Travels on Joey, September and October 2018
By Roz and Adrian Betteridge
All photos and text on this page © Adrian Betteridge
Back in 1984, my wife and I became a couple after spending a week with mutual friends on a 10 berth 70 foot canal boat. Since then the canals have had a special place in our hearts, and we have taken many one week holidays over the years with our children and with friends. We often talked about a longer trip, and even owning a boat one day. In 2018 we had an opportunity to take a few months out from work and started planning our adventure. We spoke with a few boatyards, and found Rose Narrowboats by far the most enthusiastic in helping us fulfil our idea of a 2 month trip.
We visited Rose and met ‘Joey’ in May, prior to visiting the Crick boat show, as we started to get our minds around living aboard for the whole of September and October. Much planning then took place as to what to take and how to organise it into the car.
The trip was to be for ourselves and our dog, ‘Pi’, a 4 year old French Waterdog, and we invited friends and relatives to visit throughout the trip, some of whom we had boated with before.
Starting with a map of the network, we considered a few options before settling on a clockwise circuit taking in Llangollen, the Leeds and Liverpool Canal and the River Trent. We chose this route based on a desire not to retrace our steps too often and to visit canals we had not previously covered. It was complicated by the closure due to the breach at Middlewich, but we still thought we could cover the route with a bit of spare time, including visiting friends in York, where Joey’s 58 foot length could get us to within 2 miles of at the top of the Yorkshire Ouse. The route was then meticulously planned using the canalplan.org.uk website. We expected to make a few changes to the route once we started – read on to see how this worked out.
We managed to pack everything into or on the roof of a large estate car, including the essential bicycle to collect visitors’ cars, and transferred everything aboard in about half an hour. We did question ourselves as to the purpose of everything else left in our house if we could live happily for 2 months without it? Our first visitors were sent a list of a few additional items that we realised would be useful, and took a similar number we didn’t need away with them, but in most respects the planning had worked well.
Mixing the old and the new, we had decided to mount a ‘GoPro’ action camera on the front of the boat which took a time-lapse picture every 10 seconds whilst we were moving over the 2 months. The resulting 60,000 photos are currently being stitched into a movie, which will give up a 3 hour epic of our travels. We also took many conventional photographs during the trip, some of which accompany this article.
We left Stretton Stop at 3 pm on 1 September, and would not return until 30th October. Due to a misunderstanding, we left in a Northerly direction. This wasn’t the plan! However, as our first destination was Birmingham, a quick look at the map determined that this wasn’t a major issue and we could easily adjust the route to get on track for our first visitors. We soon learned to relax about progress, focusing only on being in roughly the right place to meet visitors, who were generally arriving on a Friday evening and leaving after a quick car collection cycle on a Sunday.
If this article by one of our customers inspires you to want to take a longer canal holiday on one of our narrowboats please contact us for any advice on overall routes or places you want to visit and we will point you in the right direction to have a memorable adventure exploring the canals of England and Wales.
The bigger emerging issue with the route was the closure of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal due to the unusually low rainfall and water levels. The closure had happened a few weeks before our trip, but it was forecast to reopen before we would reach it after our trip out to Llangollen. However, after 3 weeks out to Llangollen and back, and sat overnight back at Autherley Junction having to make a North or South decision, we finally had to give up on our Pennine plans. We decided instead to head down the Stratford and Oxford Canals, and a bit of the Thames. All lovely, and we have the North to look forward to in the future. The lesson from all of this is not to over-plan or stress about the route. Life at 3 mph gives you plenty of time to reconsider and make other plans.
So, with all these changes, where did we get to and what did we experience?
Our first few days we spent settling in to life aboard, getting used to routine with just 2 people to steer, moor and lock. We cruised steadily towards Birmingham, realising a bit too late that we ought to think about where in the city we would moor. We didn’t necessarily choose an ideal spot, but managed to park ourselves fairly out of the way on the Thame Valley Canal, just North of Spaghetti Junction. This was another unplanned route, taking some of the BCN backwaters to space out time until our first guest arrival. We had fun with the locks on the Walsall Canal heading back towards Birmingham, at one point having to spend over half an hour clearing silt from lock gates to progress, but the sense of satisfaction of doing so was great, on a definitely less trafficked route.
We picked up our first guests (x3) on the first Friday, and cruised with them from Stourton Junction to some miles into the Shropshire Union Canal. On Sunday afternoon, Adrian cycled back the 25 miles along the towpath in about 2 hours, to collect their car for their own return journey.
The Shropshire Union and its Llangollen subsidiary would be our home for the next 3 weeks. Over the second week we made our way to Ellesmere to meet our next guests, who would accompany us to Llangollen and back on their first ever canal boat trip. This included the highlight of the Pontycysyllte aqueduct, as well as many other spectacular views.
After dropping off again at Ellesmere, we ventured out on the reopened Montgomery Canal, another delightful trip over 2 days. Storm Ali made this a bit more interesting, as we made a 270 degree turn to back in to a water point before transiting the locks leaving the canal. Forest Gump in the storm came to mind.
We had met many friendly boaters at every stop and many locks, and were persuaded that a trip north to Chester would be a good next step, as we waited in vain for the north-west canals to reopen. In Chester, we met for the second time Charles and Karen on their boat ‘Sanity at Last’, a boat originally fitted out at Rose Narrowboats. They were 10 months into living aboard, and we enjoyed a few evenings with them learning from their experience, exchanging views on time-lapse movies and downing a more than few drinks.
Whilst we were unable to exit the Shropshire Union to the Manchester Ship Canal, we did take the opportunity to visit (by bus from Chester) the Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port. Taking in the heritage of the waterways within a long journey was a thought provoking experience.
With Middlewich still 2 months from reopening, we retraced our steps back towards the West Midlands, with our next pickup planned for Autherley Junction. Now better informed boaters, we planned an overnight stop at the Anchor Inn at Bridge 42 for a bit more heritage. A memorable evening. The Shroppie was no less interesting for the second time. In fact, it was great to see familiar sights, and relive recent memories.
Having made our ‘go South’ decision, we put our new crew of 4 x twenty-somethings to good use descending from Wolverhampton back into Birmingham, for a stop just off Gas Street Basin. We last cruised through here some 15 years ago, and the transition is remarkable, with the Canal on a Saturday night now a hive of social activity. This weekend also happened to be the start of the Conservative Party Conference in central Birmingham. We resisted the temptation to sail past BBC News with a ‘Stop Brexit’ banner, but were delighted to have the company on the boat of a counter-terrorist policeman as we passed the venue.
We left Birmingham for the tranquil Stratford Canal, arriving in the basin in Stratford 4 days later. A benefit of cruising into October was the availability of moorings in sometimes busy spots. We moored in prime locations in Llangollen, Chester and Oxford, and in Stratford reversed in right below the Shakespeare statue. One memorable feature of the Stratford was the recognition our ‘Rose’ boat received, with a few fellow boaters sharing their memories of Rose, people they knew there and even the history of ‘Joey’.
Back up the Stratford to Kingswood Junction, we followed the Grand Union Canal, stopping in Warwick and Leamington Spa, before joining the Oxford Canal to head down towards the Thames. We stopped in Oxford 3 times, passing through in each direction to and from the Thames and en-route from Whitney to Reading. The Thames brought some very different experiences. This winding upper Thames with its empty flood plans and WWII pill boxes, and the broad and busier stretches down to our turning point at Reading, a journey shared with some old friends who, like us, love canal and river life. Reading was our furthest destination South, itself only 5 miles from our home ashore, and it was with slightly heavy hearts that we turned around in the knowledge that we were doing so to start our final leg back to Stretton Stop.
We followed the Oxford back to its shared section with the Grand Union, picking up more guests for 2 days. Overnight at Braunston was very atmospheric, complete with mist, wood burner smoke and plenty of traffic. Finally, we branched back onto the north Oxford for the last leg, including stopping for a day in Rugby.
We returned to Stretton Stop with mixed emotions. Pleased to have completed our trip without major mishap and that it had matched and exceeded our hopes. Sad that the adventure was at an end. Uncertain as to how the experience would have changed us. The normal post-canal boat experience of struggling with the pace of life has been deeper and longer lasting.
We travelled for 55 of the 59 days, typically for around 7 hours, though with a few half days and on one occasion almost dawn to dusk from Thame Valley to Kinver in order to make a planned rendezvous. In truth were only on our original plan for about 20% of the time. We spent 15 days with visitors on board, and loved both the company and the solitude of being alone. Neither of us fell in the canal, through Pi did a few times in addition to intentional swims. After the first week we purchased a dog harness, which made plucking her from the canal much easier. We moored securely every night, in 52 different locations, only once losing a mooring pin which pulled out mid-morning as a boat passed. The tranquillity of life on the water is such that we only realised when a passer-by knocked on the window to point out that we had drifted and were blocking the canal! We visited some fantastic pubs, which we would hope to return to in future. We have since chosen to have a dry (alcohol free) November, having not quite kept to our ‘don’t drink every night of the week’ good intentions whilst aboard. Pi enjoyed her time on the boat, but is probably happier on land, or at least not moving her home every day, and doing a fewer ‘1 dimensional’ walks. Our memories are countless, and we have been reliving them as we edit our video record.
We contacted Rose only once, when we were seeking to reconcile battery voltage with heating starting. They were exceptionally hospitable and relaxed throughout our trip, trusting us entirely with their boat, which became ‘our’ boat. We became fastidious rope cheesers (looks so much better in the photos) and even learnt to reverse the boat under control (ish?). We proudly carried a few pot plants, posing as boat owners, to match our improving boat handling.
We are certain that we will do this again when the chance arises (Leeds and Liverpool anyone?) Life doesn’t currently allow us to live aboard for longer, but the ability to do so in a spell of many weeks is a great alternative.
Thank you to everyone at Rose Narrowboats that helped make this such a memorable part of our lives.