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March can be a tricky month to predict weather-wise, in the past we’ve had glorious sunshine and warmer no coat days and then again we’ve had snowdrifts and road closures.
So it seemed an impossible task to try and arrange a special family day out for Ben’s 40th (in case you were wondering, I’ve got another year to go as I’m MUCH younger!).
Our home town of Leek is surrounded by a great canal network which provides us with some lovely walks through beautiful countryside. We’ve often talked about a canal holiday but deemed it unsuitable for such a young family, so I did some research into whether it was possible to hire a canal barge/ narrow boat for a day to celebrate Ben’s birthday. This way, I thought we could test the waters (pun intended) for a future holiday.
I was pleasantly surprised to find a number of companies that did indeed offer day boat hire but after making enquiries I found that they didn’t start their ‘season’ until May and some as late as June…hmm, it wasn’t exactly going to plan!
I’d started to give it up as a bad job until I was contacted by Ben (a sign?) from Heritage Narrow Boats Ltd based at Heritage Marina in Scholar Green, Stoke-on-Trent. They had a choice of two day boats available to hire from the beginning of February. He also informed me that a heating system had just been installed on ‘Saltie’ the diesel dayboat which swung it for me, as I had wanted the relaxing chug of a diesel engine and heating is always going to be a bonus. I booked up and arranged a slightly later boat pickup time of 10.30am because it takes us approx. 15hrs to get out of the house with three small children.
I told the boys what I’d booked and that it was a secret for Daddy’s birthday, and surprisingly they managed to keep it that way until the night before when I did the big reveal! Ben was over the moon and I’d invited our friends along with their little boy Freddie to join us. We were all set for our canal adventure.
On arrival I checked us in for our booking and the kids were automatically kitted out with life jackets, we also had the option of wearing one too.
Over to the boat and it was onto a H&S briefing before being guided out of the marina and shown how to control her. At this point I’ll mention that Ben had previous skipper experience as his parents had owned a barge when he was young and apparently ‘it was all flooding back to him’ I preferred not to use the word ‘flood’ at all given our situation and listened to the basics, like speed control, engine cut off and how to steer using the tiller.
We were given a map of the route and roughly how long it would take us to get to each point, we’d already decided that we would head to a pub for a birthday lunch and celebratory beverage.
And that was it, after accompanying us a short distance we were left to our own devices cruising the Macclesfield canal. We were blessed with reasonable weather (it snowed the following day!!) and we had a great time. It was relaxing in the sense that we weren’t on a schedule and just meandering along the canal BUT with three excited boys who wanted to be ‘on deck’ we had to have eyes in the back of our heads…but I guess that’s just kids for you! We had a good ratio of adults to little people though and we even managed a few cups of tea and snacks along the way. Ben was loving being our ‘captain’ for the day.
I had taken Eli on board in his carrier and placed him on the floor and within minutes of setting off he was fast asleep (despite all the noise from the boys) the vibrations and background chug from the engine had seen to that.
I was desperate to have a go at driving (do you drive a barge?) and took the opportunity when Ben came in for a cuppa and to warm up. I did reasonably well for my first attempt and chugged along quite happily, it’s so easy to get distracted though! I was too busy watching a heron and had to make a last minute correction. Momentarily forgetting that you steer the tiller in the opposite direction to the way you want to go we, veered off…newbie error! Zigzagging aside, I think I did quite well and even took us through a narrower part of the canal where it went under a bridge.
The route couldn’t have been better for us as Stanley, James and Freddie are little train enthusiasts and there were lots of shouts of ‘train!!’ as one came speeding past. During our earlier H&S briefing we were told where the whistles were on our life jackets incase of EMERGENCY.
The boys however took this as permission to repeatedly blow their whistles for the entire journey. There was also a game of ‘announce the next bridge’ which involved a whistle blow then a train station type announcement of ‘ attention please, attention please the next bridge is number…’ which didn’t become at all annoying, honest! But, in hindsight it did keep us on track route wise as we never missed a bridge number.
It was lovely and cosy inside the boat, the sides were down which kept us warm but still afforded us great views as we travelled along.
The hot air heating system worked a treat and so I’d have absolutely no concerns about hiring Saltie in February right at the start, or well into November at the end of the season. I must add that we were suitably dressed for the weather though.
After turning round and mooring up, we stopped into The Queens Head for lunch. If you’re planning on going then be warned the portions are generous and if you have a smaller appetite I recommend ordering from the children’s menu! Tummy’s (extremely) full we headed back down to the canal and Saltie was still where we left her (thank goodness) I had visions of us not tying her off properly and there just being an empty spot when we came back!
Back on board and we could feel the chill that had started creeping in mid afternoon, but once the heating had kicked back in we were toasty again.
The return journey saw the boys spotting a kingfisher, some ducks, and waving to other boats as we passed by. The novelty of the whistles had thankfully worn off too.
We also had two new skippers and apparently, despite a bumpy start, it was all under control!
Before we knew it we were back at the marina and being guided back in to our moorings bringing an end to our brilliant day bargin’ about.
If you want a day out to remember over the holidays, I really recommend hiring a narrow boat for the day. It’s great fun and is suitable for families with young children. Check the boat inventory and plan ahead, we took snacks and a mixture of hot and cold drinks for us all. If we had booked in warmer weather we would have definitely packed a picnic and moored up somewhere scenic on route as it was we went for the pub grub option. The day boats will take upto 12 passengers so it’s a great way to bring family and friends together for a fun day out.
Both day boats are very simple to operate, whether you are new to canals or an experienced boater. You will be given a full handover of the boat and its systems, and a member of the Heritage Narrow Boats Ltd team will accompany you on the first part of your journey.
We have got the taste for it now, and would love a canal based holiday and to get to grips with some locks! So, watch this space…
For more information on what Heritage Narrow Boats Ltd have to offer click here
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