiday was in December 2012 in a cottage 45 Km from home. The last holiday I took did not even last two days as on the morning of the second day we woke to find the electricity had been cut to the whole district by a storm; power was not restored for twelve hours, so we simply went home.

I remain the eternal optimist and having finally got some compensation, after seven months of battling, for the car which lasted me 13 days before breaking down entirely, never to move again, I decided to go on a canal boat holiday. This is a very British style of holiday. Americans and Canadians do not have this kind of holiday and fall enthusiastically in love with it. Even northern continental Europeans prefer our quaint, narrow canals to the vast still industrial/commercial ones of Belgium/Netherlands/Germany. I am part of the canal generation. Growing up living near a canal I saw it transformed during the 1970s and 1980s from a disused channel with little water in it and a lot of rubbish, into a functioning canal which attracted the growing leisure boat crowd. Yachting and power boating has always been popular among the well-off of southern England where I lived, but canals now offered a whole new opportunity with less risk of storms and less distance to travel to reach your boat. With boats on canals limited to 4mph (6.4kph) it also appears to be a relaxed way to travel. Canals were built originally to move heavy goods like coal or stone to industrial areas and for this reason they are densest in England in the industrial Black Country of the West Midlands. However, also linked to rivers, they also pass through rural and former industrial areas which are more pleasant to go through and connect historic towns which are tourist attractions in their own right such as Oxford and Bath.

Aside from the 'boating set' canals have also had an attraction for a more 'hippie' like clientele. The association with moving freely around the country, tying up mostly where you choose, obviously has an appeal for people who like a less tied-down way of life. Certainly in the 1970s canals were heavily associated with folk music and handicrafts. It has only been in recent years that the styles and decor of them has been allowed to diversify from the black, red, green colouring of 'trad', i.e. traditional, boats. More and more have been built, many these days with modern facilities such as televisions and washing machines; steps are now in place to allow wi-fi on them. Perhaps the fad is passing as the number of canal boats for sale has reached an all time high and you can pick one up for as cheap as £32,000 (€38,700; US$54,000). This may seem a great deal, but new ones cost double or more that price. You are buying something 2.1m wide (for what is called a narrowboat, i.e. one that will fit all canals in the UK) and 16m long. The longest are 24m (72 feet) long, made of steel with water and toilet tank, a cooker, etc. on board. You can live on a narrowboat and in many parts of the country you will find people doing so for part or indeed all of the year, though it can get cold. You find the entire range from modern ones with double glazing and solar panels to traditional ones with the engine visible in the middle of the boat and a coal oven on board.

All over the UK you can hire canal boats for a holiday. They typically sleep six people but you can get ones accommodating more. For £1000-2000 depending on where you start from and the quality of your boat and its facilities, you can rent one for a week. You are permitted to drive it with only one hour's training. This is one challenge, people moving vessels 72m long in channels sometimes only a couple of metres wide with other canal users, notably canoeists and people on the towpath running beside the canal, including pedestrians, anglers and increasing numbers of cyclists. The other thing is that the momentum of a canal boat even when moving at 2kph is immense and water does not provide much friction. Lock gates weigh anything from 800Kg to 2 tonnes. There is a lot of room for bumps and knocks. One woman described it to me as 'a contact sport'. However, despite this, given the attitudes of canal users outlined below, you have to move as if walking on eggshells.

On paper a canal boat holiday might seem ideal. You can move at your own pace. It is like camping without having to give up all the facilities or having to queue to have a shower or use the toilet. In addition, if it rains you can retreat inside and watch television or a DVD; going through urban areas you can even use your mobile phone. The trouble is, the thing that ruins it is the British and indeed foreigners who aspire to behave like middle class Britons. You can do nothing in the UK these days without someone telling you very loudly that you are doing it wrong. They do this for two reasons: 1) to assert their social status, through having a privately owned boat or one that is 'proper' or better equipped compared to what you might be aboard; 2) to massage their egos, by showing you up to be ignorant or a fool.

Encouraged by the woman I used to live with and her son, I hired a 33-metre, 6-berth narrowboat on a canal in southern England for one week. In many ways this holiday was a 'success'. It lasted 5 days rather 2 days, though it was supposed to last 7 days. I lost a hat and a map; a watch strap was broken but no electrical items or money were lost. I had some scrapes but no serious injuries. It did not rain and the weather was fine, with some reprieve from intense sunshine. We moved very slowly, covering around 7Km per day. In part that was due to the number of locks and swing bridges along the way. A lock is a large mechanism sometimes 3 metres deep with usually four, though sometimes two, of the large gates already mentioned. They allow the lifting or dropping of the water level in an enclosed space, so permitting a boat or sometimes a pair of boats, to go up or down hills. They are marvels of 18th century engineering and can be entirely operated by a single person if required, though it is typical to use two or more. You also need someone on the boat to move it in and out of the lock. To operate the lock there is no power bar that from your arms and legs. You let water in and out of the lock by turning ratchets and you open and close the locks with the strength of your back. Thus you need to be physically healthy and fit. However, of course, the British work at two extremes, either they lay utterly passive on the beach or they insist on a holiday which in centuries passed would have been deemed labour.

I knew locks well. Probably better than almost anyone we met. When the canal behind my house was derelict friends and me would climb down the tunnels that run through the locks. They were dry then and are now literally filled with tonnes of water. I have climbed up and down lock gates that most people now only see as they pass them. I am unfit and overweight, but thought I remained strong enough to do the job. Despite some 'sticky' lock gates, this proved to be the case. Indeed the 12-year old boy (1.67m; size 42 feet) with us was able to operate them alone.

The trouble with the holiday was not the mechanics, it was the people.  It was the not so wonderful British public who cannot let anyone pass without making some jibe or instructing them about how pathetic they are or simply insulting them.  When you are in a hire boat, you are the lowest of the low.  The company you are hiring from has its logo, its name and telephone number emblazoned on the boat.  Everyone knows precisely where you have come from and that you are not a 'proper' boater despite all the exhortations in the canal associated publications that people like us are an important source of revenue for the upkeep of the canals and for restoring the many miles of canal that still remained disused.  However, the British cannot stop themselves and it even seems the hobby for people to hang around locks simply to shout advice/abuse.  Within the first hour you get used to person after person telling you exactly what you have been told in the training you have received.  You smile and nod thanks.  However, this does not seem to be enough.  The people seem to want you to bow down and kiss their boots for the wonderful enlightenment they have given across.

We had a Dutchman not even bother to talk to us, but in the middle of us operating a lock simply walk up and take over.  I stepped back trying to stay calm and not say anything.  By dropping the vent (the piece in a lock gate that lets the water in or out) early, he actually made our job harder.  We had people bellowing at us that we were not doing it the 'correct' way, even when we were in fact the right.  One man became indignant when we started to use the barge pole to move the front of the boat away from the bank, though that is its purpose.  He insisted that the 12-year old insert his foot between the side of the boat and the lock wall, even though this risked it becoming crushed.  He would not accept our rebuffs.  We had people trying to race into a lock before we had exited it, making it far harder for the pilot, only a few days into driving anything let alone a 33m boat.  We had people 'speed' (if you can call 8kph speeding) past us, and they scowling at us when their wash meant we were sucked into buffing the stern of their boat. Always we were deemed to be on the 'wrong' side or opening the lock too fast or too slowly.  We were even chided for 'not having come far today' as if there is a set distance you must cover every hour to be deemed an appropriate boater.

Every passage through a lock we made, every peg we hammered into the ground, every knot we tied was judged as having failed and we were told very vocally that that was the case.  I tried to throw one rope aboard the boat, missed and cursed.  This resulted in a woman pursuing us for 1Km down the canal, bringing with her the representative of the boat company we had hired it from to harangue us for ten minutes about appropriate language.  Clearly you are not permitted to 'swear like a bargee' (i.e. someone operating a barge, a commercial version of a canal boat) however, the locals are into 'trad' boating.  To be told off for swearing such distance from the incident made me feel like a child.  I swallowed all the abuse, all the snootiness, all the patronising behaviour, all the haranguing, all the people pushing their way in to take over my task and all of this with the expectation that I would be grateful for their intervention.  I feel utterly debased from my five days on the boat.  I feel as if I have given up all dignity, all initiative and am fit only to be ordered around by people apparently so superior to me.  As you can imagine, I snapped and abandoned the boat.  No-one else would come with me.

I returned to the yard where we had started from.  The woman on duty was surprised to see me leaving.  She has the faith that canal holidays are the very best that anyone could have and was unable to tolerate the fact that someone was having such a humiliating time that they had to go home early.  Of course, I have absolutely no interest in going nowhere near a canal ever again and will be happy if they all fade back into blocked up obscurity where they should have been left.  Dried out they could have provided decent roads between many towns.  The British (plus representatives of the Dutch, German and even Canadian populations) have to bring their egos and their suppression of people around them to everything they do.  You see it constantly when driving; you now see it if you ever dare venture out on a bicycle; I am sure you have long seen it on the golf course or the tennis/squash court.  They cannot be happy unless they are pressing someone else down and not just with a simple cutting remark but with sustained abuse, at best patronising; at worse insulting.  If you are thinking of a canal boat holiday, I would utterly advise against it unless you have skin as thick as a rhino or enjoy being made to feel small on an hour-by-hour basis.  The alternative is to go to another country where you do not speak the language and when treated this way simply plead lack of comprehension.

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