Chris R. Pownall frequently visited the Akron area on business over the years and is fond of the area. He submitted this article for Akron residents to learn about this unique holiday option.
Since our retirement in 2008, my wife and I have enjoyed many holidays with P&O cruises, but recently, we have considered other holiday options, including UK hotels and coaching itineraries, and then, we had the idea of taking a cruising type holiday upon the inland waterways of England. We have a 45 year old son Rob who has mobility limitations resulting from a near fatal head injury when he was 18 years of age, and when my wife Pat mentioned the idea of us taking a holiday on a narrowboat to him, he surprised us by saying he would love to join us.
We asked Rob to conduct some research and he came up with a plan for a seven day narrow boat holiday on the Oxford, Coventry and Ashby Canals. We hired a boat named ‘Beatrice’ from Willow Wren, which had been specifically constructed with wheelchair access, and our canal cruising adventure began on the 9th June 2017.
Rob was able to access the boat on his mobility scooter via a ramp from the wharf, onto a platform at the same level as the rear decking. This particular boat is laid out at the rear so that it can be controlled by someone sitting either in a wheelchair or a mobility scooter. The boarding platform sits over a hydraulically operated lift, which provides access to the main boat deck, situated approximately 4 feet below. Once on board, Rob was able to move around and there was adequate space to park his scooter inside the cabin alongside his double bed.
Before embarking upon this exciting adventure, we obtained an instruction video by the ‘Canal & River Trust’ on boating for beginners, and I would strongly recommend that anyone planning a similar type of holiday for the very first time, should view this video several times before setting off, as there is quite a lot to learn. Our boat is 53 feet long and weighs approximately 19 tons, therefore, it is important that you understand how to manoeuvre and control a vessel of this weight and size.
As well as understanding the rules about sailing along inland waterways in the UK, you will need to tie certain rope knots, to ensure the boat is secure whenever you are mooring alongside. There are locks and tunnels to be navigated and again, you will need to have specific knowledge to ensure you understand how these work as well as the rules relating to who has the right of way etc.
We admit that we all three had a degree of apprehension before setting off, but having studied the contents of the instruction video numerous times, plus a short training session from the boat operator before casting off, we soon gained confidence and settled down to enjoying the experience.
In addition to the rules and regulations of operating the boat, there is quite a bit to learn about taking on board water, pumping out sewage, emptying the bilges, and generally controlling the on board facilities such as the toilet, shower, and domestic appliances etc. None of this is complicated, but it’s wise to make a few notes at the instruction stage, so that you are not overly stressed, when carrying out these various activities for the very first time.
Whilst our Narrowboat is specially adapted for disabled access, it is vitally important that one member of the crew is fully mobile and strong, as there is a physical amount of effort required when mooring the boat and operating the locks. For our part, Rob was the main driver throughout, and Pat and I attended to tying up and casting off. I shared some of the driving, but I didn’t pick it up as quickly as Rob and I didn’t feel comfortable when there were other boats around and tricky corners to negotiate. It’s not like steering a car, as these long boats pivot around the centre and they don’t respond like a vehicle on the road. Another thing to remember is there are no brakes other than reversing the propeller and although you are moving at no more than 4 miles per hour, and often considerably slower than that, things seem to happen very quickly, so the best advice is to take it steady, and keep control. Speed plays a big part in the steering and the tendency at max speed is to over steer and it becomes difficult to maintain a straight course, whereas, at tick-over revs, the boat becomes much easier to handle.
Having received all our instructions, before setting off from Rugby Wharf, we were accompanied by a representative from the boat hire company as Rob steadily manoeuvred our way past many moored boats on either side, until we turned left into the North Oxford Canal heading towards Coventry. As soon as we completed the turn, we dropped off our instructor who wished us “bon voyage”, and we were on our way.
We cruised steadily for a few hours, before mooring for our first night at the large village of Anstey, where we dined out at the Rose & Castle, and we found the food to be excellent.
Day 2 involved cruising much further, so we set off at eight o’clock in the morning, arriving at the village of Bulkington about five hours later. Along the way we had to navigate our one and only lock on our planned route, and this went with relative ease. There was another boat at the lock, so I was able to seek a little re-assurance from someone more experienced and everything went to plan. By this stage in our big adventure, Rob had grasped complete control of the boat, so I was able to focus upon my lock keeping duties, before hopping back on board to continue a journey. The lock is located at Hawkesbury Junction where the North Oxford Canal meets the Coventry Canal. It is a very pretty and historic location with a cast iron bridge dated 1837 and a disused engine house. There is a canal side pub and restaurant named the ‘Greyhound Inn’, which we intended visiting on our way back. Despite being such a picturesque location, Hawkesbury Junction is a tricky canal manoeuvre involving a very tight turn, plus a narrow entrance into the Coventry Canal.
Not far along the Coventry Canal, there is another tight turn and narrow access, as you enter the Ashby Canal. We passed through some amazing countryside and having tied up safely at Bulkington, we ate out at the nearby pub named ‘The Corner House’, where we found the food to be of a high standard, offering a two for one price on all main course meals. When planning a trip like this with a disabled person, you need to check out whether there is wheelchair access at your planned eating venues, plus, if there are any canal bridges to cross, as these are not always suitable for wheelchairs and mobility scooters, and we were caught out a couple of times as some bridges only have steps. The bridge at Bulkington has a footpath but it is very steep and uneven and we had to provide Rob with some assistance as he accessed the bridge up onto the main highway.
Day 3 involved five hours steady cruising along the Ashby Canal to Stoke Golding where we were able to moor alongside the main road leading into the centre of the village. Less than ten minutes’ walk from the boat, we discovered the ‘Three Horse Shoes’ pub with the ‘Mango Tree’ Indian Restaurant alongside.
Having surveyed the Indian Restaurant, we decided to do something different and we ordered an Indian takeaway, and whilst it was being prepared, we had a pint in the adjoining pub. The food was exceptionally good both in quality and value.
Day 4 was to take us to the end of the Ashby Canal, which took about another five hours cruising. As you approach the end of the canal there is the 250 yards long Snarestone Tunnel, which was another amazing new experience for us. We had already passed through the Newbold Tunnel shortly after leaving Rugby on day one, but this one was longer and it was very dark towards the middle. Before entering a canal tunnel, you have to illuminate your front headlight and sound your horn. There is only width for one boat passing through the Snarestone Tunnel, so it is important that you follow the rules precisely, otherwise you could easily end up in trouble. It is an eerie experience and we were somewhat relieved as we approached the exit of the tunnel. We made our way through at tick-over speed, but it was impossible to avoid the occasional scrape with the sides, but travelling at minimum speed this causes no damage to the boat side fenders.
Having passed through the tunnel there is a turnaround location and this was yet another new experience for first time canal cruisers like us. It takes the form of a vee shape expanse of water and you steer the boat into the point and then bring the rear steadily round until you are pointing in the opposite direction. At least that’s what the theory tells you, whereas in practice, we needed a little assistance from me with the punting poll to push the front end around. This was a little hair-raising, as I had to walk halfway along the four inches wide gunwale at the side of the boat in order to collect the poll from its mounting brackets. Another of those first time situations, where you need to be sure footed and hold on tightly so as to avoid falling into the water.
We were now heading back towards Rugby and we once again passed through Snarestone Tunnel before mooring for the night not far from the ‘Globe Inn’ located adjacent to the canal side. This is a 19th century coaching inn with lots of character and excellent food.
As we were moored at Snarestone, a huge swan came tapping its beak on our windows and we soon realised it was asking for food. One of our windows was slightly open and its head appeared inside the boat, and although we had been feeding ducks at other locations, Pat and Rob suggested the swan was best left alone. I decided to venture out on deck where it approached me in an aggressive manner and I made a speedy return to the safety of the cabin. Eventually it moved on and as we sat watching from a safe distance we observed two Alsatian dogs on the tow path barking at it and behaving in a threatening manner. We were fearing for the swans safety, when it moved to the middle of the canal, spread out its huge wings and charged at the dogs, who soon realised they had met their match and wasted no time in making a hasty retreat.
It was now day 5 and we sailed as far as Hinckley, where we tied up near to the Trinity Marina. We needed to cross over the canal to access a ‘Brewers Fayre’ restaurant but unfortunately; the canal bridge had steps, which ruled it out for Rob. We enquired from a passer-by, who informed us of a footpath not far away that would lead us to the main Coventry Road from where we could reach the restaurant. Disappointingly, the food was not good so if we were to do this trip again, we would either moor somewhere else, or find another place to dine. We did find a nearby Co-operative food store so we were able to stock up on bread, milk, and of course, beer! etc.
Day 6 was to take us back to Hawkesbury Junction where we moored just beyond the lock. We visited the ‘Greyhound Inn’ for dinner arriving at five thirty pm. We hadn’t booked and it appeared very busy. When we asked about a table, we were offered one for three which had already been booked for another party arriving at seven o’clock. When the waitress has to refer to a book and there is just one available table that you will need to vacate in an hour tells you a lot. The food was amazingly good and if you intend visiting the ‘Greyhound Inn’ for a gastronomic treat, it would be advisable to book in advance.
Rob had planned that day 7 would take us back to bridge 51, on the North Oxford Canal, which is no more than fifteen minutes cruising back to Rugby Wharf, where our holiday would come to an end the following morning. We dined at the ‘Barley Mow’, which was disappointing; however, we made the best of it, and then crossed it off our list if ever we do this trip again.
In summary, it was a most enjoyable holiday experience and we were delighted that Rob was able to move around the boat and travel on dry land by means of his mobility scooter. There is quite a lot to learn and although a boat of this size can be safely crewed by two individuals, I would recommend a minimum of three, with one really strong person capable of hauling a circa 19ton vessel alongside during mooring and lock manoeuvring procedures.
If you search the Internet there are other companies with hire boats adapted for wheelchair use, but you would need to check if it was possible to drive the boat either from a wheelchair or a mobility scooter. Remember that our boat ‘Beatrice’ was specifically designed and built for a disabled person, making it possible to operate the drive controls from the comfort of a wheelchair at the level stern deck area. Also note that ‘Beatrice’ can be steered either from the usual tiller, or separately, by an integrated steering wheel.
It’s not a cheap holiday, particularly so, if you are dining out each evening. We had a great time and the reason for writing this magazine feature is for the benefit of other retirees, who have never sailed on a narrow boat before, and especially for those who use a mobility chair or scooter and feel they might enjoy this type of holiday.
The flora and fauna are spectacular at this time of year and in my journal for the week, I was able to record many species of birds and animals including two water voles, something I have not seen for over half a century. Baby ducklings are everywhere, and we saw numerous swans with their signets. The overgrown hedgerows are a perfusion of colour right now, with pink and white wild roses and bramble. In one morning I was able to list seventeen species of wild flowers in less than one hour, and they were only the ones that I could identify. It really was a nature lover’s paradise.
If you try it, I hope you enjoy it, we certainly did!
Published with Permission – Copyright – Chris R. Pownall June 2017
Find out more about Chris Pownall at chrispownall.weebly.com
Contact Details:- 3 Limestone Close, Woodsetts Worksop Nottinghamshire S81 8RU United Kingdom